La Notte (The Night), the 1961 film by Michelangelo Antonioni, and the second of his Alienation Trilogy, after L’Avventura and before L’Eclisse, is a huge artistic leap up from its predecessor film. It’s not so much that L’Avventura was such a bad film- it’s not. It has its moments, and a good premise that swiftly decays into anomie and melodrama, whereas La Notte, even at an hour and fifty-five minutes in length, is a highly focused, layered, and concentrated, adult drama about the ennui that occurs in a marriage of dilettantes where all of one’s life has been plotted out beforehand, yet happiness still eludes its participants. Yet, La Notte is not Italian neorealism, in the vein of what dominated that country’s cinema in the prior decade, and this is clear from this film’s opening shots, of slowly scaling down the side of a skyscraper to the strains of an otherworldly jazz-like score. The straight lines of the building and the reflected isolation of the city of Milan, dead in its modernity, evoke the suffocating sterility of the Precisionist painters, and a barred prison-like feel that permeates the film from start to finish. The film was shot in a gauzey black and white, that smears beautifully both polar colors into a stark and desistant gray. There is probably no bleaker landscape in film that than which may be called Antonionian. The sight of decaying urban areas, along with the odd film score, and the moments of lunacy and borderline surrealism, lends the whole film a hermetic quality. It is as if the film is its own world and apart from that which the viewer experiences every day. It could be set almost at any time in the last century, and in almost any major urban area. Not even Ingmar Bergman captures emotional desolation so well, for that director’s obsessional penchant for close-ups of the human face are too irresistibly inviting to imbue emotion into, whereas Antonioni spurns close-ups for immuring and trammeling his characters in complex visual compositions.
The plot, however, of La Notte is very simple, yet the simpleminded are those most wont to dismiss the whole film as being ‘simple’, even though it is one of the most complex and realistic films ever to depict a marriage. It follows one day, from early morning to the next early morning, in the life of a couple. Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni- just off his superstar-making turn in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita) is a famed and highly lauded novelist, who also makes a living writing magazine articles. He has enough money to live comfortably in a chic Milanese high rise apartment tower, replete with a domestic, and all the modern amenities of that era’s present. His wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), whom he’s been married to for almost a decade, cannot stand him any longer, and comes from a wealthy family. Her love has turned to a muted form of hate, although she still cares for him. He is a terminal letch who is bored with his spoiled wife. The couple opens the film by visiting a dying friend, named Tommaso Garani (Bernhard Wicki- a German film director), in a hospital. Lidia is discomfited as she moves about the room in silence, and stares out an open hospital window, as the sound of a passing helicopter whooshes by. She is alienated from the world even in the same room as her husband and dying friend. She finally can take no more, and excuses herself to wait outside, much to Tommaso’s disappointment. He is also a writer, but not as good nor famed as Giovanni, but he has read fifty pages of Giovani’s latest book, hoping to finish it before he dies, claiming it is Giovanni’s best yet. There is a palpable sense that Giovanni is visiting Tommaso, and cares more about what his friend feels of his work than what will become of his friend, and this is the first clue we have of the selfishness of the male lead in the film.
As he is leaving his friend’s room, a delusional but beautiful nymphomaniac (Maria Pia Luzi) tries to seduce Giovanni by stripping naked and luring him to her hospital bed, until nurses come and drug her. When Giovanni meets his wife outside of the hospital, they drive away and he confesses to her about the nympho. The history of the couple is thus limned with a few key words and glances, as Lidia feigns disinterest, and Giovanni seems flummoxed that he has not made her jealous. They then head to Giovanni’s new book’s premiere party. Lidia takes off, and wanders the city alone, coming across a crying tot and a broken clock in a pile of trash. She heads back to the old neighborhood, really a ghetto, she and Giovanni once lived in, when they were poorer, in love, and happy. There, she watches young men shoot off rockets, whose sounds remind the viewer of the helicopter she was drawn to in the hospital room. Clearly, she seeks escape. Yet, she tries to foolishly intervene in a fistfight between lower class youths, then barely escapes the interest of the victorious fighter. She calls her husband and Giovanni picks her up in their car and, at home, amidst their usual apathy, boredom, and wealth, they decide to go to an all night party thrown by a wealthy industrialist, Gherardini (Vittorio Bertolini).
Before arriving, they head to a nightclub where a sexy Josephine Baker-like dancer cavorts erotically to jazz strains, and does acrobatics with wine in a glass, as Giovanni lustily looks on, and Lidia notices his apathy toward her. They then go to the party, where Giovanni is adored by the crowd, and Lidia goes off by herself. The industrialist’s gorgeous daughter, Valentina (Monica Vitti), a classic airhead-cum-arts babe, who dabbles in literature and reads banally improvised proems onto a tape recorder, flirts with Giovanni, but, ever the cocktease, rebuffs him again and again. In this sense, she mirrors Lidia’s external anomy with her own interior ramblings. The industrialist then offers Giovanni a job writing about the history of his company, after some key dialogue on the nature of art and life. He claims that, for a writer, it’s the words that count, not the author’s intentions, and one senses that, despite his profession, he is far more attuned to the real things of value in life than Giovanni, the writer, or his spoiled little wife. In fact, he suggests that he approaches capitalism not as a moneymaking venture, but as a new art he does for the sheer joy of creating something new, but which will endure into a future many see as bleak.
Lidia also flirts with a male guest, after a downpour makes the guests go nuts with giddy excitement. She learns that Tommaso has died in the hospital, but does not tell Giovanni until the morning, when she also claims to not love Giovanni any longer, as they walk away from the manse and across a golf course. We now learn that Tommaso was a denied suitor for Lidia, and that she wanted to use him to make Giovanni jealous, but couldn’t use a man who truly cared for her. She states that she chose Giovanni over Tommaso because Giovanni was more arrogant and selfish. Lidia, who loathes herself, chose her joy from being married to a man who was creative, and selfish, rather than one who really loved her, and would have put her on a pedestal. But, now she has lost admiration for her husband, and a chance with the man who loved her. Only those who are in a position to rebuff true love ever suffer for that choice, and it only points to the lack of good values that Lidia was raised with. Still, she reads her husband an old love letter he wrote to her, but he does not recognize his own words. The film ends with Giovanni wanly professing his love for Lidia, and the camera marginalizes them to the left side of the screen as they embrace and kiss, with Giovanni taking the lead. That this all comes during the one honest and genuine scene between the couple is very symbolic, and moving. What will become of the couple is wholly beside the point of the film. It is how they got to that point that is its real concern.
This film so well captures the realities of why and how so many marriages fail- not for infidelities, but for no real connection to begin with. Despite the impassioned love letter from Giovanni, as a youth, it is clear that Lidia never cared of art, nor deeper things, and really is jealous of her husband’s talent. Too many critics have let her off the hook, and put the failure of her marriage squarely on her husband’s shoulders, but she is clearly just as much to blame, for she is a spoiled little rich girl who has little appreciation for how good her life really is, even as she nostalgizes her past. She wanders so aimlessly through much of the film that she sometimes seems like she might drift entirely out of the film, like her doppelganger predecessor, Anna, played by Lea Massari, did in L’Avventura. That said, it’s also manifest that Giovanni never really cared deeply for Lidia. She was just an heiress he could seduce with his talent and fame, as he is trying to do with Valentina at this time in his life. They have nothing in common but their memories, or, as Giovanni tells his wife in the strip club, ‘I no longer have inspirations, only recollections.’
That so few American directors have ever even attempted to seriously portray adult drama as this on film says far too much about the shallow values that Americans possess. John Cassavetes, of course, comes to mind, but his characters are not as effete and dilettantish as these, and their concerns are far more material, in all the senses of that word. Woody Allen’s WASPy Manhattanites are a closer match, but they are not as affected by their environs as these more earthy characters are. They are often even more clueless as to their rote nature than these characters seem to be. Perhaps the closest American film, in style and substance, to this film, is Stanley Kubrick’s maligned final masterpiece, Eyes Wide Shut, although this film plays like a less weird and less Expressionistic version of that film. Kubrick’s film was more concerned with the wholly internal architecture of a single sterile mind (Tom Cruise’s character- wink, nod) than how a bevy of barrenness is aptly reflected in the film’s framing. Antonioni often frames the shots of his two leads so that they are rarely seen in anything remotely resembling a close moment. They gravitate toward the ends of the screen, as if repelled like the opposite ends of magnets. The best illustration of this sort of framing comes in a scene where Lidia sees Giovanni kiss Valentina from a shot seen overhead. She sees all that he does, and even encourages it, for by film’s end she reveals her essential cowardice in not leaving him, despite her claims of a dead love. She feels she is superior to him, morally, even as he feels the same towards her, albeit intellectually. Yet, he is rebuffed by Valentina, which mirrors her own rebuffing of her sexual pursuer, Roberto (Giorgio Negro), at the party. It is significant that the only scene in the whole film where Lidia radiates a smile is when Lidia and Roberto are alone in a car as rain falls. Yet, the camera remains at a distance, and we hear nothing, so can only imagine their connecting. Yet, even with this newer version of Tommaso, she cannot get over her self-hatred, even as she rebuffs Roberto out of seeming fidelity.
Yet, the film’s real strength is that its end is not resolved. It is easy to believe that the couple split up after the last frame, or even that they reconciled. But, as I say, that is not the real point. There are manifestly far worse marriages. Neither party is physically abusive nor demeaning to the other, and they both still care for each other, even if the passion has subsided. And, they do communicate honestly. There is no lying, only forced isolations, which the film hints may be superable.
The writing, by Antonioni, Ennio Flaiano, and Tonino Guerra, is masterful, and whereas the screenplay in L’Avventura sometimes felt as if it was a bad soap opera, especially in the second half, this film crackles with depth, realism, and dialogue that is first rate. Antonioni never forcefeeds his viewer what he wants them to think, and lets things remain open for personal imbuement. The cinematography Gianni Di Venanzo is not as spectacular as the island scenery that dominates L’Avventura, but it is far more intense and deliberate. The acting by Marcello Mastroianni, as Giovanni, is outstanding, and far richer and deeper than his more lauded performance in Fellini’s 8½, a few years later. Jeanne Moreau is not an emotional zombie, for we see, in her reactions to the streetfight and Roberto, that, despite being a spoiled brat, she does have some depth. And, we see the same thing in Monica Vitti’s character, Valentina, for she is merely a younger version of Lidia. Were Giovanni to choose her over his wife, doubtless, in a decade, this film would play itself out again, with Vitti as the new Lidia, and a younger sexier stand-in as the new Valentina. The acting in this film is so much ‘realer’ than the fluff Hollywood puts out, even back then, because the actors are not projecting themselves into roles, but letting the roles take them over. Whereas a Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts is always that persona in a slightly different role, Marcello Mastroianni and Monica Vitti, equally huge international stars in their day, are always actors first, and stars second.
As for the DVD from Fox Lorber? It is rather bare bones, and many viewers online complain of this vis-à-vis The Criterion Collection editions of the two other films in the trilogy, but the transfer, in 1.66:1 ratio, is not nearly as bad as some claim. There is a slight problem with the far left and right sides of the screen being cropped, but this video succeeds in having a far better and more readable font that the pallid white subtitles that all the Criterion DVDs have. Even though white, the font is crisper and far more readable than any Criterion subtitles. Again, though, my lonely lament about the lack of foreign DVDs including English dubbed language tracks remains, for a visual medium to be so reliant on the human eye’s focus being away from the image is absolutely senseless. There is no trailer, nor making of featurette, and only some filmographies of the principals involved in the film.
Yet, the most frustrating thing about this film is how few critics, famed and online anonymities, appreciate just how drastically better this great film is over its predecessor, in all ways. Yes, L’Avventura may have made Antonioni a ‘name’, but La Notte made him a great filmmaker. Those that find this film too slow, or claim it has no ‘action’, simply will never get what real art is about. They live in a stupor devoid of the pinpricks that a work of art like this can give. Fortunately, the characters within the frame are not so hopeless, and in the scars that their pricks bear to the viewer, the engaged and intelligent viewer, in turn, will know not only what to salve, but where.
Although he divided audiences into those who found his mysterious works pretentious or fascinatingly enigmatic, this celebrated Italian writer and director was always interesting and stylish. L'Avventura in 1960 was his international breakthrough although he'd been directing since the forties, and he followed it with La Notte, L'Eclisse, The Red Desert, Blowup (perhaps his most famous film), Zabriskie Point (with its explosive climax), The Passenger and Identification of a Woman among others. He even continued working after serious stroke, Beyond the Clouds being his best known film from his later period.