Monday, June 9, 2014

Modern love in the shadow of the city

The final film in what would retroactively be considered a sort of loose trilogy—three inimitable modernist films about modern eros, modern cities, modern business, and modern ennui—L’eclisse (1962), for all its wandering ways, does indeed infuse the air with some sense of conclusion. The story of a young translator who slips out of one love story and into another, it was Michelangelo Antonioni’s last film in black and white and it pushed his proposition regarding landscape, architecture and objects as narrative tools on par with actors to dizzying heights: the dominance of a lampshade, a column, an unfinished building or an immense cloud in a given frame needs to be regarded as content, not décor. (Is L’eclisse, so light on plot, boring? Only if you have no interest whatsoever in looking at things.)  L’avventura (1960) famously shaped itself around a mystery never resolved, but L’eclisse, in its exquisite final sequence, in which Antonioni leads us on a tour of places already visited the story’s lovers—places now punctured with their absence—actually leaps ahead of the action to imply an inevitable ending. The lovers are last seen together swearing to see each other again later that night, the next day, the day after, and so on, but Antonioni’s ingenious closing montage uses landscape, architecture, objects and our memory of them to acknowledge that this love story will soon draw to a close that need not be dramatized here.

We meet Vittoria (Monica Vitta, one of Antonioni’s chief collaborators during this time) on the morning that she breaks it off with her fiancé (Francisco Rabal). Whatever tempests accompanied their negotiations dwindled into weary resignation by the time we catch up with them. That exhausted morning gives way to a frenetic afternoon in which Vittoria visits the Roman stock exchange to find her mother and meet the handsome, energetic young stockbroker (Alain Delon) her mother employs—a future lover to eclipse the past one. Romances perish, fortunes are lost and a stolen car becomes a watery death trap over the course of L’eclisse, but where such drama would normally occupy the foreground of a conventional drama, Antonioni places no special emphasis on them. Instead he’s interested in studying Vittoria as she drifts through the world, and in her largely happenstance way studies that world. No one explores and marvels over urban topography like Antonioni, and Vitti was his most captivating surrogate. In a film fraught with unease, Vittoria can frequently be found discovering peculiar sources of wonder: the staggered percussive musique concrete of flagpoles swaying in a wee-hour breeze or a day’s journey by small plane to Verona (the setting of the most famous story of star-crossed love in history). Vitti is angular and fascinatingly gorgeous, but more importantly she conveys a stubborn, almost naïve wakefulness in these films that are always in danger of feeling merely defeated. Her gaze is ever-curious, her slender hands always curling around things, if never quite grasping them firmly. Is Antonioni directing her or she him? The Antonioni-Vitti collaboration is among the most important in cinema history.

Criterion’s new DVD/BD release of L’eclisse comes out this week. The transfer looks immaculate and the best supplements include an audio commentary from film scholar Richard Peña, a video essay and interview with Italian film critic Adriano Aprà and Antonioni’s friend Carlo di Carlo, and a written essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

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