Saturday, 27 March 2010

La Notte (1961)

Synopsis: Michaelangelo Antonioni's portrait of an bourgeois Milanese couple and their marriage in crisis, very different from Rossellini's Journey to Italy but with some parallels. Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau play the couple throughout a day and a night (hence the title), reflecting on their relationship and what they really mean to each other.

A work of absolute, blinding, bloody genius. I could just leave it at that, but you wouldn't really understand why, would you?

La Notte is the second in Antonioni's trilogy about middle class malaise, which also includes L'avventura and L'eclisse. There were bits of the film (at the Gherardini party) that also reminded me (a little) of La Dolce Vita. Not just because of the laid back presence of the suave Mastroianni but the decadence and indulgence (both material and otherwise) of the characters. These people have no complaints, nothing to feel aggrieved about but with Monica Vitti's character, Valentina, especially we see a boredom with life itself. At one point she erases a piece of prose she has recorded, showing just how bored and despondent she feels.

This is a film about a marriage and the complacency of the couple in that marriage, how they take each other for granted or how their love has gone awry. The film opens with the couple visiting a dying friend, Tomasso, in hospital. We see Jeanne reacting particularly coldly/strangely. This is setting us up for one of the underplayed climaxes of the film. Whilst at the party, Jeanne phones the hospital to check on Tomasso's condition. She finds out he has died and her reaction tells us everything. Her face is that of someone who has just lost a great love and her earlier coldness suddenly becomes understandable. So, in the midst of cynical, almost wife swapping, middle class Italian Abigail's Party we get a moment of really delicate sadness.

As for Mastroianni, we see his attempt at philandering flounder (!) as Monica Vitti finds out he is married and rejects him. Valentina holds up a mirror to the couple, reflecting back the truth of their relationship. At the end of the film we see the couple leaving the party the following morning (see picture above). As they sit in a park at dawn, Jeanne admits her love for Tomasso and they both arrive at a pivotal moment. Jeanne pulls a letter from her bag and reads it aloud. The letter describes a man's love for a woman early on in a relationship. At the end, Mastroianni asks who wrote the letter and Jeanne reminds him that he had written it about, and to, her. This is a moment of desperate realisation, both are confronted by being found out as no longer committed to each other but not knowing what to do about it. They embrace and Mastroianni attempts to seduce his wife in what we gradually realise is a golf course sand trap. How apt.

The acting from all, but especially the women, is first rate. Monica Vitti and Jeanne Moreau were two female acting powerhouses of post war European cinema, playing real, complex women. Along with Vitti's other characters in Antonioni's films (she stars in both L'avventura and L'eclisse) and Moreau's Catherine in Truffaut's Jules et Jim, we are treated to really classy portrayals of women in love and in crises. You just don't get them like this anymore.

As for the way the film looks, there are not enough superlatives for Gianni Di Venanzo's exceptional cinematography (he was also responsible for the photography in Fellini's 8 and a 1/2). It's innovative, edgy, daring and original. The scenes shot in the city are full of ace tight shots but with mid/deep focus, giving a feel of stretching, distended space and perspective. Every frame is a gorgeous, modernist work of art. There is superb composition in almost every scene, and his use of light and reflection is just bloody lush (he manages to signal so much in the scene in which Monica Vitti switches the light off at dawn and the scenes with the reflection of Mastroianni and Vitti in the glass doors seem to crackle with energy). Watching this film a massive, massive visual treat.

See also: La Dolce Vita, Story of a Love Affair

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