A director is naturally a man like everyone else. Yet his life isn’t normal. For us, seeing is a necessity. For a painter, too, the problem is to see. But while the painter has to discover a static reality, or even a rhythm, perhaps—but a rhythm stopped in midair—the problem for a director is to catch reality an instant before it manifests itself and to propound that movement, that appearance, that action as a new perception. It isn’t sound: words, noise, music. It isn’t an image: scenery, an expression, a motion. But an indecomposable whole.
When we say that the persons we approach are all potential characters, over whose faces pass expressions, from whose mouths come lines—that places are not just images but rhythms, vibrations; that everyday events very often take on symbolic meanings—we must add that it is the relationships of all those things among each other in time and space that make sense to us. It is the tension that forms among them.
This is, I think, a very special way of being in contact with reality. To lose this contact, or rather to lose this “way,” can mean sterility.
That’s why, for a director even more than for other artists, it’s important to work, directly or indirectly, on an ethical plane, exactly because of the particular material he deals with.
People often ask us, “How is a picture born?” A picture probably has its birth in the disorder within us, and that’s the difficulty: putting things in order. Knowing how to pick out the right thread from the skein. I remember Rimini one spring a few years ago. Under the rotunda of the Grand Hotel, still closed off with the barbed wire that they put around it every winter, two girls about nine years old are playing. One of them is going around the rotunda on a bicycle. The other one goes nimbly into a handstand, stiffening up in vertical position, her skirts falling over her face, her skinny legs straight up in the air. Then she lets herself fall over and starts again. They are poor girls. The one going around the rotunda on her bicycle yells, in singsong manner, “Oh, such love. Oh, such suffering!” She disappears. Then comes back. “Oh, such love, oh such suffering!” It’s early morning, there’s no one on the beach except me and those two girls. No sound other than that of the sea and that frail voice crying love and suffering.
For me, that was a film, the rest of that day.
I know that episode, when so simply narrated, is not at all suggestive, and it isn’t easy to understand how it could have suggested a story. You would have had to have heard the tone of those two voices to understand. It was a very peculiar tone. I can still hear it. It was fresh and heart-rending at the same time and gave to those words a dimension that was surely unwitting but penetrating—all the love, all the suffering in the world. The words absurd at such a time, in the mouths of those characters, but the tone was not. I must say, it had a kind of mystery. And that’s a limit when staging scenes: forcing words into events that reject them.
Before shooting L’eclisse, I went to Florence to see—and shoot—an eclipse of the sun. In that darkness, in that icy cold, in that silence so different from all other silences, in that almost complete motionlessness, those pale, earth-colored faces, I speculated whether even sentiments are arrested during an eclipse. It was an idea that was only vaguely connected with the picture I was making, which is why I didn’t retain it. But it could have been the nucleus of another film.
The most difficult thing is to recognize an idea out of the chaos of feelings, reflections, observations, impulses that the surrounding world stirs up in us. Among thousands of possibilities, why do we isolate one idea, that one and not another? There are a thousand ways to answer this, none of which is satisfactory. All I can say is that, having singled out a theme, I generally let it ripen for quite a while. I think it helps not to make it mature right away, never to chase after a film, let the film come along very gently by itself. It almost always comes to me at night. I get very little sleep.
I am convinced that good ideas for film are not the same as those used in real life. If that were so, the way a film is created by a director would coincide with his way of life. On the contrary, no matter how autobiographical we are, something always intervenes in our fantasy to interpret and alter what we see into what we want to see, what we have into what––for the moment—we would like to have, what we are into what––for the moment—we would like to be. We are our own characters to the extent to which we believe in the picture we are making. But between us and them there is always the picture: there is that concrete, definite, crystal-clear fact, that mental and physical act that unequivocally qualifies us, that frees us from abstractedness and leaves our feet firmly planted on the ground. Thus the proletariat—for instance—becomes bourgeois again, a pessimist changes back into an optimist, the lonely and estranged is once more someone anxious to start a conversation and communicate.
After L’eclisse, many people asked me, “What will you do now?” Meaning: Now that you have said what you wanted to say.
It would be very immodest of me to believe that I had conducted with my pictures a conclusive study of sentiments. I believe on the contrary that there is still a great deal to say and show. It’s a task that I may not do myself, but I think it would be worthwhile. It’s important to try to understand the man of today under this aspect too. What have we come up to now? We have scrutinized, vivisected, analyzed thoroughly his feelings. This we have been able to do. But not to discover new ones. I would like to know more about these residues. Perhaps we have to go back to the beginning and ask what is a feeling. And to identify it almost as an effect—according to the scientific meaning of the word—in relation to not only its protagonist but also its observer.
For example. A man is in love with a woman who does not reciprocate. The woman doesn’t even know it. Nobody knows it. The man suffers in silence, without mentioning it to anyone, without letting out a single hint of what is happening inside him. His life goes along as though that feeling did not exist. I wonder whether it isn’t true that that feeling doesn’t exist until the time someone discovers it.
Take another case. A husband and wife think they love each other, but it isn’t true. They act with one another and with others as though they did love each other; no one seeing them doubts that they are in love. But it’s not true. Yet for whom is it not true?
Perhaps it’s nature itself. There are times when we have the feeling that nature is an intelligent being watching us. I don’t know. I would have to put us on film to understand. Both of the abovementioned cases are taken right from real life. There is no doubt that this is new, stimulating material. Except that, having stated my doubts about the certitude of sentiments today, perhaps it’s time for me to deal with a different subject. It’s true that never have we been dubious about everything the way we are today. That everything has become uncertain, oscillating between two extremes: the principles of knowledge and those of morality, the basis of authority and the basis of philosophy, the premises of law and those of politics. We are surrounded by a reality that is not defined or corporeal. Inside of us, things appear like dots of light on backgrounds of fog and shadow. Our concrete reality has a ghostly, abstract quality.
But at least one thing remains positive: a sincere effort, even if by only a few, to understand and find a solution. If ever my pictures have a purpose, I believe it is to contribute in a humble way to this effort.
From Screenplays of Michelangelo Antonioni, Orion Press, 1963.