Good or bad, Antonioni’s films always start from cinema year zero. The narrative, when there is one, implodes: Sandro and Claudia don’t find — or even look very hard for — Anna; Thomas (David Hemmings) in Blow-Up doesn’t solve the murder he appears to have photographed. The characters are blank slates, usually with just first names, sometimes with none at all. (The characters played by Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave in Blow-Up are called Thomas and Jane in the screenplay but not in the film.) The actors don’t act so much as react to the situations Antonioni places them in. The dialogue can be pointed: Vittoria telling Piero, “I wish I didn’t love you, or that I loved you much more”; Giuliana (Vitti) in Il deserto rosso telling Corrado (Richard Harris), “If Ugo [her husband] had looked at me the way you do, he’d have understood many things.” More often characters speak at cross-purposes — famously Thomas and Patricia (Sarah Miles) in Blow-Up — or offer suspect wisdom. The editing defies convention: “important” events are elided (how does the Girl get from the front seat of Locke’s car to the back?), “unimportant” ones go on and on (the interminable shot of Claudia running down the Taormina hotel hallway had the Cannes premiere audience yelling, “Cut!”). And sequences are mismatched, like the one in The Passenger where you’re led to believe you’re looking at the African desert from Locke’s point of view and then suddenly there he is driving his Land Rover into the shot.
Near the beginning of The Passenger, Locke asks Robertson (Chuck Mulvehill), whose identity he’ll assume after Robertson suffers a fatal heart attack, “What’s on the other side of that window?” It’s an apt question from a man whose name is an amalgam of British empiricists David Hume and John Locke, and there’s no filmmaking principle Antonioni won’t jettison to get nearer to the answer. His compositions are as searching — and enigmatic — as those of his Renaissance predecessor, Piero della Francesca. At the outset of La notte, which is set in Milan, his camera hugs the curves of Gio Ponti’s brand new, organically inspired Pirelli Tower as sensuously as it will later Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) in her tight flowered dress. In Il deserto rosso, it pulls back from Giuliana to show her dwarfed by the huge, spidery red radio telescopes of Medicina; later, bored with Corrado’s inducements to workers to accept employment in Patagonia, it wanders off to follow the path of a blue line running up the white wall.
It’s a cinema of liberation — from the conventions of everyday movies, from the boundaries of everyday life. At the end of Il deserto rosso, Giuliana tells her son that the birds don’t die in the belching yellow smoke that’s poisoning Ravenna because they learn to fly around it. Then mother and son leave the picture — not out the side, as in a normal movie, but through the bottom, as if death were the only true escape. At the end of Blow-Up, the camera executes a reverse blow-up, rendering Thomas invisible and immaterial. At the end of Zabriskie Point, Daria’s thoughts causes the desert house of capitalist Lee Allen (Rod Taylor) to explode, reinventing consumer America (a box of Special K, a loaf of Wonder Bread) as a Pink Floyd–accompanied aerial ballet. The ball of light that envelops L’eclisse is the Sun exploding and consuming the Earth.