This is my contribution to The Other Than a Bond Girl Blogathon, hosted by Pale Writer and Reelweegiemidget Reviews, which is why this piece on Michelangelo Antonioni’s BEYOND THE CLOUDS starts off with a lengthy preamble (are preambles meant to last as long as the ‘ambles’?) about the appeal and aura of the Bond Girl in cinema.
The role of the ‘Bond Girl’ in the world’s longest running series of cinematic spy thrillers has almost always been a passing, drifting, ephemeral thing. They represent either a passing fancy, or a relatively more meaningful romantic conquest, and such is the cyclical nature of the series, is forgotten about entirely by the time of the next instalment. There have been exceptions – Dr. No‘s Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) reappeared for a cute cameo near the start of the following film, but that was a routine that was abandoned henceforth. Elsewhere, Miss Moneypenny’s consistent presence within the Bond universe is precisely so because she and Bond never sleep together – the fact they don’t is one of the series’ running motifs. When Bond does try to settle down and marry Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, or seek fulfilment with Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, convention dictates that she must be killed off- after all, if they remain in wedded bliss, there are no more Bond films; at least none that would resemble the kind that had been drawing in millions of audiences. No Time to Die reversed the trend, but only in regards to gender – this time it would be James Bond who would die by the end, in the most extreme instance yet of the series refusing to allow this man of action a chance to have a happy life with someone. Sometimes an actress will return, such as Maud Adams, but in entirely different roles. Adams first appeared as doomed Andrea Anders in The Man with the Golden Gun, and then reappeared in the more fortunate role of Octopussy in the film of the same name. This was an amusingly bizarre habit of the Bond films, with actors reappearing in different roles throughout the series. It’s interesting to think about Bond’s relationships with the women he meets; what happens in-between films when they inevitably part ways? Is it amicable? Is it ugly? There was a fascinating Twitter thread a while back that asked that very kind of question – would Bond revert back to a platonic friendship with the likes of say Melina Havelock? Would he never return Mary Goodnight’s calls? Would Pam Bouvier had not returned his calls?
That’s all left to the imagination of us fans though. The reality is that Bond Girls don’t last long and are are almost entirely doomed to remain passing affairs in the life of the one constant (well, at least until the most recent film) that is James Bond. The Bond films are the most explicit instance of this kind of thing, where Bond will get older (for a while) while his women (for the most part) stay young and fresh and beautiful. You could say that many directors are guilty of the same thing; they remain the constant presence, while their leading ladies stay young. Hitchcock rarely stuck with the same leading lady in his movies, for example. Back to Bond though, and the film that links the series to the film under discussion in this article. 1999’s The World is Not Enough was the third in the series to feature Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, and was a very notable entry because of its villain, who in an unprecedented move for the series, is also the film’s chief romantic interest. Sure, there had been villainous women in the series before – some clearly evil from the start, others more duplicitous and only revealed to be bad down the line – but Sophie Marceau’s Elektra King is the first (and to date last) chief female villain in a Bond outing. Before release, the expectations would be that Robert Carlyle’s terrorist antagonist would be the chief adversary, but ultimately he is under the authority and spell of King, the former kidnap victim turned arch-manipulator and villainous drive of the film. Fascinatingly, she and Bond have genuine chemistry; in a twisted, weird world, they could have had something together. But no, it cannot be, and in a shocking/inevitable turn of events, he kills her because he is unwilling to sacrifice his identity/role in the series – this is the series putting paid to the unacceptable notion of Bond settling down to its most active extreme. Before and after, Bond was at the mercy of other characters, and/or fate, but here he pulls the trigger himself.
Despite featuring what is arguably Brosnan’s strongest performance as Bond, Marceau steals The World is Not Enough from him and everyone else. It’s a flawed movie, crippled by instances of humour that often doesn’t land, as well the oft-ridiculed character of Dr. Jones, as played by Denise Richards, who sadly doesn’t have a fraction of the chemistry with her leading man as he does with Marceau. Marceau may very well be the series’ ultimate femme fatale – cold, beautiful, deadly, fully aware that ‘no one can resist me’ – and played to perfection. She’s a potentially sad character in many ways – kidnapped, tortured, betrayed – can anyone blame her for turning the tables and taking control? But ultimately she’s too far gone and too damned homicidal for her to be redeemed in the series’ eyes. And given this is a series that found a way for Grace Jones’ murderous May Day in A View to a Kill to go out with a heroic bang, that’s saying something.
Now, Bond Girls have always been noted for their glamour, but, and this is a personal thing, what is it with French actresses and Bond movies? There are many, many impossibly glamourous and impossibly beautiful women who have graced the storylines of many an adventure in this series, but as well as Marceau, the likes of Carole Bouquet (For Your Eyes Only), Eva Green (Casino Royale), Bérénice Marlohe (Skyfall) and Lea Seydoux (Spectre, No Time to Die) are something else altogether. I think it might have something to do with the films that these actresses appear in outside of their Bond roles, and their public persona too. The fact remains that the European (not just French) actresses that have appeared in prior to their Bond appearances have usually been noted for European films (well, duh) and they’re normally of a different perceived class and style to the CVs of the English and North American actresses who have been in Bond movies. Maybe it’s me as a British viewer who has always found European cinema more intriguing and, well…different to the regularity of English-language mainstream cinema, which is as cosy and familiar to me as that first mug of tea in the morning. All of the actresses listed above are classic examples of the kind of movie stars that have, more than once, been cast as superlatively beautiful women in films directed by men. Not for nothing was Bouquet nothing less than That Obscure Object of Desire – impossible to attain, yet futile to try and resist chasing. The European (and indeed, worldwide) element of Bond films, from the locations to the actors, is what helps give the series their unique flavour and travelogue exoticism, distinguishing them from the run of Hollywood action movies. It may be why some detractors of the brilliant Licence to Kill bemoan the movie, among other reasons; its wholly American setting and distinctly non-European or continental approach does make it feel less obviously Bond-like on the surface, although it compensates for that being exceptionally close to the spirit of Bond on tons of other levels, which is why on the other extreme, it’s a fan favourite for many, myself included. Anyway, back to Sophie Marceau.
Born into a blue-collar family in 1966, and working in her family restaurant from a young age (film critic Seymour Chatman thinks this exposure to a bustling, public environment and workplace likely contributed to Michelangelo Antonioni, the director of Beyond the Clouds, regarding her as possessing a “indolent vitality”), Marceau was asked to star in Claude Pinoteau’s smash hit 1980 teen comedy La Boum after being spotted in a fashion magazine when she was 14. La Boum was such a hit that the leading French production company Gaumont gave her a long-term contract. She won a Most Promising Actress Cesar award in 1983 and continued to work in film throughout the 1980s; by the time of Beyond the Clouds she’d already headlined many films, and had already broke through in the States with a supporting role in Mel Gibson’s Oscar winning Braveheart (as Princess Isabella of France) and would go on to star in the title role in Bernard Rose’s 1997 adaptation of Anna Karenina. Beyond the Clouds boasted a very classy cast, and Marceau was one of the more notable draws. Her role here is, like many of her co-stars, brief, but nevertheless it was the image of her sitting in bed undressed (seen from the shoulders above) and staring off to her left that was used for many of the posters upon release. Not for nothing was Marceau reportedly the winner of a French poll of ‘actresses most men would want to sleep with’. She is almost devastatingly gorgeous in Beyond the Clouds, exuding the kind of seemingly effortless sensuality that she would bring, to less obviously explicit effect, in her future Bond role. You don’t get many Bond women who use their body so confidently or make unexpected references to sex (‘you know what happens when a man is strangled?’ she asks when astride an imprisoned Bond – a fabulously kinky moment) in the series – I remember also Marceau saying that she felt a little constricted when it came to her and Brosnan’s love scene, in that she was pushing for more nudity but was told that such a thing (despite sex being one of the main drives of the Bond films) was not acceptable. Ridiculous, isn’t it? However, despite the impressive cast, it was who was behind the scenes of this film that was the big talking point amongst critics and arthouse cinemagoers.
Even though he would live to the year 2007, and would continue to direct short films after this, Beyond the Clouds was the final feature-length film of Michelangelo Antonioni, the remarkable Italian director whose enigmatic, dreamlike and sensual style of filmmaking was enormously influential. Films like the trilogy that was L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse, Red Desert, Blow-Up and The Passenger often rank extraordinarily high in the echelons of Best Films Ever lists, but by the time of 1995 it had been thirteen years since Antonioni’s last film, Identification of a Woman, which was not well received at the time (though retrospective opinion has been kinder towards it) and ten years since the director had suffered a stroke, the debilitating aftereffects of which were still prevalent enough that the insurance required to kickstart the making of Beyond the Clouds was only granted when a secondary director was confirmed to assist the production, on hand to take over from Antonioni should he be unable to continue at any point. That director would be Wim Wenders, whose own, devastatingly romantic, heart-wrenching and longingly moving style of work, including Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire, seemed to be a intriguing complement to Antonioni’s approach.
As befitting a film which has the feel of a dream, Beyond the Clouds is narratively fragmented and made up of four stories (his earlier I Vinti from 1953 was also a portmanteau, albeit three stories), with the protagonist of the second story (John Malkovich) also acting as a framing character for the whole movie. These framing scenes would be helmed by Wenders, although Antonioni retains sole credit for directing the film. Characters come and go, desires drift in the ether, conversations and moments exist and then fade away, chances appear and disappear. The Malkovich character, a film director who is wandering through the streets of Italy, is most likely a stand-in for Antonioni (or maybe Wenders, I’m not sure who wrote which parts of the story), and he arrives in Italy to search for inspiration for his next film. His intentions and philosophical ruminations are expressed through Malkovich’s narration, which sounds half-poetic, half- jetlagged, over the ideals of filmmaking, and the relationship between director and film, between poet and poem. From here, we move onto stories that Malkovich has heard about, is actively involved in, or are possibly in his mind for his upcoming movie, and finally, are occurring just outside of his awareness.
For the sake of this article, we’ll concentrate on the segment that features Marceau, but it would be remiss of me to not mention the others, which all deal with love and sex predominantly, but touch upon other themes too. But mostly love and sex. The first sees Silvano (Kim Rossi Stuart) encountering beautiful teacher Carmen (Inés Sastre) whilst looking for a place to stay. They get talking, and it looks like they might spent the night together, but ultimately he refrains from knocking on Carmen’s door and loses his chance to be with her. However, he is reunited with her two years later. They almost consummate their relationship but again he holds back, unable to continue. He then leaves her bedroom and walks away, seemingly forever. Is this meant to be a fear of commitment, or the fear that the reality will never live up to the fantasy? In the third story, we witness a three-year infidelity between Peter Weller and Chiara Caselli (both remain nameless) that leaves the former’s wife Patricia (Fanny Ardant) broken and unhappy. In order to appease her threats of leaving him (‘it’s her or me’) Weller makes love to her, which in turn upsets Caselli when he confesses later that day. They argue but then have sex, and you get the sense that Weller is once again using sex as a means to placate those who are angry with him. It’s an unhappy situation all round. Patricia seeks an apartment to move into and she encounters another betrayed soul in Jean Reno’s Carlo, whose wife has left him for another man and is now renting out their apartment. It seems like the two might find solace with each other, although as Patricia says, that’s what disturbs her. Sex can tear people apart, and it can bring them together it seems. Sex is notable in the fourth chapter however for being absent, with Irene Jacob’s churchgoer innocently pursued by the beguiled Vincent Perez. After following her and engaging her in conversation (which she’s content to partake in, but she’s often walking ahead of him), and hoping that they’ve struck enough of a rapport that he can see her again, she drops the bombshell that she’s joining a convent the very next day. She seems utterly content with her plans, and the idea that she’s transcended the earthly concerns of love and sex makes her totally unattainable.
The second story, the one that features Marceau, focuses on Beyond the Clouds‘ Director character wandering the streets on a grey, overcast day. There’s a dreamy prelude (that I assume is directed by Wenders?) where he attends an abandoned beach and sits on the lonely swings of the playground, looking at a picture postcard of sunnier climates, all the while the gorgeously languid instrumental of Passengers (that’s U2 and Brian Eno)’s ‘Beach Sequence’ ebbs and flows on the soundtrack, perfectly complementing the sand being blown across the beach by the wind. It’s a lovely moment, and then we fade to the town depicted in the postcard, where the Director (is this a memory?) is walking through the cobbled pathways of the fishing village of Portofino in Italy, when Marceau’s ‘Girl’ leaves her house in front of him and walks on ahead. Instantly he is drawn to her. The Girl and her employer (played by Antonioni’s wife, Enrica) open up the seaside clothing boutique where she works, and the Director has followed her there – she sees him looking at her through the shop window, and there’s a connection there. We’re not sure what kind of connection first – is she feeling threatened? Is she attracted? The Director enters the shop, is met by the manager who asks if he needs anything, to which he responds that he’s just browsing. The Girl’s intentions seem to come into focus a little more when she more or less reassures her manager that she can deal with whatever enquiry the Director has come into the shop for. She sees no dangerous threat, although I can see why some might regard The Director’s presence as somewhat creepy. There’s awkward tension in the air of another kind though, and a lot silent staring between the two- predominantly from the Director’s gaze, who, much like Antonioni’s, is unflinching, and it seems to unsettle The Girl. He then leaves, but she follows him to the door, and even waves him off. Later that day, The Girl meets what we assume is a friend, and she seems jolly enough, but when she sees the Director sitting nearby in a café (their proximity here seems coincidental; there’s no way he would have known she’s be in the area, I guess?) her mood instantly shifts. Taking charge, she approaches him and tells him directly that there’s something she needs him to know before anything else happens that he ‘has in mind’.
We discover that The Girl killed her father a year before, having stabbed him twelve times. She was acquitted of the crime after three months in prison, and that’s all we find out. We don’t know why she killed him. It could be that he abused her and she killed him to stop the abuse. Maybe the abuse happened much earlier and it was only years later that she killed him. The acquittal suggests that there was a sense of understanding as to why she did what she did, that it was regarded as a crime of passion rather than anything premeditated. Her job at the clothing boutique (and it seems to be a pretty upmarket kind if her work attire is anything to go by) suggests she is able to function on a social and professional level. But we don’t really know much else about her. In classic Antonioni fashion, she is an enigma. The fact that she’s only ever referred to as The Girl (despite Marceau being an adult 28, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish where women are referred to somewhat condescendingly as ‘girls’) adds to that mystery. She’s not even the only ‘Girl’ in the film – in the final story, the unobtainable Irene Jacob isn’t given a name either. Oh, of course the Malkovich character is referred to in the credits only as ‘The Director’, but that particular brand of anonymity has a greater sense of authority and control that you don’t get from ‘The Girl’, a term which has a history of male objectification and idealisation. The Girl says to the director that she reminds him of someone, but we never find out who. It could be that he reminds her of his father. We the viewer have no one else to go with in regards to her history. The fact that Malkovich is thirteen years older than Marceau does suggest that the someone he reminds her of was indeed an older person. If this is the case, then what to make of their eventual lovemaking scene? The Director may have initiated this to-and-fro between the characters, but The Girl is the one who asks the direct questions regarding whether or not they will sleep together. She does go to touch him but refrains, and he goes to touch her straight afterwards and she refrains herself. This moment happens just before she confesses that she reminds her of someone, and if it is her father, then it’s understandable she might have seconds thoughts in regards to what’s about to happen. Is the sex that follows predominantly an Oedipal exorcism where The Girl sleeps with the ‘father’, confronting and controlling the wrong he had inflicted upon her? You can tell I’m no psychiatrist, can’t you?
Anyway, the sex scene in question is a beautifully shot, erotic encounter – the use of an instrumental version of Van Morrison’s 1989 wedding standard ‘Have I Told You Lately’ now comes off a bit corny and obvious (although I should be thankful the vocal version wasn’t used – Van the Anti-Vaxxer Man’s voice doesn’t really do it for me in an erotic context – see also the clumsy use of his, The Band and Roger Waters’ rendition of Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ in The Departed’s love scene), and I’d have preferred more of that blissful Passengers vibe here. Still, this still a hot scene. Both actors are fully nude, but you can tell the camera’s eye is in favour of Marceau. Or is that my eye? A bit of both, I’d say. I mean, it’s Marceau the film stays with after the Director leaves and we see her fully naked and standing before the camera. Yep, one of the things that pervades throughout Beyond the Clouds is sex. Identification of a Woman marked a notable increase in sexual content for the director, with protracted love scenes. Antonioni is an unapologetic depicter of the female form, and Beyond the Clouds takes that to the near limit.
Afterwards, The Girl seems content and shaken (in a good way) over what’s just happened, and they part on good terms, although we can only presume they’ll never see each other again. We then find out that the Director had visited the town to find a character and he’d found a story. He ruminates over the fact that there was 12 stabs, which seems ‘more familiar.. more domestic’. There was ‘everything there had to be in that story, there was truth’ in those twelve stabs. He compares the number of stabs to the number of equivalent blows he may or may not include in the final edit of a similarly filmed scene. These things are important – what we show and what we don’t. An edit here, an addition there – they can change everything in regards to what we take from a film. They may not be what the director intended, but it is the fuel that we feed from. Interestingly, the Director feels no need to stay in the town after that. The Girl’s look when he first saw her has stayed with him – the memory. He doesn’t need to stay there now. The effect has touched him, so now he works from that. Likewise, the film itself offers up a run of memorably potent images that stay with us long after we’ve watched it, be they lovely location shots, images of gorgeous actors distilled in their youthful beauty for all time, or even the observation of existing artwork, such as paintings or photographs. It’s a reflective experience overall, where the structure, so rooted in told stories, memories, fragmented narrative and serenely melancholic summation.
Beyond the Clouds is an often beautiful, powerful film. It has scenes of great beauty, of great pain (Ardant’s cheated wife in the third story is a devastating standout) and great charm, such as the Wenders-directed scene where Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni, who’d both starred in Antonioni’s La Notte 34 years before, reunite for a brief, sweet moment where the latter’s painter makes a case for copying from the greats in the hope of maybe catching some of their genius, like lightning in a bottle. Maybe that’s Wenders talking about his own position in the echelons of cinema history compared to Antonioni. Indeed, Wenders is nowadays as much as a adored and respected filmmaker as Antonioni was and is, and despite some creative differences and disagreements that ignited between the two, it’s a seamless, successful collaboration. By the time the white-on-blue credits roll, set to the almost painfully lovely strains of Passengers’ ‘Your Blue Room’, and the knowledge that this would be Antonioni’s final film, the sense of poignancy is potent, and in the moment just before that, with the camera temporarily leaving the Director and going on to scan the exterior of the hotel he’s staying in, we see glimpses of other people through the open windows, going about their existence, their own stories potentials for other films, maybe. Life goes on.