Saturday, 29 November 2014

Empty spaces, abundant silence… L'Eclisse (1962)

Silence is so much a feature of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, it’s not just the subtitles as inter-titles that means that I view them almost as cinema muto. They are amongst the most carefully composed works in European cinema and the images always have as much meaning as the dialogue and greater resonance.

Remove all sound from this film and it would still have a lot to say and it would still reward repeated viewing with new thoughts and response. L'Eclisse also offers treacherous waters for interpretation and may trap your humble commentator in pseuds’ corner… but why not.

L'Eclisse (The Eclipse) is regarded as the last part of a trilogy preceded by L'Avventura (1960) and La Notte (1961) - all essays on modernism, architecture, politics and communication: the spaces between people with the greatest gulf being between men and women. All three also feature Monica Vitti, an actress with supernatural expression who is capable of delivering the most impenetrable depths of nuanced uncertainty.

Alain and Monica
But you don’t have to watch these films stroking your bearded chin as you focus through chic horned-rim glasses, dressed in pressed white lined shirts and the finest Armani – although it does help. They operate as puzzles for all ages and were so ground-breaking that we now cannot help but view them through the prism of their influence. Ingmar Bergman may have had his reservations but other directors from Goddard to Scorsese have lauded Antonioni as perhaps the father of modern European cinema: the man who, as he claimed, took the bicycles out of neo-realism and mixed the sensibilities of documentary film-making with innovative narrative styles focused on the cultural tipping point of the early sixties when concrete and deadly technology had turned post war Europe into a society whose progression was built on philosophical quicksand: instinct left behind by innovation.

Monica Vitti and Francisco Rabal
L'Eclisse is divided into distinct segments beginning and ending with a break up as Monica Vitti’s central character, Vittoria, must continue her search for a valid relationship with modern men given inexplicable focus by a culture in flux.

The opening section sees Vittoria breaking up with her long-term partner Riccardo (Spanish actor Francisco Rabal) after an agonised all-night attempt to talk it over… The characters are shown at exhausted angles as they move awkwardly around the room, like caged animals tortured by incomprehension at their own captivity. Riccardo’s apartment is packed full of modern art, books and aesthetic artifice – is there a genuine connection with his possessions?

Vittoria looks through a frame and pulls out a trinket the viewer may have seen as part of a picture: but it’s not real just an illusion. The house is on a new estate on the edge of Rome – all manicured lawns and quiet, ordered streets – the future of bourgeois living yet overlooked by a menacing water tower that has the slightest echoes of the mushroom clouds so threatening the World order at the time: the age of accumulated anxiety.

Vittoria escapes the attentions of her new ex and goes to find her mother in Rome’s stock exchange - the Bourse. Milan was and is the main exchange in Italy but the Roman version was favoured by smaller investors. Antonioni shot over the weekend with a good many stockbrokers guesting as extras for authenticity… their work all sweaty, panicked shouting for an edge in an exchange where values may shift at the slightest rumour, miss-calculation or pronouncement from a trusted source.

Lilla Brignone and Monica Vitti
Vittoria’s mother (Lilla Brignone) is a well-off widow addicted to the thrill of playing the stocks and is far too excited about her latest gains to listen to her daughter’s story. She uses an energetic young broker Piero (Alain Delon) to place her “bets” and he doesn’t seem to let her or any of his customers down so totally focused is he on winning in this frenetic, animalistic environment built, as it so happens, on the site of a pagan Roman temple with ancient columns still visible in this monument to modern greed.

Monica Vitti,  Mirella Ricciardi and Rosanna Rory
Vittoria returns home and is greeted by her friend Anita (Rosanna Rory) the wife of a pilot who is away collecting a new plane. They drink and then join their new neighbour, Marta (Mirella Ricciardi) recently returned from living in Kenya. This section has perhaps the most specific meaning of any in the film as the colonial life is examined and Vittoria ends up in black face dressed and dancing as an African maid: uncomfortable viewing to modern eyes but pointedly so given Marta’s reference to Africans as “monkeys”... something Vittoria gently takes her to task on.

Childlike responses to night-time strangeness
Their party is disturbed after Marta’s dog escapes and they race out into the darkness to find it along with several others running free. Vittoria finds the poodle but then is distracted by the sounds of the wind blowing through the ropes of flag poles – like a child she retains a fascination with the unexpected: an almost musical noise gently pushing through the night stillness.

Vittoria flies with Anita and her husband over to Verona for another interlude. As she wanders the airfield taking in the unfamiliarity she passes two African men sitting outside a café: nothing happens in the film by accident.

The trading floor
The scene shifts abruptly back to Rome as the stock market takes centre stage and we learn more of Piero. There’s a black day on the markets across Italy and Vittoria’s mother is not alone in losing millions of Lira. Piero is at the centre of things trying to limit the damage and secure his company’s clients for the recovery. There are dark mutterings about the market being rigged, political influencers and insider trading… this is Peiro’s world and Antonioni doesn’t like it.

Millions of Lira lost, the man takes a tranquilizer and draws flowers...
Fascinated by one man’s reaction to his huge losses, Vittoria is drawn into events and from there to Piero. They begin a relationship but it’s a faltering one: they cannot seem to match their pace… He takes Vittoria to his family home and she’s almost shocked by the display of art on show: either it’s too much conspicuous consumption or she cannot reconcile this cultural background with Piero’s fiscal amorality.

Piero is lightning quick at calculating opportunities on the markets but he can’t “play” Vittoria and can't absorb her fluctuations in the way he can company data. For her part, Vittoria doesn’t understand his fascination with making money… she’s more interested in working out the world around her and – at the very least – finding something different, something real.

They agree to meet once more but the film ends with multiple images of their regular meeting place; the finer details, the water butt – now burst open and flooding the pavement – the building works, passers-by, the city making its way oblivious to the significance of the empty space on the corner of the street and of the unbridgeable gaps in human understanding: the spaces between us all.

The cinematography of regular Antonioni collaborator Gianni Di Venanzo, is superb and allied to the director’s choice of locations presents an other-worldly view of a progressive Italy that still looks modern half a century later. These new suburban vistas are almost empty and with nary a car in sight whilst near silence provides an almost ever present soundtrack to Vittoria’s un-spoken reconnaissance as she slowly walks the streets.

Vitti’s self-control is supreme and she manages to convey so much with expressive economy – her face a picture of studied neutrality and her eyes giving away only the possibilities of her thoughts. By contrast Delon’s Pieor is impulsive and cock-sure: the unreality of monetary gain being its own reward: an end unto itself and the irrational refuge of many a modern careerist.

I watched the Criterion edition which comes complete with a booklet of essays, expert commentary from Richard Pena and a second disc of additional features including the documentary Michelangelo Antonioni: the Eye that Changed Cinema and a short Italian feature on the film: Elements of Landscape.

It’s available direct from Criterion on DVD or Blu-ray or from Amazon.

Who is the nurse and where is she going?
I’m not sure if L’Ecclise ranks higher than L’Avventura or La Notte but perhaps I need to watch it as much as I have those two films... your response evolves with each viewing. This is not just the director’s knack for avoiding too much narrative certainty but also the immense detail in his work and its enduring integrity.

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