Friday, June 27, 2008

[Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective] La Notte (The Night) (1961)

Get A Room!

The second movie in the loose Alienation trilogy, Lorenzo Codelli shared that the trilogy also went by another label known as the Incommunicability - being the inability to communicate. While Michelangelo Antonioni's films in the 60s were about individuals, they also reflected the troublesome period in Italian society of the time. The important link in the films is Monica Vitti, whom we had seen in L'Avventura, and she has a minor role here, before taking back the mantle of the lead in L'Eclisse. I guess we'll get quite acquainted with her since she has 2 more other Antonioni movies outside the trilogy, being Il Mistero di Oberwald (The Mystery of Oberwald) and Il Deserto Rosso (The Red Desert). Cordelli mentioned that while she may not be the perfect actress, she was perfect for what Antonioni wanted her to do, and was perfect in the space of Antonioni's world. Unfortunately though, she's making no more public apperances given she's now late into life.

Initially, my thoughts were that La Notte should join the ranks of Zabriskie Point in being an Antonioni movie which I did not like. While the latter had an ending which would be a talking point, and one which I thought was too jarring a sequence from the movie, here the lead characters of popular writer Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) just droned on in dialogue, each lacking the courage to call it quits, while making every effort to try and rekindle a degenerating relationship, afraid of stepping out of their malaise of being in a comfort zone. Perhaps I'm an optimist by nature and too much negativity in a movie would automatically put me off somewhat. But there's a single shot in the movie that lingered onto my memory, and that was the scene where Monica Vitti's Valentina Gherardini was cloaked in darkness against a brightly lit balcony window, dissolving into a silhouette, which I felt was an extremely beautiful shot.

Technical brilliance aside, La Notte, as the title suggests, happened over the course of a single day, with more than half the movie taking place at a nighttime high society party with dancing, games, and plenty of other idle indulgence, such as frolicking in and around a pool despite heavy rain. We begin with the Pontano couple visiting an old mutual friend Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki), but right from the onset the body language of husband and wife weren't normal of a loving couple, and seemed rather strained. They hardly walk together, nor talk much to each other, and in the presence of their friend, seem to operate individually, and the icing on the cake being Lidia requesting to leave their presence first, and we next see her outside the premises, in one corner sobbing away. Tommaso, despite being ill, can sense this uneasiness, and I suppose his being bedridden and fighting for his life, cannot do anything more for his two good friends other than to remind them to oblige an open invitation to visit his home and his mom.

Surprisingly, I thought Giovanni was a relatively stronger character than other preceding male characters in works before La Notte. While we can sense the marital problems in the movie, he had enough resilience to be able to withstand and resist somewhat, the advances of a gorgeous (though probably crazy) patient in the ward next to Tommaso's, and had the courage to tell his wife about it, though you might look at it the other way as him being spiteful and reminding her that he's still an attractive man. He holds his own against caustic remarks his wife makes in front of strangers, and sometimes just plainly ignores her presence through indifference. But ultimately, it still boiled down to the question of not wanting to pull the plug, of keeping something that's emotionally dead, alive.

That doesn't mean that Lidia just rolls over and plays dead. She doesn't give a second thought of just getting out there wandering about the streets, and soaking in sights and sounds (the various helicopter, jets and home-made rocket scenes still baffles me), before getting into trouble through unwarranted attention from a street-fighter. Throughout the most parts, she's often alone both physically and emotionally, likely to utilize such time offs to ponder about the future of her marital status. Of all the lead female characters I've seen to date in an Antonioni movie, sad to say she's one of my least favourite.

The movie takes place in multiple settings, before converging into the night at the high society party. But there was a pit stop at a nightclub which I thought had a couple of poignant moments for the couple. I felt that they tried to connect with each other the most here, with their reminiscence at various points about their happier times, set against a backdrop of an acrobatic performance. Like in Antonioni's documentary Cina, this film preceded that, though it likely gave us a hint that the director might have found such performances fascinating enough to warrant an extended screen time, set against a fantastically hypnotic jazzy saxophone music piece. Essentially the performance was one of careful balance involving body parts and a glass of wine, perhaps suggesting that in this scene the couple was trying their earnest to tread delicately along their road paved with numerous thorns, that it would be best to just stay on an even keel, to keep to status quo.

Which leads us to the primary setting in La Notte where the status quo got challenged, and to the luminous Monica Vitti, whose hair has gone from blonde as seen in L'Avventura, to jet black here. A lot of things happened during the party, such as Giovanni being offered a job, but especially focused here is the dynamics between the couple and the inclusion of Vitti's Valentina, the bored daughter of the host. There's a continuous sense of probing between letting go, and being presented a chance to break free and engage in some emotional dalliance, including Lidia's short dalliance with a stranger, travelling in a car outside in the rain. Like Story of a Love Affair and L'Avventura, something's in the way in seeking to prolong a temporal happiness, and again, we do not exactly see how that got resolved in the end, as it still posed a series of questions, with no clear cut answers.

And I think I should learn to accept that there will be no clear answers in Antonioni's movies from this point on, and if I could frivolously put it, such is with life itself at times too. But again what continues to intrigue is how the characters in his stories get crafted with extreme care, sensibilities, never being one-dimensional, but fully fleshed out.

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