Bright Lights Film Journal

La Notte (1961) on Criterion Blu-ray (review), scattered like coffin lid coasters on a golf course coffee table


Maybe Fellini spoiled us with La Dolce Vita (1960). We were handed a carnival and told that inside was some artsy malaise, so you got clowns and overkill and when you found the ennui secret chamber you expected some candy prizes. Antonioni never gave candy, his carnival had no inside or clowns or overkill (and even Bergman had problems with clowns and overkill -as in Sawdust and Tinsel) and the only prize for getting the ‘art’ part was an all-consuming modernist shiver. There is never ‘too much’ in an Antonioni film, so if you feel special for ‘getting it’ it’s only with the realization that you were probably on Xanax, or in a weird mood, and might hate it the next time around.

In L’Aventura (1958), for example, beautiful Monica Vitti spends the movie searching for her missing friend, who may have run off with random boaters to escape the constant pawing of her sulky architect fiancee. Without the friend around, Vitti herself begins drawing a slowly building tidal wave of leering from all the men on the street, but she’s no attention whore, just a woman who becomes too happy to be sexy once she’s sexed.. She ends up in bed with said architect, to all our sorrow, including his, for he isn’t played by Marcello Mastroanni and so has to spread himself thin while he can, and abhors any woman who likes him too openly (he goes for the girls whose skin crawls from his pawing). That’s an Antonioni film in general, about a girl who’s not there, a sex symbol outline that tries to fit a real girl inside it, and almost works until her humanity shatters it. and it takes 10 hours to get there, it seems. It’s a film that’s ever in the process of vanishing and without the right calm meditative mindset it’s just wasted space.

In Fellini all that wasted space is used in opposite effect, crammed to overflowing. La Dolce turned up the volume, made it just as long but so crammed with business it seemed trying to overcompensate for the missing stuff in L’Aventura. Naturally Antonioni would want to shift the other way in response to it for his next film, as if Fellini was his little brother copying everything he did, so now Antonioni had to empty his film out even more, to pull far away from the party scenes for his follow-up, La Notte (1961).

The buzzkill, at least at first, here, is death. Famous author Giovanni (Marcello Mastroanni, thank god), and dour wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau – yeeech) visit a dying friend in the hospital, and the scene drags, but on the way out, a crazy nympho pulls Giovanni into her room and stars peeling her garments off and mounting his hand like an affection-starved kitten. A nurse or two rescue him in time, but there’s no doubt he would have gone all the way with this girl, just because he has no idea how not to. It would be, eh… como se dice? Impolite to refuse. When he comes out of the hospital in shame, Lidia is outside leaning against a stark shiny wall, a tear in her eye. When he understands she’s not crying over his latest transgression, isn’t even aware of it, he feels both relieved and double-ashamed. He needs to confess, but it’s not to clear his conscience, it’s almost to boast. He has to tell someone and she’s the only one who cares.

This could all be grand fun, but Lidia is a drag. She kills our sympathy for her all through this first half of the film. Instinctively butting in to swat whatever little buzzing moments of savage truth land within reaching distance, she wanders off from husband Giovanni’s book release party (rather than hang on his arm adoringly, as a wife should), allowing him to be overrun by middle-aged intellectuals and (gasp!) middle-aged female fans, with bad teeth. She makes a cab driver wait around on the edge of town by an empty field, for no reason. She breaks up a fight, for no reason, watches some men setting off bottle rockets, and then calls Giovanni and tell him oh they’re lighting off rockets, oh he must come and see it! They’re gone of course by the time he gets there. His own book party isn’t apparently as meaningful as her dumb ass rockets that were there once, now gone.

Life should be jet set perfect for Giovanni but here’s this dowdy overtanned weirdo of a wife, a far cry from Monica Vitti who would have found plenty to do in any situation where her husband was getting a share of attention without her. I was going to say maybe it’s being blonde, but Antonioni has beat that analysis to the punch: later in Notte, Vitti does show up, but as a cropped brunette.

Lidia may be a buzzkill but she does find time in her alienated wandering to pause and appreciate the beauty of rust peeling off an old wall and a busted clock lying on the ground, all of which was worthless to see on that old crappy non-anamorphic, subtitles-burnt in, fuzzy Koch Lorber disc. What was the point of even trying before now? The beauty of the imagery is everything in an Antonioni film, no? Before this new and sublime Criterion blu-ray, enduring La Notte even for a few minutes was like watching all of Tree of Life on a cracked cell phone. My copy had lain untouched for a decade in my collection while I made prayers to the virgin for Criterion to deliver what they have now delivered, praise Janus!

Now the rust is a poem; the busted clock, she drips with elaborate little shadowed lines; the vast stretches of party space and elaborate mirror reflections are so crisp you can smell the cigarette smoke, the golf course grass, the chlorine, the expensive perfumes, the alcohol coming from cologned male pores, all fusing into one empty gaze of a breeze. The high contrast black and white on the Criterion blu-ray now blisters with a blinding beauty; the buildings are used as vertical planes on which women lean as if holding up the world; their car is awash in cold black distorted reflections; trees loom like prison bars; the sky is like a painted ceiling; the outdoor open city is part of the inescapable maze of modernity as the ruins of war are built over by fabulous architects turning the city of Milan beautiful yes but also alien; the emotions of a woman forced to watch her man snap at any girl who breathes at him are trapped in an endless maze of sluices, but also why not let him if it makes him feel even temporarily alive? If the embrace of a strange woman in the hospital promises respite, however brief, from the existential ennui of a marriage grown so familiar as to become almost uncanny in its stifling boredom, let him try however vainly to breathe a non-despairing breath. But she can’t. Even wandering away she winds up cockblocking.

Even with her blessing and sans cockblock, poor Giovanni is an exile from his own masculine identity as the Marcello Mastroianni womanizer. Naturally! Women adore him! He is Marcello. We want to see him turning parties into blizzards of feathers or shambling down the beach and gazing blearily at a dead manta ray washing in the early AM surf. We don’t want to see him pretending to be a zombie so his zombie wife will shamble off n search of someone else’s brains, all just so he might reach out for a choice illusion of life, in this case, the Vitti, who is as painfully aware of the gravitic pull Giovanni has on her as she is of the damage their budding affair will do to his marriage, and her peace of mind.

Mastercard, I’m bored

In the film Antonioni made before and after La Notte, Vitti is a gorgeous, ephemeral creature that all of ancient and modern Italy feels it has to measure up to, has to deserve. Shrinking back from her wondrous laugh into its ancient gladiator past like the blob after a blast of nitrogen, its strawberry jam tentacles try to assume heroic configurations, snaking through the tiny ticker windows of the stock market and through the agape maw of an African death mask, vainly performing its burlesque of worldliness to win even a single involuntary exclamation of childish delight and surprise. But she reserves those only for some sudden movement of a child or a the release of a balloon, or here when she succeeds in shuffle boarding her make-up bag onto the proper square

And of course, Lidia is the opposite, her gorgon gaze freezes the blob solid, forcing her and Giovanni to become outsiders in the roundelay of spousal swapping, relegating them to post-apocalyptic ghosts of their own former grandeur, the way Milan’s space age architecture freezes and abstracts its pre-war resonance. She finds some laughs with an amorous stranger, but in the end makes him back off, realizing (perhaps from her husband’s sad example) that nothing ruins a flirt like a fling.

Sure it sounds like a drag but there are great little throwaway lines like, “he’s very rich, he must owe a billion.” And Lidia’s mood shifts when it starts to rain, and then the stranger grabs her and takes her into his car before she can dive into the pool – Antonioni brings us a beautiful shot of his car bathed in the nighttime rain, and we see her smiling, lighting up at his words inside the car but we can’t hear them, as if our hearing them would make them tired for her – privacy is the magic – all while Marcello searches for Monica and we want him to find her, his sexual attraction dragging our attention along with him like a sluggish anchor. Then the lights go out too creating the perfect mood to hide and have a tryst but she’s not there. A less attractive girl is all over him, stalling him out as he searches in the dark for the ethereal Monica… Monica, but it’s already too late. Even with the lights still out the magnet is no longer working. Soon the sun is up. “You two have exhausted me,” Monica says and sends the couple off into the misty dawn; the band is still playing way down by the 18th green and Lidia and Giovanni are revealed for what they are at last, vampires, pulling coffin lids over themselves like blankets, or, failing that, burying themselves in the very same warm but Catholic cross-adorned bosom heavy wedlock that was stifling them mere moments ago.