Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Guest Blogger: Paul Cogley
La Notte (1961)
by Paul Cogley
For nearly a decade, Italy’s great director Michelangelo Antonioni made movies that examined the theories he embraced about movies and human behavior. From Le Ameche (1955) to Il Deserto Rosso (1964), Antonioni sidestepped the usual cause-and-effect continuity that drives conventional storytelling. Words and behavior in his movies were used as much to reveal the inner life of characters than to serve predetermined plotlines. For example, Antonioni wouldn’t show reaction shots to someone speaking, which is a common moviemaking devise. He felt such shots distracted the viewer from objectivity, and so, instead, his actors might be shown speaking their dialogue as seen from behind the person listening.
In La Notte, one day and night in the lives of a married couple leads to them realize the bad shape their love is in. The movie opens with Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) and Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) as they visit a friend who is in a hospital with an inoperable disease. The sick man has long been in love with Lidia. To Giovanni, a writer, his friend has been a mentor. From his hospital bed, the friend praises Giovanni’s new book.
Antonioni intermingles the progression of the day into an exposition of the psychology of the characters. Each episode plunges us deeper into their worlds. At the hospital, a psychotic female patient flirts wantonly with Giovanni. The incident will be brought up in discussion later on, but otherwise will bear no consequence on the plot. Lidia will walk through the streets of Milan in the neighborhood that the couple used to live in, underlining her confusions about her dying friend and her troubled marriage. The built-up urban form of Milan is featured in this sequence, and at one point Lidia is shown at the foot of a wall that seems about to crush her.
The title of La Notte refers not only to the metaphorical night of a marital relationship, but also to the actual night in which most of the movie takes place, when the couple ends up at an all night party. The cast of characters at the party (including Monica Vitti as an industrialist’s daughter) is drawn from bourgeois society and conveys the emptiness of feelings among them. While at the party, Lidia will be told that her friend at the hospital has died. By the time dawn comes, she will use this sad news to confront feelings that help her arrive to self-awareness.
La Notte’s all night party echoes the famous party scene of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1959), a movie which had burst on the international scene, peaking interest in modern Italian directors. Antonioni here attempts to capture the vanity of bourgeois society much as Fellini had done. Interestingly, Luciano Visconti’s The Leopard (1964) would also cumulate in an all-night ball scene in which 19th century bourgeois society celebrates while oblivious to pending irrelevance.
Antonioni’s experimental approaches to moviemaking went about as far as anyone could go in what was essentially a commercial medium. Although he would make other critically acclaimed movies, such as The Passenger (1975), it is the half dozen unconventional psychological movies of the 1950s and ‘60s that are at the core of Antononi’s legacy. La Notte is among this group of movies that achieved the artistic heights the director aimed at, and can be readily enjoyed today by viewers willing to accept an unconventional movie on the terms that it was made.