Thursday, 25 April 2013

Not set in stone… La Notte (1961)

Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau
Why do we own the films we like? In many cases we’re defining ourselves through possession but in a precious few it’s because we have to watch them more than once… probably the very definition of a film you should own. This was the third time I’d watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (The Night) and it won’t be the last.

There’s an interesting point made by Brad Stevens in his essay accompanying the Masters of Cinema release of this film, he’s seen the film many times and every time he watches it he sees new details and his view of the central characters shifts. Maybe this is down to the deceptive complexity of Antonioni’s films or it could just be his studious refusal to offer definitive narrative resolutions. Either way, his films reward repeated viewing more than most…

Marcello Mastroianni and Monica Vitti
But are they deep and “difficult” films… elitist works that can only be fully understood by those who recognise all of the subtext and influences? Antonioni refused to accept that “literary” cinema existed let alone that his own work be part of it and, whilst he was happy to discuss his work with intellectual rigour, he made no lofty claims in that respect.

You can watch his films for enjoyment and draw your own conclusions about precise meanings which may well say more about yourself than the subject.

It is contemplative cinema, as I’ve said before and not unlike silent film in many ways, with sub-titled dialogue about as helpful as inter-titles in determining the motivations and feelings on display. Jeanne Moreau might, in fact, be one of the greatest silent film actresses that ever lived with her stillness belying a peerless range of expression.

La Notte begins in the bright daylight high above a sun-soaked modernist Milan – even 50 years on, this still feels futuristic. The camera moves slowly from atop a skyscraper and gradually slides down onto the city against a backdrop of atonal electronic sounds. The director is taking us down into the story.

Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau and Bernhard Wicki
We encounter a writer Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) as they visit a clinic where there terminally ill friend, Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki) is being treated. There is the usual awkward visiting time conversation even as Tommaso orders champagne for his friends and mother.

Bad traffic
Lidia cannot take the bravado and weeps by herself outside. Meanwhile Giovanni is lured into a fellow patient’s room where a young woman offers herself to him, just as he responds she is restrained by staff… Honest emotion for one and the refuge of mindless sex for the other…

Strangely Giovanne confesses this moment to Lidia as they drive through traffic jams to a signing for his new book… Yet, Lidia’s reaction is not quite what you’d expect to this unnecessary revelation – is Giovanni trying to shock or just get attention. Poor Giovanni, to be so at the mercy of instinct and female forces beyond his control.

Remember paper?
At the book signing (filmed in a real publishing house with a real publisher and a real Nobel Prize winner… the illusory intrusion of the truth, natch…) Giovanni is fawned over – he is on the brink of great commercial success but doesn’t know what to do with it other than respond as he did to the advances in the hospital.

Lidia in the city
Lidia leaves and goes for her celebrated walk through the streets of Milan finding many things but not perhaps what she’s looking for. Here Moreau is shown dwarfed against the mighty slabs of Milanese modernism whilst she hugs a lost child, encounters drunks and then breaks up a fight only to have to flee from the amorous victor.

She is “lost” too and returns to the area where she and Giovanni used to live when she sacrificed her privileged comfort in exchange for life with a struggling artist. As she watches youths firing rockets Giovanni sleeps in their apartment…. the day’s events have exhausted him or perhaps he has nothing better to do.

Silence in the library
He is shown impassive and emotionless against shelves heaving with thousands of books – so much knowledge but what does he really understand?

Lidia has reached the suburb of Sesto San Giovanni and calls Giovanni from a run-down café. He drives out and the couple share brief memories of this place where their relationship grew.

Back in their flat they debate whether to go to the party of Mr Gherardini (Vincenzo Corbella) a wealthy industrialist who has taken an interest: “every millionaire wants an intellectual, he chose you” says Lidia.

Giovanni and Lidia react in different ways
En route the couple attend a strange cabaret featuring two lithe black dancers in an overtly sexualised performance. With the backing of a modern jazz band, the girl performs amazing contortions with a full wine glass… Giovanni is unmoved, prompting Lidia to joke about having “a  thought…”

The couple arrive at Gherardini’s party which takes up the second half of the film and is a tour de force which took 35 nights of filming to complete. A series of hard night’s days...

Small talk
The party seems to be in constant motion with the guests barely establishing contact before moving on to something new. An old friend of Lidia’s is there – tremendously wealthy and incredibly bored. Her old life…

Gherardini has Giovanni shown around – he’s too busy to do it himself – and he encounters a woman who seems to prefigure the film’s possible ending when she talks about wanting to read a story of a marriage break-up with a woman sacrificing her own happiness for her husband’s future with a younger woman. But it’s not to be that simple.

A new game
Giovanni encounters Gherardini’s daughter Valentina (Monica Vitti) a 22-year old woman who his intellectual but un-focused, reading “improving” books, attempting her own prose yet happier playing a game of push-compact on the floor. Giovanni joins in but withdraws after their game has attracted the attention of other guests and high stakes.

Lidia looks on as Giovanni kisses Valentina
The night draws on and Lidia phones the hospital to find that Tomasso has died. Ashe falls back in desperation and is sparked into driving off with a racing driver who has pursued her, Roberto (Giorgio Negro). She wants to negate her feelings and the two are shown in silhouette driving slowly through the pouring rain… shared laughter in a thoughtless visceral encounter.

Slow drive in the rain...
But, as Giovanni’s attempts to pursue and conquer Valentina, Lidia cannot complete her infidelity and returns to the house.

Valentina helps her dry off and the two share a complicit understanding of the situation emphasised by Giovanni’s appearance at the bedroom door as they discuss matters with a directness beyond him in spite of all the verbal dexterity at his disposal.

In the end Valentina is left “exhausted” by both of them as they leave… bound together still in their silence. They are far too complicated for her to deal with.

Exhausting company...
Lidia asks to go for a walk and the couple wander onto a golf course as the film’s pivotal moment approaches… What remains of their love and are they now merely “in pity” along with the protagonists in L’Aventurra? Giovanni just can’t meet with Lidia on the same emotional terms and he tries to submerge rational debate beneath a thoughtless moment of carnal abandon?

As in the earlier film we are left with ambiguity… there’s the possibility that the marriage will continue and there’s even the chance that it may be saved. Tomasso’s illness has thrown them both into crisis what will remain for them after the shock of grief has passed.

Giovanni forgets...
Giovanni is ready to turn down the offer of lucrative work as Gherardini’s PR guru and so hasn’t given up on breaking through his block. Lidia repeats over and again that she doesn’t love Giovanni anymore and asks him to say the same… if it matters to her it means that she has doubts…


The three main leads are superb, Mastroianni rescues his Giovanni from being a hateful self-obsessed phoney by investing just enough spark and the occasional sliver of genuine feeling – why does he seek Valentina so readily? Is she the part of Lidia he wants to re-connect with?

Monica Vitti is excellent as the conflicted young intellectual, robbed of any drive or direction by the extreme wealth of her parents. She has tried to create but is happier playing childish games. She baulks at coming between the married couple and in the end you feel she has been abused by them both in their struggle to connect.

Jeanne Moreau
But it is Jeanne Moreau who is at the centre of things, her Lidia being a painful portrayal of a woman in early mid-life crisis, confronted by the death of a man who loved her and the disinterest of the man she gave up her position and privilege to support. Tomasso loved her unconditionally and encouraged her to develop but he was suffocating and she took greater strength from Giovanni’s self-interest.

Yet this once-reassuring trait has isolated them both and she mourns the loss of the man who loved her as she loved Giovanni.

The Masters of Cinema transfer is superb and much better than the previous DVD I’d seen. There’s no commentary but an extensive booklet from the aforementioned Mr Stevens and a long interview with Antonioni from 1961.

I'd buy you all a copy but you probably already have it...

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