Winner of a special 35th Anniversary Prize at Cannes, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman from 1982 represented a homecoming of sorts. After 15 years of globetrotting international productions, the esteemed director returned to his Roman roots to film this relatively simple tale of desire and discontent in the professional class. Spartan and straightforward, Identification of a Woman contains none of the political symbolism or glacially paced metaphors of the early 1960s films that made Antonioni an art house darling. His script seeks to paint a clear portrait of disaffection without losing his viewers in oblique angles or thickly applied textures. Despite offering no compelling resolutions or lofty observations on the plight of its characters, the presentation feels complete and satisfying. Antonioni captures a few intriguing moments in the lives of people searching for love, and since that’s really all he set out to do, the film must be considered a success.
Identification of a Woman revolves around Niccolò (Tomas Milian), a recently divorced 35ish film director who happens to be between projects – always trouble - and his hunt for a new leading lady/muse/lover. Niccolò has decided that his next film will be a romance, although his producer (Marcel Bozzuffi) feels love stories are old-fashioned and “cannot exist in this corruption” of modern life. Niccolò, determined to prove Mario wrong, eventually becomes involved with Mavi (Daniela Silverio) after a chance encounter at his sister’s medical office. But Mavi is as deeply damaged as she is alluring – one could say more deeply damaged than she is alluring – and her sketchy, disturbing past soon creates problems for Niccolò, as he finds himself followed by muscle-bound goons.
The film has the resonant stylistics of its era; filled with bad 1980s hair, bad 1980s music and, as the couple’s nude squirming attests, bad 1980s sex. Their lovemaking sessions, filmed with relative frankness, are notable only for their complete lack of eroticism. The tortured relationship reaches nadir when Niccolò suggests they run away to the country – the characters in this film are always running away somewhere – and in route they encounter an impenetrable fog along a mountain road. This famous sequence is an expansion of the allegorical atmospherics of Red Desert, and creates an effective sense of claustrophobic gloom. Niccolò and Mavi take turns running away from each other into this pea-soup netherworld, which allows for haunting imagery and a bit of stark narrative foreshadowing.
Undeterred, Niccolò soon embarks on a new relationship with Ida (Christine Boisson), a struggling stage actress with a unique, androgynous beauty. This mini-romance is given short shrift, much to the film’s detriment, as this new love only seems to make Niccolò miss Mavi even more. But his relationship with the kind hearted Ida is much more interesting, and actually has the romantic potential Niccolò supposedly seeks. And therein lies Identification of a Woman’s central moral nugget: its characters refuse to take yes for an answer. As soon as they get what they want, it’s immediately rejected for some nebulous thing that’s possibly bigger and brighter.
Perhaps it’s just the heady residue from Boisson’s sensual presence, but Identification of a Woman ultimately seems more French than Italian. Its undercurrent of narcissistic existentialism creates a feel of Rohmer (without the excessive yakking) or Garrel (minus the suicidal melancholy), just to cite some contemporary examples. But the story’s conclusion smacks of Antonioni at his best, as he carries the film’s theme of unobtainable greener grass to its logical, and absurdly overblown, conclusion. The scope of Niccolò’s search for the perfect romance will expand beyond the boundaries of Earth in a tacit acceptance of Mario’s earlier warning. It is not known if Niccolò will find his Monica Vitti beyond the stars, but one thing’s for sure: if he finds her, he’ll immediately want someone else.
Although he would live another 25 years, Identification of a Woman stands as Antonioni’s last full length dramatic feature. Suffering a stroke shortly after the film’s release, debilitating health issues would plague the director the rest of his life, and severely curtain his productivity. While it may lack the grandiose visual and narrative artistry of his earlier pictures, Identification of a Woman is nonetheless an interesting and entertaining look into the lives of a comfortable, liberated - and somewhat lost – creative class. The film ranks as a minor work in the Antonioni filmography, but its directness and simplicity is refreshing, and reflective of a generation that has turned its sights inward. Identification of a Woman clearly presents the strange new world of 1982, warts and all, with the deft control of master storyteller.