Symbolism habitually troubles film-goers and especially film critics. If the symbol - a visual or aural metaphor - is vague, it generates complaints of muddled obscurity, and if it is obvious, as all good symbols are, it offends the sensibility of the intellectual. What use is a symbol that anyone at all can understand? Schoolteachers often like symbols for the wrong reason: the presumed necessity of explaining them. But effective symbols withstand and even flout explanations. They are inextricable pleasure-giving components that define a work and convey meaning through correlation. In the final shot of John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon," Sam Spade descends a staircase as the shadow of an elevator signals the more final descent of wicked Brigit. One may praise the design of the image (a filmmaker's conceit not available to the novelist), but any attempt at explanation trivializes a moment best reflected in the contented laughter that accompanies it whenever the film is screened in a theater.
Michelangelo Antonioni, reportedly still active at 92, heralded the arrival of a new symbolist cinema in the early 1960s with films that embodied a declaration of cinematic independence: "L'avventura" (1960), "La notte" (1961), and "L'Eclisse" (1962). Nearing 50 and with a dozen years of filmmaking behind him, including short documentaries and increasingly personal features, he became an international celebrity and a magnet for controversy. At the 1960 Cannes Festival, he was raucously booed and then given the Grand Jury Prize. In the United States, highbrow critics rose to defend "L'avventura" and then lost interest in what followed. One critic complained that the symbols were too obvious; another coined the term "Antoniennui"; another decided that "the impersonal life of modern man" wasn't much of a theme anyway. If you've seen one western, thriller, or existential thumb-sucker, you've seen them all. After Mr. Antonioni brought his own paint box to explore color in "Il Deserto Rosso" (1964), he went Anglo and landed one hit, "Blow Up" (1966), and was hit in turn by affronted commentators for "Zabriskie Point" (1970).
It is a measure of Mr. Antonioni's accomplishment that, four decades later, one can still appreciate all the fuss. He had turned away from conventional narrative logic, from genres, from denouements, even from characters, who in his films prematurely disappear. The startling beauty of his images, matched by an unerring sense of tempo, seemed indulgent and long-winded to some. He filmed ordinary upper-middle-class people, who have little recourse to guns, espionage, screwball hi-jinx, and other plot-drivers; who are unhappy and don't know why; who look for satisfaction in money, sex, and art while vaguely noting the imminent threat of a nuclear holocaust. His films of the early 1960s predict the world he depicted in the middle and late 1960s. Still, his films are so grippingly watchable that the decline in popular interest, directly corresponding to the rise in critical acclimation, is surprising. I suspect that one reason is the search for meaning - not on the part of characters, but as a requirement of his audience. It's an obligation that ought to be resisted.
I don't mean to suggest that Mr. Antonioni's themes and his means of telling stories don't merit and reward interpretation. But so do those of Hitchcock. Yet too often, in the case of Mr. Antonioni, the worrisome business of finding answers, of figuring it out, deflects the sheer pleasure he affords as one of the most sensual and pictorially discriminating artists the cinema has ever known. As an artist consumed with settings and objects and architecture, he invariably creates surfaces that, partly through the use of symbols, are self-explanatory and at times transparent. He generates suspense as much by the discontinuity of his presentation as by his concern for his characters. He transmits their feelings not through blather and close-ups (he is notorious for shooting the backs of heads), but rather through behavioral detail and a lexicon of metaphors that communicate as immediately and clearly as Huston's elevator.
Criterion has released a gorgeous DVD rendering of the masterpiece, "L'Eclisse" ("The Eclipse"), though it has unwisely and, I think, inaccurately bannered it as "the conclusion" of a "trilogy on modern malaise." I'm not sure where the notion of a trilogy originated - with the director himself or with critics - but the suggestion that it should be seen as the third part of a triptych is misleading. Beyond the consistency of his unmistakable style and the appearance of the Roman goddess Monica Vitti (she made five films with Mr. Antonioni, and "L'Eclisse" represents her pinnacle in the collaboration), the films are profoundly dissimilar. One can find points of continuity: "L'avventura," set in Sicily, ends with a disconnecting couple; "La Notte," set in Milan, portrays a loveless older couple; and "L'Eclisse" begins with the breakup of a long relationship. Yet each stands alone, except as a station in Mr. Antonioni's art.
Having contributed to the rise of Italian neorealism, Mr. Antonioni's penchant for a symbolist approach is not much different from the response of 19th-century French poets to naturalism. Edmund Wilson's extract from Stephane Mallarme ("Axel's Castle") might have been voiced by Mr. Antonioni: "To name an object is to do away with three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem which is derived from the satisfaction of guessing little by little: to suggest it, to evoke it - that is what charms the imagination." "L'Eclisse" opens with a still life involving books and what may be a white cloth laying over them; it's only as the camera pans that we realize the cloth is a man's elbow. The first shot of Ms. Vitti finds her arranging objects in an empty frame, creating her own three-dimensional still life. From that point on, the film is a museum of frames and frames within frames: picture frames, door frames, window frames, gates, bars, and grills. Naming them, as Mallarme says, detracts from their pleasure. Meaning is intimated: the erotic sheen of visible poetry explicates invisible emotions as clearly as music. Vittoria and her lover Riccardo have been up all night, arguing over her decision to leave him. ("I wanted to make you happy." "When we first met I was 20 years old. I was happy then.") It's a virtuoso set piece in which every shot redefines the space from a different angle. She backs toward the camera then sidles left to stand before a mirror. Her hair takes flight before we see the small fan responsible. She finally walks out, gliding through divided rectangular gates.
Mr. Antonioni's technical genius is apparent throughout the film, most obviously in the long breakup and in the scenes in the Borsa, in which we see the vitality and frenzy of the action from so many angles and with such evident interest on the part of the director that we can only guess at how many cameras were involved or how he marshaled the crew to stay out of the way. He introduces Vittoria's home at night from a distance, her body passing through lighted windows like Mr. Hulot (another homage to Jacques Tati follows when a passel of dogs race by). A distant shot of Vittoria leaving her apartment cuts to an African woman as though we were seeing her perspective; but after a second, we realize that the woman is a photograph, as a real woman, Marta, recently relocated from Kenya, opens the door to admit Vittoria and another friend. The apartment becomes their mental picture of Africa, as Vittoria appears in blackface for a startling dance that degenerates into a racist colonialist rant. The irony that Vittoria never appears more herself - playful, engaged, almost delirious - than when "playing Negro" requires no interpretation.
Nor does Mr. Antonioni's ingenious decision to trace the courtship between Vittoria and the callous stock broker Piero (Alan Delon) by having them avoid their own constricting apartments in favor of their parents' homes, complete with their preserved childhood bedrooms - hers displaying a bed much too small for her, and his a pen that, when turned upside down, unclothes its imprisoned woman. Back in 1962, one critic sneered at the obviousness of Vittoria seeing two nuns pass beneath the window of Piero's childhood home; in a theater, though, that shot invariably gets a laugh. In the extras included with the film (a documentary, commentary, interview with Italian critics), no mention is ever made of humor, yet Mr. Antonioni was never more playful than in "L'Eclisse" - the very piling on of parallel symbols provides levity.
The ending (spoiler alert) is now so famous that it may no longer be possible to experience the sense of wonder that audiences felt when the film was first shown. After a timer goes off, interrupting an afternoon idyll, Vittoria and Piero avow loyalty, hug each other like frightened rabbits, plan a rendezvous for that evening, and part. He replaces his many phones (another laugh) on their hooks and returns to work, as she slowly descends an old, angular, wooden staircase from his office. She stares up at the trees, then turns to the camera, never in her career looking more beautiful than in that shot, and walks out of the frame and film. The next seven minutes recapitulate their romance in a breathtaking montage of places they have been, but now devoid of their presence. Several shots show water seeping into the ground or a sewer, and the sprinklers abruptly turned off. For a while, it looks like a premature depiction of the work of a neutron bomb - the buildings stand, people are gone. But there are people - a blonde who looks like Vittoria from the back, an older man who suggests what Piero might look like as an elderly man. It's as if Mr. Antonioni were contemplating one of those "An Affair to Remember" stories in which neither lover shows up at the appointed rendezvous, yet the place remains - a character in its own right. There are many ways to read the title, but good symbolist that he is, Mr. Antonioni moots the issue by closing in on a streetlight, an oval blaring light, looking like a flying saucer, suddenly eclipsed with the appearance of "Fin."
Mr. Giddins's column appears every other Tuesday.