Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jeanne Moreau, Marcello Mastroianni, Monica Vitti, Bernhard Wicki, Rosy Mazzacurati, Vincenzo Corbella, Maria Pia Luzi
Written by: Michelangelo Antonioni, Ennio Flaiano, Tonino Guerra
Directed by: Michelangelo Antonioni
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Italian with English subtitles
Running Time: 122
Date: 10/29/2013

La Notte (1961)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Dancing About Architecture

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Note: the movie is playing in a new restoration at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, through December of 2016. Check the schedule for details.

La Notte is the center piece of a trilogy by Michelangelo Antonioni; it comes between L'Avventura (1960) and L'Eclisse (1962), and it's the heaviest of the three. As the great critic David Thomson has pointed out, the other two films are about the beginnings of romance, or perhaps even casual flings. La Notte is about a marriage. It's serious.

But at the same time, Antonioni uses architecture to maximum effect here. It's as present a force as the couple's deep and complex relationship. It's as if the empty spaces from L'Avventura have been filled up with experience.

Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau star as the couple, Giovanni and Lidia. Giovanni is a published writer, and Lidia is his wife, though her occupation is unknown. The movie takes place in a period of just under 24 hours. One afternoon, they visit a friend in the hospital. Lidia leaves first. A nymphomaniac down the hall attacks Giovanni, but he does very little to resist, until two nurses enter the room. He leaves, embarrassed.

They go to a promotional party for Giovanni's book and Lidia leaves early. She walks around the city for a great length of time, and Antonioni frames her against all number of shapes and spaces. She comes across a crowd of young men fighting. She tries to stop it, but they read her attention the wrong way and she leaves.

When she arrives home, Giovanni can tell she's in a bad mood but doesn't know what to do. They decide to go to a nightclub, where they watch a dancer balancing a glass of champagne on her body as she bends and turns. From there, they decide to attend a wealthy man's party, where they spend the rest of the night. Lidia broods and lurks and then goes for a ride with a mysterious man but returns to the party.

Giovanni meets a beautiful young woman, Valentina Gherardini (Monica Vitti), plays a game with her, and flirts with her. Valentina discovers that Giovanni is married and takes Lidia in her room, drying her off from a sudden rainstorm. In the morning, Giovanni and Lidia walk across the grounds and talk, really talk, for the first time in the film.

Like only a few other filmmakers in history, Murnau, Kubrick, and the Coen brothers, among them, Antonioni seems in charge of every single element in every single frame. Every strange thing that happens, the sudden rainstorm for example -- followed by people leaping carelessly into the swimming pool -- seems designed to somehow accent or underline the relationship between Giovanni and Lidia.

Perhaps we can get closer to the center of the movie if we look at natural versus man-made landscapes. For example, quite a bit comes undone during the rainstorm, and it upsets the way the party was planned. The final discussion between husaband and wife takes place near no buildings at all -- only trees.

But, in another scene, Giovanni's flirtation with Valentina takes place as they play a game with the square tiles on the floor, sliding her makeup case across, trying to land on a particular square. It's a way of subverting the existing backdrop, twisting it into something it was not meant to be.

It's hard to watch these two hack away at their marriage. Moreover, and maybe this is just me, but Moreau seems rather stern and pouty here, whereas Vitti still strikes me as one of the most beautiful and sensual women in all of cinema. Maybe it's just personal taste. Moreau was an international star and quite desired at the time, especially here, when she's at her peak (she was in Truffaut's Jules and Jim the same year). Either way, it's very hard to watch the final denouement after all that's happened.

But even though it ranks as the most difficult of the trilogy, it's still masterful filmmaking, from a director who still deserves to be at the forefront of his craft. The Criterion Collection has released a Blu-ray edition for 2013, their third Antonioni on Blu-ray. It features a new digital restoration from a 4K film transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Extras include interviews with film critic Adriano Aprà, film historian Carlo di Carlo, and professor Giuliana Bruno (on the movie's architecture). There's also a trailer and a liner notes essay by New Yorker film critic Richard Brody, as well as a 1961 article by director Michelangelo Antonioni.

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