Sunday, November 20, 2011

Up All Night: La Notte

Antonioni's films form organic wholes rather arbitrarily. The three films that have been lumped together into a "trilogy" - L'Avventura, The Night (La Notte) and L'Eclisse - are formally similar but individually unique. My favorite Antonioni film is not his best, which is certainly L'Avventura, but the one he made after it, which he called, perhaps a little too apocalyptically, The Night. Some critics even remarked that, while agreeing that The Night was not as good as L'Avventura, it would've been called a masterpiece had anyone but Antonioni made it.

L'Avventura got off to a fast start with a wild goose chase - the search for a missing woman. The search itself is never resolved, but it invests the film with a kind of aimless impetus, since the lead characters know what they are looking for but haven't the slightest idea of where to start looking. By the end of the film they have found something else, which sort of explains why the woman went missing in the first place. (1)

When I watched the beautiful film Marcello Mastroinanni: I Remember, I was a little puzzled that Mastroianni made no mention of his working with Antonioni on the film The Night (1961). Having seen the film again, I can now understand why. Some critics blamed Jeanne Moreau for The Night's being something of a let-down after L'Avventura. But the real problem was Mastroianni. Antonioni's men are invariably uninteresting, two-dimensional, and weak. What they do is more important than who they are: Claudio in L'Avventura is an architect, Giovanni in The Night is an acclaimed novelist, Piero in Eclipse is a stock broker, Thomas in Blow-Up is a photographer. Antonioni was too absorbed with his women to spend enough time giving his male characters much depth.

When Antonioni got him to do The Night, Mastroianni was in the middle of an unbelievable streak of great roles in some of the greatest Italian films of the era: Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960), Bolognini's Bell'Antonio (1960), Germi's Divorce, Italian Style (1961), and Zurlini's Family Diary (1962). Antonioni was not what is known as an "actor's director". I think it was because of the way he wanted to make films, by eliminating plot from his stories. Causality wasn't one of his considerations. Since actors need motivation - some explanation for their actions - and because Antonioni had none to give them, they found his direction aloof and unhelpful. Mastroianni's character was diffident, proud of his accomplishments but incapable of accepting praise.

The Night goes much further toward total plotlessness, except that virtually everyone is dissatisfied with life, despite their being extravagantly wealthy. The women in particular have nothing to do, apparently, but wander through the ugly fringes of modern (i.e., 1961) Milan, always with a car and driver waiting somewhere, use beautiful parqueted floors to play hockey with their compacts or otherwise adorn the more directed and purposeful lives of their men. Valentina, an affected, dilettantish young woman, says "My hobbies are golf, tennis, cars and parties." Giovanni tells her, "I know what to write, but not how to write it. It's called a crisis; very common among writers today. But in my case it's affecting my whole life."

Giovanni is indifferent to money and his would-be patrons are contemptuous of him. When he and Lidia arrive at the sumptuous house of Gherardini, he finds a book someone had left near a side door. "Who here would read The Sleepwalkers?" he asks Lidia. (2) They join a party already in full swing that goes on all night. I suppose there is always a party just like the one in The Night going on all the time somewhere. The rich are always with us. They say fantastic things like "I'm going to Sweden - on my boat, of course." Gherardini offers Giovanni a job writing a history of the firm. He tells him, drawing a line of zeros on a page, that he will make enough money to become "independent". Independent of writing, of course. Another rich man uses Hemingway as an example of a "real artist". Except that Hemingway hadn't written a worthy novel since 1945.

How refreshing to watch a film in which every single shot is carefully planned, set up, and flawlessly executed. Antonioni wanted us to look at the world, not just at actors passing in front of an arbitrary backdrop. His images are powerful because they are composed. When Lidia takes off in the rain with Roberto, there is a wonderful moment when he slows his sports car down and we see them talking and smiling inside but hear nothing but the sound of the rain and the windshield wipers.

The party over, Giovanni and Lidia walk out of the palatial house, past a jazz band still playing in them dawn light. "Do they think the music will improve the day?" Lidia asks. They walk onto a golf course and sit at the edge of a sand-trap. Lidia takes a typewritten letter from her purse and reads it to Giovanni, a long and emotional love letter. When she's done, Giovanni asks her who wrote it. "You did," she tells him. One critic complained that a real writer wouldn't not recognize his own writing. I disagree. Estranged from his feelings for her, Giovanni no longer knows what to say. Guilt-stricken, he kisses her hand and then passionately embraces her, pushing her down into the sand. "No. I don't love you any more. You don't love me, either."

"It's not true."
"Say it!"
"No, I won't say it."

The camera tracks away from them, lying in the sand-trap among some trees. Antonioni had a knack for beautifying everything merely by looking at it.

(1) John Simon correctly pointed out that the wrong woman disappeared in L'Avventura. Lea Massari is a much better actress than Monica Vitti.
(2) 1931 novel by Hermann Broch.

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