Two leading Continental film makers dominate my week, but at a distance from each other. Claude Lelouch is the talented, rather gimmicky French director whose "La Bonne Armee" or "Happy New Year" last year
delighted London audiences, including myself, who saw it three times.
This year's Lelouch, And Now My Lore ("X", Odeon, St. Martin's Lane) is again clever, elegant, attractive to look at not much more. Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger ("A" The Ritz), on the other hand, seems to me a masterwork.
Ever since "L'Avventura," Antonioni has been one of what may loosely he called my favourite directors.
There are only a few.Rene Clair, Lubitsch, Wellman, John Ford at the opening of whose films my heart lifts like an aircraft being airborne, as it did in the opening scene of "The Passenger" when Antonioni stretches the long lines of his vision across the limitless horizons of the desert not apparently the Sahara, but the Chad.
There his Graham Greenelike hero Harry Locke (Jack Nicholson) kicks and curses his sand-logged car and sets about thinking how to pick up his trail for the television documentary he is supposed to be making.
Guided by an amiable black man in a white burnous, secretly to avoid local bandits or liberation troops, he reaches a small whitewashed hotel where his recognition of facial resemblance to a dead man tempts him to change his identity, whereby providing a pivot for the plot of a screenplay attributed to Mark Peploe, Peter Wollen and Antonioni himself.
Thereafter the plot is almost as elusive as the identity of the disenchanted hero following Robertson's diary from date to date, airport to airport, church (beautiful Bavarian or Balkan baroque for a wedding), Dubrovnik to Munich to Spain, to London.
Sometimes his wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre) appears, sometimes his television producer Martin Knight (Ian Hendry). Always the anonymous Girl (Maria Schneider) from Bloomsbury and Barcelona follows him to give and receive unspoken devotion that is very touching.
The real Robertson had of course been involved in arms trafficking to African revolutionaries, as Locker learns following in the dead man's dates. Each episode is intrigtsing, slightly mystifying. Each scene or glimpse of scene is stunningly beautiful and absorbing and superbly photographed (Luciano Tovoli).
Antonioni is generally regarded as a romantic among directors, and here is romanticism in plenty. But here also for the first time I felt that an important part of his genius is the achievement of total realism.
I have seen many deserts on the screen since "The Garden of Allah", but these opening scenes of the Chad desert made me feel I'd never seen real SAND on the screen till now, never seen a real person settling into one of those bare little hotel rooms until Jack Nicholson sat at the little table or looked at the face of the dead man on the bed.
On the surface, you could treat "The Passenger" as a luxury travelogue of Europe and North Africa by the artist Antonioni. To me the whole seems
more than most films, physically, visually and imaginatively a matter of the director's single vision. There is despair at the heart of it, but grandeur too. If at the end you dislike or disapprove of it you will still, I think, have been enthralled for two hours.
Jack Nicholson, like Robert Redford, is a welcome example of the new elegant school of young American stars and a subtler actor who helps to make this breathtakingly beautiful film convincing as one man's vision of a sector of modern life.
Lelouch's hero, for want of a better word, in "And now my Love" is also supposed to be making a film. But Simon (Andre Dussollier) and his Sarah (Marthe Keller) are not the mainspring of the film but rather the end of the cornplex structure Lelouch has contrived to prepare in two hours of film time and half a century or so of story time for love at first sight with Sarah.
Very many of the scenes are attractive, gay, lively and acute. Marthe Keller is vivacious and charming as her own grandmother, and touching as her Jewish mother taken for deportation by the Nazis. Gilbert Becaud plays (and sings) himself as the pop singer bought as a lollipop for the poor little rich girl Sarah whose father (Charles Denner) has made money. Andre Dussollier is adequate as the contemporary problem orphan with whom Sarah is finally presented by destiny for love at first sight.
Lclouch's movie is enormously accomplished and in its energetic variety very often entertaining. But the denoument, far from proceeding naturally or even logically, seems arbitrary. There is no visible link which should bring Sarah and Simon together except that Sarah's grandfather had been an early 'cinematographer.
On this showing, Lelouch lacks Antonioni's singleness of vision or at least has failed to embody it in this film. And how unlucky that quite a different film got in first with the title "At Long Last, Love"!