By William Repass.
“Whenever I try to communicate, love disappears.”
When finally—after what seems like an ice age of anticipation—you receive your package in the mail, strip away the bubble-wrap with trembling fingers to reveal Criterion’s sleek new La Notte box-set (complete with blu-ray digital restoration, bonus interviews, and a booklet containing an article by Antonioni himself), and straight away telephone your friends to schedule a screening, you will then uncover the following truth. Almost without exception, people react to Antonioni’s films in one of three ways: unabashed boredom, guilty boredom, or a sort of anti-boredom. And when you invariably screen the film by yourself because your friends “just don’t feel like it,” you may also realize, despite all that anticipation, even you are fated to endure some variation on the theme of boredom. But don’t worry, it’s become quite fashionable these days to get bored watching Antonioni. And either you’re so bored you can revel in the boredom, telling anyone who will listen just how bored you are and why (unabashed boredom), or you’re bored to death with the sheer effort of finding something in the film to keep you entertained, but unwilling to admit it for fear of sounding “unrefined” (guilty boredom). At best, you’re bored in such a way that you find your state of boredom interesting (anti-boredom). As it turns out, none of these reactions is actually boring for very long—and neither is La Notte, really, in and of itself. Antonioni intentionally eschews “entertainment value,” and that’s why La Notte is a great film.
The experience, for those of you inclined towards the anti-boredom end of the spectrum, is perhaps best described in terms of a guided tour through a private art gallery with oodles of abstract expressionism on the walls (even if La Notte is really about the upper middle-class at play in their “natural” habitat: the villa-party). Your guide (Antonioni) is a self-loathing depressive who shrugs a lot. The only other people in your tour group are this attractive married couple oppressed by silence and sexual ennui: a novelist with Frankenstein-lips (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife (Jeanne Moreau). She clearly reads more of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work than her husband’s, given her predilection for jazz. Before the tour is over, Moreau will meander in a sustained fit of iconic abstraction (essentially repeating her role in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, sans Miles Davis), and slouch against a wall near some roses that match the print of her dress, so it looks like she’s somehow extruding cabbage blossoms. Meanwhile, Mastroianni will yearn out loud for some way to mechanize the writing process so he doesn’t have to try anymore, get offered a cushy advertising job no-one could hope for in this economy, then promptly turn it down. At least he has a modicum of self-respect. Near the end, they’ll try to strike up a threesome with Monica Vitti, but fail almost immediately, because it’s “too exhausting.” And Romanticism will die, of course, as the night ends and dawn washes away all traces of glamor in the stark light of disillusionment, Moreau telling Mastroianni that she doesn’t love him anymore while he looks at her breasts. Out in the parking lot, Moreau will take shelter from the rain in a car with a man she doesn’t know and share an inaudible conversation, as if to imply that intimacy is still somehow possible in this modern age. But nothing will come of it. Because (didn’t you realize by now?) nothing actually happens in Antonioni films. But that’s sort of the point. Nothing happens to the bourgeoisie, they just reappropriate everybody’s jazz. What happens happens in the brain of the spectator, a kind of boredom that reexamines itself in relation to the boring.
In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, a sudden shower of rain and symbolism sends a horde of upper middle-class partygoers straight into the outdoor pool. “Hey,” the engaged spectator may well say, with more than a twinge of cynicism, half-identifying with the carousers on-screen, “now that we’re wet, we might as well get completely drenched, right?” Meanwhile, as her fellows wallow in the pool (read: capital), a lone woman keens with frustrated eroticism adjacent a statue of Bacchus, rainwater plastering her white dress to her skin. If Antonioni is ever unambiguous about anything, it’s the modern displacement of sexuality. Elsewhen, during one of Moreau’s meanderings through a neo-real environment, she tries to act the mother for a crying child––but the broken clock in the mise-en-scene tells us motherhood just doesn’t tick anymore. She comes to the end the tracks in the middle of a working-class neighborhood, in the borderland between nature and civilization, where the utility poles read “1” instead of “2.” There’s some gentle music (and its not jazz), running tunefully from a radio somewhere. Mastroianni drives up and joins her for a moment of reminiscing, before taking her home to get ready for the party. This is the only situation in which we see Moreau and Mastroianni more or less simpatico. But we know it’s a lost idyll; in a nearby field a group of young men shoot rockets at the sky, are then obscured one by one in screens of smoke. “Would you like to go to the moon?” “Not really.” Antonioni would love that; supreme alienation up there, if we believe Stanley Kubrick (who happened to love La Notte, apparently).
When the film is over, you might regret your conspicuous consumption, because the reason why your friends didn’t watch with you is already clear: the syndrome Antonioni wants to diagnose is still very much a condition of our society. Everyone wants to drench the latest Hollywood blockbuster with enough dollars to roll out another one, and another after that. Only when we stop shoveling 3-D CGI down our eye-sockets will La Notte lose its relevance. Antonioni’s dawn wasn’t enough, apparently, and Eros Agonistes still flounders under a statue of Bacchus.
William Repass is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
La Notte was released by The Criterion Collection on October 29th, 2013.