Saturday, November 2, 2013

Something in the night

The center of a trilogy that begins with L’Avventura (1960) and ends with L'eclisse (1962), Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961) is in some ways the most difficult. While the characters—like the camera—are almost always adrift, roaming Milan and its modern spacious interiors, they appear spiritually moribund—is it an accident that at one point we spy a woman reading The Sleepwalkers? Whatever the dreams or desires that once animated Giovanni Pontano to become a novelist and stake his claim amongst the cultural elite seems to have drained away. He goes to clubs and parties, even chases women, without enthusiasm. His wife Lidia conveys somewhat more of a sense of genuine engagement with the world, though her engagement is almost entirely that of a searcher or observer. Even when surrounded by people seeking to include her in their activities—the second half of the film unfolds at a party thrown by an affluent family—she usually keeps her distance. When, at the beginning of the film, she and Giovanni visit a dying friend in hospital, she cuts short her visit and leaves Giovanni behind, opting instead to wander the city for a long while, losing herself amidst people and buildings and traffic, eventually making her way toward the outskirts, where she finds discarded objects and stumbles upon a fight between two men with many others watching. None of these men holler or speak. No one even says “ow.” It is a sequence of anonymous clamour or eerie silence. Lidia’s protracted city tour may seem emotionally remote, yet it is wildly cinematic. The film’s emotions are expressed by contrast and compositions which not only attend to what’s in the frame but what’s outside the frame yet reflected on surfaces within. Repeatedly using glass as a sort of sculptural material, Antonioni and his cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo create a series of palimpsests. I said the film was difficult, but by this I simply mean that it doesn’t much lend itself to character identification, that bedrock of so much narrative cinema. Its mastery and richness lie elsewhere. La Notte is a movie made of architecture, noise and time. It is now available as Blu-ray, DVD or download from Criterion.

The alienating aspects of the film were much noted at the time of its release. Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau were huge international stars at the time. The melancholy Mastroianni we’d seen attending a soirée the year previous in La Dolce Vita (1960) was a party animal next to the morose Mastroianni half-heartedly attempting to seduce Monica Vitti’s delicious kitten at the all-nighter in La Notte. Mastroianni was reportedly unhappy with both the production and the finished result. Indeed, the film doesn’t look like it was a blast to make, at least not for the leads. They pose as much as they perform—though, watching it again, I’m struck by the fathomless depths Moreau conveys by the force of her sheer presence, by a glance, a stride, a way of placing her body alongside a piano or into a sports car. Her movements are hypnotic. Again, the film is far from inert—there is almost too much going on in any one shot to take in. It rewards repeat viewing. And it does have its wonderfully amusing moments. My favourite occurs at dawn, when Vitti’s character, having been the object of Giovanni’s insistent, listless affection and Lidia’s knowing benevolence and fascination, stands by a wall, as if in need of support, and, just as the couple finally leave her, says, “You two really have worn me out tonight.”

See Criterion’s superb package. Hell, buy it if you can. It contains a visual essay by scholar Giuliana Bruno on the role of architecture in Antonioni that is brilliant, insightful and can only widen one’s appreciation for the film exponentially. 

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