This Modern Love, Then and Now
La Notte is the middle film in Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s loose trilogy on relationship ennui, a portrait of modern love now half a century removed. Though the film is “old”, there’s nothing dated about its beguiling inspection of love and modernity, proof that the best art can be both timeless and a recognizable document of time and place.
Like L’avventura, the trilogy’s preceding entry, La Notte extracts meaning from abstraction, explicating people and things through the places they inhabit, obscured fields of vision revealing internal conflict.There’s an artistic progression here on Antonioni’s part, one that hinges upon his uncompromising ability to craft nuance through association: Whereas L’avventura oscillates between narrative and abstraction, La Notte more perfectly marries the two to create heartbreaking romantic ineffability. This approach continues in the trilogy’s final installment, L’eclisse, a film that ventures even further into non-traditional narrative structures.
What Antonioni conveys is inseparable from the ways in which he does it. On its face, La Notte is a simple day-in-the-life of an emotionally cold marriage between Giovanni, a successful writer played with suave aloofness by Marcello Mastroianni, and his wife Lidia, whose passionate yet mysterious beauty could only be realized by French legend Jeanne Moreau, in what feels like a continuation of her uncharacteristically tender turn in Louis Malle’s The Lovers.
Antonioni introduces the couple first through their surroundings: the glorious opening shot takes place inside a descending glass elevator positioned outside a sleek new building, a reflection in the glass siding reflects Milan’s tradition below. This growth/decay duality is repeated throughout the film as a metaphor for the couple’s relationship, itself in a constant state of flux.
A hospital is where the first bit of action occurs, a place where birth and death occur simultaneously and by routine. Giovanni and Lidia visit their cancer-stricken friend Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki), a fellow writer who portends the couple’s discontent by generally noting that “it’s amazing how tired you get of pretending.” The trio toasts champagne to commemorate their reunion and continued health, but Lidia leaves unexpectedly, fleeing downstairs to release the sadness she was unable to show in front of her dying friend. Giovanni stays for a minute longer before following his wife, but on his exit trysts with an alluring patient whom he met on the way in. Lidia is in tears when he finds her, either from the sadness of her friend’s condition or the comparably hastened deterioration of her marriage.
The opening epitomizes the relationship’s gradual corrosion: There’s a fundamental disconnect between Giovanni’s stoicism to the realities of decay vis-à-vis Lidia’s mourning of it. Antonioni highlights this repeatedly throughout the film, sometimes directly, such as when Giovanni casually asserts that he “no longer has aspirations, only recollections,” but usually symbolically, through the relative meekness of these people framed within the enormity of their urban landscape. Oftentimes Antonioni fixates on architecture as a contextualizing mechanism for these differences, with Giovanni comfortably embedded within or commenting on older structures and their decomposition, and Lidia being framed within the immensity of skyscrapers and their relative newness.
In typical Antonioni fashion, the female in the relationship is the protagonist and her perception of events is the one that guides the viewer. Lidia gets a bit more screen time than Giovanni overall, particularly in the first two acts, distinguishing her perspective as the film’s primary POV. When the couple finally makes its way to the night, there’s already been a series of precipitous events: other than the opening scene in the hospital, Giovanni attends a book party where he’s feted and Lidia is an afterthought; Lidia disappears to a café by an abandoned railway track (another symbol of progress interrupted) while Giovanni relaxes at home, the point of the film when the distance between the two is most concretely manifested.
The party begins in a similar fashion wherein they begin the event together but events eventually separate them. He finds a beautiful distraction (with Antonioni regular and muse Monica Vitti) while she frolics in the rain with a stranger. When they reunite in dawn’s early light, it’s time to make some tough decisions.
La Notte is an impossibly gorgeous film and an irrefutably astute observation on love. It doesn’t comment on love as much as showing certain aspects of it, notably how destructive a lack of communication can be. For modern audiences, it plays a bit as if you watched Before Sunset without having seen how Celine and Jesse met. Most of the “action” takes place before the film starts, with only their consequences being address onscreen. It’s a decidedly modern approach to the relationship drama, an avant-garde one, even. And while viewing L’avventura first isn’t compulsory, and though La Notte isn’t a sequel to that film per se, there’s a natural thematic progression between the two that rewards watching them in sequence.
Long out of print, La Notte is now newly restored by a Criterion print that is pristine. The extras accompanying this release aren’t terribly exciting, though they do expose some of the film’s key ideas. In two separate features, Italian critics wax academic on the philosophical subtleties in Giovanni and Lidia’s back and forth. Critic Richard Brody luxuriates in Antonioni’s modernity. Most exciting, though, is a letter written by Antonioni himself in which he articulates the inspiration for the film and divulges that originally the role of Lidia was to be played by a “not pretty” woman!