Sunday, 15 February 2015

Fissures and Blocks: Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte & L’Eclisse

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008)

Discussion of Michelangelo Antonioni‘s films invariably centres around questions of alienation and identity, the gaps between people, their difficulties and failures in communication, and the question of values in a deracinated society fuelled by transient desire for people and things. What I want to look at today is not so much these themes themselves, but rather how they are actually communicated in La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962).

Actually, the main reason that I want to look at Antonioni today is that I was recently startled by a single frame that I saw that was taken from L'Eclisse. It is an apparently mundane scene – Monica Vitti gets out of a taxi in a crowded street outside of the stock market and goes to pay the driver. Nothing special about that; what did catch my eye however is that on first glance there seems to be a fissure running vertically through the fabric of the film itself, something akin to the actual break in the film that Bergman inserted into his film Persona. On a second glance I could see that the impression was caused simply by the light shining through the narrow gap between two high buildings but the way this just off-centre line cracked the screen in two, with its direction picked up and continued by the bonnet of the taxi seemed to me to be of central importance in the scene. It was with this relationship of character and background in mind that I watched La Notte and L’Eclisse, which show characters taking their place as part of compositions that are balanced between structure and improvisation.

Some background. Although Antonioni had some roots in neorealism, he said that because he came to it late, he was able to see that the primary motivation of relating an individual to the society in which he lived could be extended so that the emphasis could shift to include an examination of an individual’s psychology, to examine (and here I am quoting from the extended interview with Antonioni that appears in the booklet accompanying the Masters of Cinema edition of La Notte) ‘after all he had been through (the war, the immediate postwar situation, all the events that were currently taking place and which were of sufficient gravity to leave their mark upon society and the individual) …  the symptoms of such restlessness and such behaviour which began to outline the changes and transitions that later came about in our psychology, our feelings, and perhaps even our morality.’

This is made manifest in his films by characters being quite inseparable from the environments they inhabit; environments that have however been chosen to reflect that individual’s psychology. And ‘reflect’ is literally the appropriate word here. In La Notte for example, characters are time and again reflected in the glass walls of buildings, fractured into uncertain possibilities of multiple selves.

La Notte takes place from morning to the following dawn as a couple – played by Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau – traverse Milan, together and separately, from the hospital bed of a friend who is dying, through the wastelands of the outskirts where they no longer belong, to a a society party, at which both look for amusement in brief liasons, although neither can go through with their actions.

When people are not divided from each other in the film by their placement in settings in which the visual lines of communication are blocked, they are reflected back on themselves. Even in the relatively naturalistic setting of the hospital early on in La Notte, characters are shown against discrete blocks of background light or shade that extend to the top of the frame, so that that there is no chance of correspondence between them. Psychical states are mirrored by physical ones. And what chance is there of a relationship on a human scale when channels are so intruded upon and blocked by the settings in which they find themselves?

At one point, in a  quite breathtakingly audacious shot, Jeanne Moreau’s character, Lidia, is pictured returning to her apartment; the entire central 3/4 of the screen is taken up by a solid grey block of concrete wall. She can just be glimpsed in the street below. Earlier too, Giovanni has to walk around centrally featured concrete steps outside of the hospital, right along the edge of the frame, so he can meet up with Lidia.

At other times the screen is composed of arrangements of light and dark, as when Giovanni enters his apartment where the camera is waiting for him, lingering on the patterns and textures of the wall, panelling and a sliding screen door. Other arrangements are more threatening, as with a shot of concrete bollards shaped like rocket shells in the street.

Although Ingmar Bergman dismissed most of Antonioni’s films, saying that ‘he concentrated on single images, never realising that film is a rhythmic flow of images, a movement…’ he excepted La Notte and Blow-Up, calling them his two masterpieces. Indeed, there are sequences in La Notte which thoroughly give the lie to his statement. One such is at the the Gherardini’s party after Giovanni and Lidia have separated. Its compositions and matching in its editing are a masterclass. Lidia telephones the hospital to enquire about the condition of their friend they had visited earlier. Where she stands a shadow angles towards her lower back, giving the impression she is being impaled. Her despair at the news she receives and her detachment from the party are intensified by the increasing volume of chatter from approaching guests. In the next shot we look down and see party guests rounding a corner, with three trees slightly obscuring our view. The camera lifts up to follow the line of the left-hand tree trunk (forming a virtual ‘V’ shape with the previous shot’s shadow) to show Lidia looking down at the guests through an angled open window. In the next shot we have dropped to the same floor as the guests and a stair rail marks a virtual ‘V’ shape with the angle of the window in the previous shot as the guests ascend the staircase. Giovanni and Valentina enter, converging with their reflections. They linger below and kiss. The next shot we are looking from just behind Lidia’s shoulder as she looks down upon them kissing, again at an angle similar to those of the shadow, tree trunk and stair rail. The three trees now appear to be dark rips in the centre of the film itself. As Giovanni and Valentina motion to leave, they stand between these black shreds in the screen.

Antonioni gave great importance to sound in his films, especially natural sounds and background noises. Speaking of his 1960 film L’Avventura, he said that he ‘had an enormous number of sound effects recorded: every possible quality of the sea, more and less stormy, the breakers, the rumble of the waves in the grottoes. I had a hundred reels of tape filled with nothing but sound effects. Then I selected those that you hear on the film's sound track. For me, this is the true music, the music that can be adapted to images. Conventional music only rarely melts into the image; more often it does nothing but put the spectator to sleep, and it prevents him from appreciating what he is seeing.’

La Notte’s opening credits sequence, shown against a long slide down a tall, glass-fronted building in Milan, is notable for the unnerving, distancing, soundtrack that accompanies it. After an initial roar of traffic – one of a number of punctuating ravages of noise in the film such as the ripping of jets through the sky and a fgactory siren – we find ourselves at the top of a tower block, and we descend to the sound of electronic bleeps and plinks, organ notes and muted gongs playing over an unpleasantly compressed sound of traffic, planes, building works and church bells, all churned together in a mixer and coming out as exactly the kind of thin, processed sound you would hear channelled through narrow streets and bounced off glass and concrete.

The opening of L’Eclisse too is remarkable for its unsettling quality, as a pop song is faded before being dominated entirely by the blare of horns, then nervy chords and piano notes, which are then replaced with the silence of two people in a room with a rotating fan.

We also know from the opening credits of L’Eclisse, in which names are simply listed to the right of a white line, that verticals will play a large part in the design of the film. It is especially noticeable the way people are framed, pinioned even, between vertical lines of building features. At some stages it is a wonder that they can move freely at all.

The film begins with a break up. The woman, Vittoria, then seems to start a relationship, more through proximity and boredom than passion, with Piero, a stockbroker constantly on the move and whose sole interest is the acquisition of money. Alain Delon gives a wonderful portrayal in the role, as a man with whom it would seem scarcely possible to have a relationship at all. The ending of the film is justly famous. Despite making promises to meet the next day, and the next, and every day, and also that same evening, Vittoria and Piero know that they are hollow promises and it is apparent they they are at an end. She descends the staircase, he goes back to his office, replaces the receivers on the phones one by one, and with a sly smile, and soothed by the ringing of telephones and the flapping of papers on the wall, is content; he is in his element once more.

The end of the film features the place of their rendezvous. Neither turns up (perhaps this is one reason why Antonioni calls L’Eclisse ‘a very optimistic film’, as characters seem to have learned something useful and are no longer beholden to setting) and the film then becomes an extended cinematic poem on place. Antonioni said in 1969 that ‘perhaps one day cinema will also achieve the heights of abstraction; perhaps cinema will even construct poetry’; From our vantage point now, the final 10 minutes or so of L’Eclisse seems to correspond to this description. It is a short film in itself, of a street corner in the evening as the lights come on, a place where children play, and people wait for the bus at a request stop, others make their way homewards, where a barrel leaks water, where a park sprinkler is turned off, where robinia leaves rustle in the wind and ants crawl on bark.

‘We know that under the image revealed there is another which is truer to reality and under this image still another and yet again still another under this last one, right down to the true image of that reality, absolute, mysterious, which no one will ever see or perhaps right down to the decomposition of any image, of any reality,’ said Antonioni.

And as a final point, why is it that nobody ever told me that there are sections of Antonioni's films that are funny? That there are places where laughter is an appropriate, and probably the required response? In La Notte for example, there is a scene of slow moving horn-blaring, sudden-braking traffic, motioned to by an ineffectual traffic policeman and set against a reflective glass building that foreshadows Jacques Tati's Playtime. Dogs running up the steps in L’Eclisse recall Mon Oncle. And what about all those false leads when we are waiting for Piero and Vitoria to turn up? Or earlier when we see the double of Vittoria’s former partner?

Antonioni was loath to provide theoretical explanations for his films, preferring to say that they were ‘works of searching’, pieces of ‘archaeological research among the arid material of our time’. I think that is the spirit they should be viewed in, not as complex or consistent expositions of theory, but as profound snapshots of certain places and people at certain times.

The last words I give to Antonioni, who said, ‘I think people talk too much; that's the truth of the matter. I don't believe in words. People use too many words and usually wrongly.’

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