And so the great Italian stylist, a filmmaker who did more than anyone to map the existential anxieties of listless Europeans in the 1960s and 1970s, bowed out not with a bang, but a whimper. With his preoccupation with aimless, nameless yearning, the erotic drama may always have been Antonioni's final destination, but Beyond The Clouds is an undignified exit. Not because of its pastel-coloured, softcore leanings but because it's a film from which all atmosphere, life and colour has been drained.
In the first of four stories, a nameless film director (John Malkovich) is on board a plane, literally heading beyond the clouds. There he recounts a story about a "relationship that lasted for years without existing." This is the erotically charged but unrequited affair between Carmen (Inés Sastre) and Silvano (Kim Rossi-Stuart) who meet, depart and then meet again three years later without ever quite having sex, Silvano finally leaving the naked Carmen alone after deciding, it's suggested, that dragging their relationship into the realm of the senses will destroy his perfect idea of a faultless love. In the second segment Malkovich's director leaps into an affair with Sophie Marceau's The Girl, a woman who introduces herself with a cheerful admission that she stabbed her father to death. In the third part Fanny Ardant and Jean Reno are a married couple, each cheating on the other. Finally Niccolo (Vincent Perez) falls in love with devout Catholic Irène Jacob, who's already on her way to becoming a bride of Christ.
Adapted from the director's own collection of stories and sketches 'That Bowling Alley On The Tibur', the fact that Beyond The Clouds got made at all was astonishing enough. The director had been left almost paralysed by a stroke in 1985 and couldn't gain funding. Enter Wim Wenders, whose stately masterpieces Wings Of Desire and Paris, Texas, as well as Until The End Of The World certainly owed something to Antonioni and who, no less significantly, was able to vouchsafe investors' money should Antonioni die during filming.
Though certain sequences (including the opening) were shot entirely by Wenders, it's clearly an Antonioni film. Recognisable from his earlier work are the eerily unreal locations, the aeroplanes and the fog (both favourite Antonioni motifs), the characters' frustrated creative impulses and their stalled attempts to communicate. Also apparent are the mannered yet blank performances which Antonioni favoured. Actors, he felt, weren't there to interpret or convey emotion. As writer and director, that was his job. And yet this is postcard Antonioni. Pleasant to look at, but what the film says could be summarised in a sentence. (Roughly: isn't love mysterious? Doesn't sex make us do weird things?)
Antonioni's greatest films - L'Avventura, L'Eclisse, The Passenger - were told in a visual language of his own creation. It was a language that couldn't be translated into the actual language spoken by his characters - that was part of these films' mysterious appeal. Though there are flickerings of that old magic here, long sequences have an awkwardly stage-bound quality, the dialogue proceeds in cryptic non-sequiturs and some of the storytelling relies on an almost comical level of unlikelihood. Even the emotional tone of the sex scenes feels wrong. Patricidal Sophie Marceau succumbs to Malkovich in a fit of cosy giggles which not only undoes the drama of her introduction but makes you wonder why she mentioned that thing about her father at all.
Pivotal though Wenders was in getting the film made, and ideal though this collaboration should have been, you wonder if, in fact, it's the equivalent of a hip young guy dragging his granddad to an Arctic Monkeys gig. (Or more likely U2, who provide some of the soundtrack). Antonioni was in his eighties when he made Beyond The Clouds. It's an old man's film, and there's nothing wrong with that, nor the sense - which some of these sequences seem to be edging towards - that the sexual engine never stops turning, even when there's no more fuel in the tank.
A film about this sort of frustration might have represented an appropriate coda to the career of a director for whom critics coined the phrase 'Antoniennui'. Instead Beyond The Clouds looks like a parody of Antonioni's earlier work. Relationships, issues and philosophical speculation hover in the air, but the ponderous improbability of these stories and the film's own distance from the ground prevents anything from ever coming into focus.