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Seventy years on, Michelangelo Antonioni’s brilliant debut movie is now rereleased: a sleazy, seedy neo-realist noir set in postwar Milan, all about shame, desire, self-hate and furtive surveillance. Judging by this, Antonioni could have had a career like Chabrol’s, or Hitchcock’s. Instead, after a run of conventional (and expertly made) movies, Antonioni released L’Avventura in 1960, switching up to the languorous, complex, enigmatic style that made him internationally famous, and it became possible in retrospect to separate his career into the pre- and post-Avventura phases.
Story of a Love Affair is a riveting, taut drama – though with intriguing hints of the stasis and ennui that were to come.
It is said to be inspired by James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, although that may be partly due to its lead actor, Massimo Girotti, having played a similar role in Luchino Visconti’s Obsession in 1943, which was explicitly an adaptation of Cain’s novel. Actually, Antonioni’s movie reminds me more of something by Graham Greene or Patrick Hamilton or maybe Stefan Zweig.
The hypnotic Lucia Bosè plays Paola, the young and jaded wife of Enrico, a corrupt Milan businessman: here Antonioni cast a non-professional, Ferdinando Sarmi, the fashion designer who actually created Bosè’s extravagant gowns for this film. It was his only acting credit. Enrico has just chanced upon some old photos of Paola from before he knew her, and in a capricious spasm of jealousy, hires a private detective to sniff around into her past. This man finds that as a teenager, Paola had a passionate affair with a boy called Guido (Girotti), and uncovers chilling evidence they may have connived at the macabre murder of Guido’s then girlfriend by allowing her to step into a disused lift-shaft. Guido gets wind of these enquiries, gets in touch with Paola to alert her, and their doomed love affair is reignited with a thought that neither can bear to say out loud. Can they kill a second time?
The overwhelming sense of sin is what makes this movie Greeneian, I think, although the church is not mentioned. The terrible burden carried by Paola and Guido is that they didn’t really mean to kill the girl in the lift-shaft – they just didn’t want to warn her, and, like selfish children, didn’t understand the terrible wickedness of what they were doing. But as adults, they know it now. As for Enrico, he may or may not understand the truth about his wife – but we, the audience, understand the terrible irony. His jealous prying has reopened the wound and caused the very infidelity he feared.
There are some fascinating set pieces here, particularly the “charity fashion show” that Paola disdainfully attends with her husband, resenting Joy (Marika Rowsky) the pert young model who appears to be making eyes at Guido, who is also there. Jaded, prurient, wealthy guests bid for the gown that she is modelling (donated by the designer) and the winner not merely gets the dress but gets it then and there: the model removes it and hands it over, revealing herself in her underwear. At another well-heeled gathering, Paola plays bridge, when she is not torpidly dancing with another guest: a premonition of the haunted despair in movies such as La Notte and L’Eclisse. Bosè is superb in this film. She is very sexy and very afraid. It’s an explosive combination.
•Story of a Love Affair is released on 27 July as a digital download and on Blu-Ray.
Source: The Guardian
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