A new direction

Do the recent deaths of four icons of 20th-century art-house cinema spell the end of the auteur? Of

The visionary directors Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died at the end of July but, contrary to what you might have heard elsewhere, cinema did not die with them. The tenor of the responses to this terrible double whammy exhorted us to do more than simply mourn the passing of two artists. We had, apparently, reached the end of an era. We would never see their like again. The concept of the auteur was gone for good. Reading such pronouncements, you would be forgiven for thinking that Michael Bay had invaded Poland and soon we would all have nothing to watch but Transformers.

Granted: in a literal sense, something has fallen away. Bergman and Antonioni were among the last of that generation of film-makers whose work underpinned art-house cinema as we know it today - that is, as an art form that values chiefly the cinematic expression of ideas and emotions, and demands intellectual participation from the viewer. Two other pioneers, Sembène Ousmane (Xala, Moo laadé) and Edward Yang (A Brighter Summer Day, A One and a Two), have also died in recent weeks, contributing to a general pessimism about the state of world cinema. With this in mind, we might find it a good idea if we all do what we can to ensure that nothing nasty befalls Werner Herzog in the immediate future.

Though neither Bergman nor Antonioni had exactly fallen from favour, both had slipped down the "Best Of" lists by which reputations are increasingly judged: in the last Sight and Sound poll, from 2002, Antonioni's highest showing was for 'avventura (1960) at number 19, while Bergman came in at 27 with Wild Strawberries (1957), far behind films by Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir and Yasujiro Ozu. It may be that the various species of Bergman film split the vote: just because you cherish Summer With Monika (1953) or Fanny and Alexander (1982), that's no guarantee that you won't recoil from The Virgin Spring (1960) or Cries and Whispers (1972). As for Antonioni, I like to think that his relatively poor showing in the poll can be attributed to the sense that his films are difficult - as if there were anything wrong with that. I recall seeing 'avventura and Red Desert (1964) as a teenager, and experiencing for the first time the realisation that some films existed not merely to be enjoyed, but to be weighed up, grappled with, and possibly overwhelmed by.

What a mistake to claim those days are gone, however sad we might feel about the passing of individual directors. The essentially forward-looking Bergman and Antonioni would be mildly appalled at the idea that their deaths had closed the door on a particular strain of film-making. Bergman was 89 when he died, Antonioni 94, yet old age had not diminished their desire to remain alert and alive to the persistent potential of cinema. Bergman made it his business to keep abreast of modern film, shipping prints of the latest releases to his personal cinema in a converted barn on his island retreat of Fårö. When I visited the Swedish Film Institute in 2003, Katinka Faragó, a close friend and colleague of the director, told me: "He sees every single metre of film shot in Sweden, and as much of what's made in the rest of the world as he can. And he's never shy of encouraging younger film-makers." Among latter-day titles that the master considered masterpieces were the 1998 Show Me Love (aka Fucking Åmå), by his countryman Lukas Moodysson, and François Ozon's Under the Sand (2000). Lars von Trier and, perhaps surprisingly, Steven Spielberg were also recipients of his lavish praise.

Antonioni's work rate inevitably slowed after he suffered a stroke in the mid-Eighties. And his final short film, included in the portmanteau Eros (2004), was stilted and scarcely indicative of his best work (unlike Bergman's 2003 swansong Saraband). But, as early as 1982, he had displayed an admirable sense of perspective and optimism about cinema, and his place in it. "Of course, I'm just as worried as anyone else about the future of the cinema as we know it," he said in Wim Wenders's documentary Chambre 666. "We're attached to it because it gave us so many ways of saying what we felt and thought we had to say. But as the spectrum of new technical possibilities gets wider, that feeling will eventually disappear. There probably always was that discrepancy between the present and the unimaginable future. Who knows what houses are going to look like in the future? The structures we see when we look out of the window probably won't even exist tomorrow . . . All our contemporary structures will disappear. It won't be quick or straightforward, but it will happen, and we can't do anything to prevent it. All we can do is try to adjust to it."

The structures of which he spoke look pretty sturdy to me. It's more a case of being inundated with evidence of the enduring spirit of Bergman, Antonioni and their contemporaries than having to hunt for it. Antonioni's influence is palpable in the work of Carlos Reygadas (Japón, Battle in Heaven) and Todd Haynes (Safe), and in Gus Van Sant's extraordinary trilogy of Gerry, Elephant and Last Days. Robert Bresson has inspired exceptional work by the Dardenne brothers and Bruno Dumont. Indeed, it is not out of the question that the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, where David Cronenberg's jury awarded most of the prizes to the Dardennes' Rosetta and Dumont's 'humanité, will be seen as some kind of defining moment (Dumont's picture had the advantage of being roundly booed, a reaction reserved for Antonioni in his heyday, which bodes well).

And how can anyone feel despondent about cinema when Wong Kar-Wai, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Aleksandr Sokurov, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Michael Haneke and Pen-ek Ratanaruang are all in regular employment? Or when Mahamat-Saleh Har oun's wonderfully wise Daratt is out in British cinemas, with Pascale Ferran's Lady Chatterley also opening here this month?

Jeremy Paxman may have been playing devil's advocate when he put it to a dumbfounded Richard Eyre on Newsnight just after Bergman's death that the Swede "was hardly big box office", but his glib observation is inadvertently illuminating. When we watch Bergman, Antonioni, Satyajit Ray, Fassbinder or Andrei Tar kovsky, we are liberated from such crass considerations. Bergman himself discovered real liberty only while making his most revolutionary film, Persona (1966). Many years later, he wrote: "For the first time I did not care in the least whether the result would be a commercial success . . . when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover." So, here's to wordless secrets, and to those directors still capable of touching them.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix