Movie Movie Blog Blog hosts a blogathon that celebrates movies originating in 1961, and Michelangelo Antonioni’s “La Notte” is one of those movies I decided to write about. Like Antonioni “L’Eclisse“, which followed a year after, “La Notte” concerns itself with the existential theme of personal alienation in the world which becomes busier and more progressing. In such a place, finding right answers to contradictory feelings are often hard, and the apparent artificiality of modern living and its construction is even more obvious as one experiences too human feelings of futility and claustrophobia. “La Notte” may not be the most packed-with-action or fast-paced film there is, but it still represents a one of a kind achievement by its director to lay out some very complex philosophical ideas so clearly on screen.
La Notte (1961)
In this black and white, Italian-language film, Antonioni deals with a number of existentialist themes. Loneliness in a busy city, hopelessness and futility of existence; and inherent irrationality of every action. The setting is Milan, and our focus is a middle-class married couple Giovanni and Lydia Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau), who have just visited a terminally-ill friend in a hospital. Their hospital visit was probably the catalysis that makes the couple confront their own distinct personalities and desires, and their relationship overall. The couple attempts to deal with and confront their own and each other’s existence, with some mixed results.
Giovanni, as any writer, is still filled with artistic/sentimental notions, but he also expresses disillusionment with his environment and professional progress. Even though still curious in female sexuality and what it can provide, he finds himself professionally and personally “exhausted”. Lydia, Giovanni’s almost estranged in spirit wife, also demonstrates tiredness regarding Giovanni and his work. Antonioni represents this “exhaustion” by, for example, showing a very busy street in Milan with a hectic traffic line, and contrasting this with the calm demeanor of our couple, with their tired expressions and indifference. Giovanni and Lydia hardly seem to live in a present moment, being more preoccupied with their internal struggles. The same metaphor is employed when the film shows very noisy parties and our “distant” characters, be it Giovanni’s book launch party or a party taking place in the second part of the film. During these parties, Giovanni and Lydia try to find the answers to the existentialist questions separately, be it by engaging intimately with some beautiful representatives of the opposite sex (Giovanni’s evidently erotic connection to Valentina Gherardini (Vitti)) or, by symbolically escaping from the problems (Lydia’s flee and refuge in a more dangerous part of the city).
Even Giovanni’s recordings of some English lessons in his home can be interpreted as a metaphor for inherent misunderstanding. The key here is to understand the meaning of some English words, and the audience hears the translation of certain English words into Italian. But, the true misunderstanding is to be found in Giovanni and Lydia’s marriage; the thing that needs to be clearly translated and understood is the point of their marriage or their social pursuits. The film itself can be easily misunderstood because its aims/intentions appear uncertain. Its heroes may appear mundane, but this is because they try to be as relatable as possible. The use of jazz in the film, as well as the quotes like “love is a lot like a mistake that creates a vacuum all around a person – but not inside him”, just point how both different and appealing this film strives to be.
Giovanni and Lydia may not be the last couple on Earth to express their tortuous melancholy through a number of overt flirtations and enigmatic actions, but they may also be different from others in a way they still harbor some hope to find solutions to their states, as they go through their life motions. At one point, the couple is pictured in a car, signalling that there are maybe still on the journey of discovery (symbolically), and a featured hospital in the film may also signal that there is something inherently wrong within them or their conceptions of reality/life. The boredom of Milanese bourgeois life is also on display so potently here because Giovanni and Lydia so overtly seek refuge in their flirtations with other peoples. It is still at the hospital that Giovanni handles in his arm another younger woman, a patient (a circumstance to which Lydia reacts with cold indifference), and Lydia also escapes one party to wonder alone, unaccompanied, the streets of Milan (an almost taboo), glancing at passing men (an obvious erotic connection) as she glides past near-collapse buildings.
Probably no other scene can display the loneliness of a character better than a noisy gathering (happy atmosphere) of many people or a party where that character feels isolated. For example, in”Melancholia” (2011), Lars Von Trier employs just this environment to emphasize melancholy, but also Justine’s difference and isolation from other people. In such films as “The Virgin Suicides” (1999) and “Shame” (2011), party contexts are also filled with the underlying emotion of solitude, seclusion and depression. Thus, in “La Notte” much of the “action” takes place during one party gathering where many people interact, and Lydia, especially, finds hard to feel comfortable or happy in this situation (though she does make a connection with another man), while two other people, Giovanni and Valentina, find some comfort in each other’s almost illicit company.
Jeanne Moreau is very convincing as a dignified, but no longer caring wife of the writer (he last year’s sad passing is yet another reason to watch or re-watch this movie), while Marcello Mastroianni, as Giovanni, is impressive in a way he manages to communicate a lot just with his eyes, and, thus, gives the performance which can be read in more than one way. The film is too long to make its point, but the last scene is probably the most talked about in the movie for a good reason. Here, Giovanni and Lydia reunite and finally appear for the first time in the whole movie – truly together (as exemplified by a large field with no no other soul in sight). It is here that the couple truly make to each other known the bigger questions and circumstances of life that torment them, emphasizing how treacherous time really is. Perhaps the point is that life goes on, no matter what one may or may not feel inside, but without making peace with the past, it may not be possible to even look at the future.
“La Notte” is not one’s typical drama picture, which follows some straightforward drama-fueled timeline, but should rather be seen as a more reflective piece, which may prove to be psychologically and philosophically satisfying for those wanting or patient enough to disentangle its thought-provoking messages. “La Notte” may not be even in quality and may sometimes appear indulgent in its inexplicability, but it is also done in the director’s own visual and conceptual style, which remains as potent now as it was in the 1960s. 8/10