Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Among cinephile, Michelangelo Antonioni will always be revered for producing L’Avventura (1960), a film of mysterious disappearance, betrayal mixed with grief and comforting—though temporary—closeness, and a modern ennui that pervaded much of world cinema at the time mixed with richly empty spaces. La Notte, Antonioni’s very close follow-up to L’Avventura covers similar territory, though its focus is much more internal—dealing with the disappearance of feeling rather than the physical disappearance of a beloved person. Such a premise is risky, particularly with a filmmaker like Antonioni who relies heavily on visual styling to convey feeling. In this case, he doesn’t quite pull it off.
Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) and Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni) are an established married couple who live quite comfortably in Milan on Giovanni’s earnings as a writer. When we first meet them, they are emerging from a car and entering a hospital to visit their dying friend Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki), Giovanni’s publisher. In the hallway, the pair is accosted by a patient (Maria Pia Luzi), who sidles up to Giovanni seductively. On spying a nurse down the hall, she quickly retreats to her room. Tommaso greets the pair as his only real friends, compliments Lidia’s appearance, and praises Giovanni’s new book as a real masterpiece. Soon the effects of the morphine we saw Tommaso receive in the opening sequence start to fade. Lidia excuses herself and goes outside so that Tommaso won’t see her crying. When Giovanni makes his exit, the seductive patient meets him again in the hallway and coaxes him into her room, where he embraces and kisses her. Only an intervention by two nurses prevents him from consummating their lust.
As Lidia and Giovanni inch their way through a traffic jam toward a book signing, Giovanni tells Lidia—against her wishes—of the seduction, which he considers very disagreeable. Lidia, smirking, wonders why he thought so; it can be the basis for another story. The impression she gives is that everything in Giovanni’s life is fodder for his fiction, especially their relationship.
After Giovanni is safely ensconced at the book signing, Lidia slips out and takes a cab to a working-class town near Milan where the couple lived when they were first married. She asks the cabbie to wait as she wanders through the town, pulling peeled paint off a wall, watching friends walk down the street in happy conversation, and finally seeing some teenaged boys brawling. She runs over and screams at them to stop. They slowly break up the fight, and one boy, stained with blood, sweat, and dirt, puts his shirt back on and moves toward her like a predator. She runs, phones for Giovanni to pick her up, and dismisses the cabbie. Giovanni, who has been worried about her all night, drives hurriedly to her side.
That evening, the Pontanos have a dinner party at the villa of the wealthy businessman Gherardini (Vincenzo Corbello). Lidia dresses for the party and spins into their living room in a smashing new cocktail dress. She has a bright, coquettish smile on her face—a façade—that instantly vanishes once Giovanni can no longer see her face. She asks that they beg off the party and go out together alone somewhere. We next see them at a nighclub where a black man in a loin cloth aids a black woman perform an acrobatic striptease while balancing a cocktail on her head. Giovanni thinks she’s quite good, but Lidia is bored and says she wants to go to the party after all.
Hundreds of people are gathered on the lawn, drinking, listening to jazz, and eating off an enormous banquet table. Lidia retreats into the shadows as Gherardini shows off his newly collected novelist to his guests. She finds a woman reading a book called The Sleepwalkers alone in a stairwell. Eventually, she steers Giovanni toward the woman, who is now playing a type of shuffleboard with her make-up compact on a checkered floor. The woman is Valentina (Monica Vitti), Gherardini’s daughter, and Giovanni becomes infatuated with her. As Giovanni pursues Valentina, Lidia quietly flirts with a man, coaxing him with her eyes while remaining elusive. She ends up leaving the party with him, but stops short of more. They return to the party, and Valentina learns that she is Mrs. Pontano.
The two women meet, and Lidia asks Valentina what her intentions are toward Giovanni. Valentina says she has no intentions at all, that, in fact, she can’t feel for anyone. Lidia says she’s really not jealous, that it doesn’t matter. It sounds as though she was jealous but gave up the last bit of caring she had on the spot. When Valentina sends Giovanni and Lidia away, the pair walks into the woods on the estate. Lidia reads a beautiful passage about eternal love, naming Lidia as the object of that love, she has folded in her handbag. Giovanni asks who wrote it. She says that he did and then says she no longer loves him. The film ends with Giovanni wrestling with Lidia on the ground, trying to kiss her and swearing that he still loves her.
Antonioni demonstrates the estrangement of the Pontanos as a microcosm of human estrangement from the environment with vibrant camera shots that have come to define ennui in films. Medium and long shots that put the pair far in the background emphasize the remoteness of human emotions in a mechanistic foreground of modern steel buildings and automobiles. The individual shots of estrangement of the couple box them off from each other. In Tommaso’s hospital room, Lidia moves to the head of the bed, off to the side and behind Tommaso. The camera moves to follow her and completely cuts Giovanni out of the frame. Tommaso, we later learned, always believed in Lidia’s potential and encouraged her, both enraging her and endearing himself to her. In framing the two this way, we see an opposition between a connected relationship and the disconnect between Lidia and Giovanni.
Lidia’s sojourn to her old neighborhood reflects the decay of the old ways, both of her marriage and of Italian society, which has rejected its grounding for the glamour of money. When Lidia stumbles upon the fistfight, however, the reasons for this rejection come more clearly into focus. Her rejection of a liaison with the handsome stranger from the party similarly suggests that she herself finds human intercourse and emotion a frightening prospect. She claims to have loved Giovanni once, and I tend to believe her; perhaps years of being under his writerly microscope, of being the appendage of a famous writer in whom few people take any real interest for herself, have burned the love and life out of her. Moreau communicates both the beauty and ugliness of Lidia; her sadness and cold heart toward her once beloved husband are heartbreaking and unbearable to watch.
Giovanni and Valentina are much more problematic characters. They are such stereotypes of the warmly detached writer and spoiled, directionless rich kid that I really felt nothing for either of them. Tommaso is an blueprint deathbed philosopher, lamenting all the time he spent doing things that didn’t matter.
La Notte also suffers from the obvious comparisons that can be made of it with Fellini’s masterpiece La Dolce Vita. In the very first scene, Moreau calls Giovanni “Marcello,” an error (perhaps) that reminds the viewer instantly of Mastroianni’s character in the Fellini film and extends the comparison to Tommaso as a knock-off of the Steiner character. I love Monica Vitti, but in this film, she’s fairly interchangeable with the Anouk Aimée character in La Dolce Vita and not nearly as interesting.
What keeps this film from resonating more deeply, however, is a lack of characterization. Moody camera angles, industrial sterility, and blank performances don’t work well in creating a strong understanding of what modern society has lost of its humanity. At a distance of 40 years, the film looks like an arthouse cliché, certainly not something we can fault it for during the time of its release, but something that dates the film in a way La Dolce Vita has not. European ennui, with its exotic air of sophistication, is just dressed-up depression. It can spin out in all its finery, but the glitter, like the smile on Jeanne Moreau’s lovely face, is all façade.