The cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet is perched at the fulcrum between many seeming oppositions in technique and intent. They frequently adapted the classics of Greek dramaturgy while also foregrounding the experimental and analytical techniques of playwrights like Bertolt Brecht and filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard. Casting trained musicians and thespians alongside non-actors, the filmmakers get performances that can be both stagey and awkwardly naturalistic, with on-camera figures arranged like models in the Bressonian sense for shots that mix the Old Hollywood intensity of John Ford with deconstructive spareness.

Befitting the endless intersections of inspiration and style that the pair utilize, Antigone is both an adaptation of Sophocles’ play and, more specifically, Brecht’s 1948 staging of it. In it, Antigone (Astrid Ofner), the daughter of Oedipus, has seen her uncle, Creon (Werner Rehm), ascend to the throne after Oedipus’ shaming and death led to a power vacuum and civil war. Antigone’s brother, Polyneices, died in said conflict while fighting against Creon’s army, for which the new monarch has refused his nephew to be given the usual funeral rites. Antigone, however, refuses to let her brother’s spirit be dishonored, and she performs the usual customs on pain of death. It’s easy to see why Brecht would have been interested in mounting perhaps the earliest play about civil disobedience so soon after the end of World War II, and indeed why Straub-Huillet, themselves regularly interested in the nature and aftermath of war and resistance, would also gravitate toward it.

For a neophyte, the filmmakers’ production could be taken as more of an on-location theatrical performance than a work of cinema. Shots of long duration focus on actors who are largely rooted in place, the camera rarely moving and mostly cutting during pauses in dialogue. Indeed, in one of the duo’s patented moves of staging their ancient dramas where said plays were first crafted and performed, the entire thing takes place in the ruins of the Segesta theater, a stone auditorium leading down into a pit where only the foundations of walls that once stood mark the stage. Occasionally, cars can be seen driving on the roads winding the valleys below the stage’s mountain outcropping, adding a strange dissonance to what otherwise feels like a glimpse back in time to what an actual classical Greek production might have looked like.

The way that Straub and Huillet approach their technical craft, however, is nothing less than a masterclass on aesthetic theory. Consider the opening interactions between Antigone and her sister, Ismene (Ursula Ofner). A master shot gazing down on the pair as they stand apart and turn their heads toward each other gives the impression of watching from the audience, but close-ups of each woman’s face convey radically different tones despite their matched monotone deliveries. Ismene, dressed in plain, earthen tones, seems to be looking down at the ground when she speaks, having been placed slightly forward of Antigone, which gives her a supplicant and weak energy. Antigone, meanwhile, is filmed with the camera slightly more level to her face, connoting her with authority. And her own head-tilt toward Ismene suggests a kind of imperious looking down upon, not a circumspect avoidance. Combined with her more colorful robes, Antigone immediately conveys stridency and immovable resolve, all of this imparted by precise blocking and editing.

This same use of formalism-as-text continues when Creon arrives, delivering a triumphant speech to an unseen crowd. For all his crowing, however, Creon is undercut by the high angle from which Straub-Huillet film him, shrinking him at the corner of the frame so that his oratory looks like the bluster of a man so insecure in his power that he spitefully disrespects a dead relative who fell in honorable combat. A gathering of elders who double as the chorus are likewise diminished, their united dialogue pitched as blank groupthink that defers to whomever projects the most authority in a given scene. Despite the neutral tone of the line deliveries, there are moments of humor in how Straub-Huillet show the chorus’ loyalties start to waver. Off-screen, Antigone sneaks off to her brother’s body to perform the necessary rites, and we learn of this from a guard who comes to tell Creon and is first seen so close to the edge of the frame that despite him standing still, it looks as if he was caught trying to sneak away from the film entirely.

The resultant trial of Antigone sends the camera into increasingly elaborate movements and setups to capture the shifting power dynamics of debate. The more the woman defends the moral justice of her action, the smaller Creon gets in the frame, with the camera putting more and more of the sloping background into view to make the king look as if he’s about to topple down the hill. Whipping pans communicate Creon’s rage, while smoother movements show the resolve of Antigone and, later, Creon’s son, Haemon (Stephan Wolf-Schönburg), in defying the new tyrant. Shots of the stone foundations of the stage area are matched to the chorus talking about the importance of the law by mentioning the walls of flesh that must be torn from traitors. And as the argument for Creon’s justice starts to deflate, the camera starts to view the chorus on more level ground, showing them gathering the spine to push back on his absolute power as the holes in his argument widen.

For all of the intense formalism and film theory at work here, however, there are still numerous moments that show off Straub-Huillet’s immense stated debt to classic Hollywood master John Ford. Numerous master shots of chiton fabric billowing in the wind as the verdant lining of trees and grass at the edges of the stage form a kind of natural proscenium are suffused with the evocative magic of classic Hollywood image-making. And for all the blunted drama of the detached performances, a late outburst of agony from Creon after his hubris costs him dearly is all the more startling for its rupture from the deliberately drained tone that surrounds it. With its ancient setting and occasional intrusion of the modern (including the sound of helicopters buzzing over the end credits), Antigone affirms the timelessness of its subject matter, breaking down Greek tragedy and finding that it retains all of its power even under minute analysis.

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