Screening Log #43: La Notte (1961)

Written by Michelangelo Antonioni, Ennio Flaiano, and Tonino Guerra
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, and Monica Vitti

 

 

 

I’m a big proponent of the idea that what we create – and, perhaps more appropriately for the digital age, curate – reflects something essential about our persons. When I first enter someone’s space, an apartment or bedroom, I skim their shelves quickly, looking at books, CDs, DVDs, certain that those things will inform my opinion of a person perhaps, in some cases, more accurately than any conversation could. If one were to read this blog consistently, for instance, observing what films I watch and how I watch or read them, one could infer aspects of my personality without having met me. This belief logically extends beyond these smaller cultural accoutrements and into collective spaces, into architecture and city design; the manner in which a place is collectively transformed by a single or group of individuals necessarily reflects some identifying element of those involved. As such, the structures with which we surround ourselves are given an uncanny ability to access a very personal and internal emotional reality.

Perhaps the element of Michelangelo Antonioni’s early 60s work – also L’Avventura and L’Eclisse – that strikes me most is the elegant manner that his films depict this relationship between internal and external spaces. La Notte, as with those previously mentioned films, employs architecture as both an object for characters to interact with, as well as an element against which his compositions may be framed to heighten the viewer’s perception of their internal states. This strategy is employed pervasively throughout La Notte as the film follows one day and evening in the life of the Pontanos, Giovanni, Marcello Mastroianni, and Lidia, Jeanne Moreau. The film begins as the couple visit a terminally ill friend in the hospital, and follows them as they attend the launch of Giovanni’s newest book, through an afternoon apart and on to an all-night party at a rich acquaintance’s. At the party, each is tempted to leave the other for another partner, Giovanni flirting with the host’s daughter Valentina, Monica Vitti, and Lidia with a businessman who seems possessed of a sense of isolation sympathetic to her own.

While at Giovanni’s book launch, Lidia leaves to wander through the city on her own. It is during this sequence that Antonioni most clearly utilizes the architecture of Milan to emphasize the feeling of isolation experienced by Lidia: he often marginalizes her against towering cement structures, her image is reflected and refracted in the glass windows, at one point Lidia even rests her head against a light pole branded with the number 1, clearly articulating her feeling of separation and solitude. Later, at the party, Antonioni uses the architecture of the large building, its patios and pool, its large windows and shadows, to further manifest the areas of disconnect between Giovanni and Lidia. As with his other films, Antonioni often purposes the architecture of physiology in a similar way, angling bodies in opposing postures, directing lines of sight such that gazes don’t meet; the emotional disconnect between the couple manifests in their relation to one another in space, how they move in the world, externalizing what is mental.

Tellingly, when the night is over and the pair leave the party together, it is only when they are surrounded by nature, on a golf course, that the pair can communicate openly with one another. Divested of the architecture of extension, of concrete constructions that express and extend the interpersonal divisions of the modern world, Lidia tells Giovanni of her true feelings, reading aloud a letter he had once written for her that he now forgets ever having written. Even in this natural, open, setting the characters rarely look at each other, rather staring off into the distant horizons within themselves. Giovanni’s love has been so abstracted by time and habit that he insists it remains; Lidia proclaims that she no longer loves Giovanni and closes herself from his conciliatory gestures. Both characters have compartmentalized their relationship, moved it from a shared external space to somewhere within themselves, unavailable.

There is an empty gesture of connection that closes La Notte, sounding hollow and desperate, signifying that the couple will succumb to time and habit in perpetuity, that is deeply sad. Antonioni pans his camera away in a gesture that can be read as an averting of the eyes of the film. There remains, in the growing light of day, little hope that connection, whatever the scope, results in anything more than a hazard to happiness.

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