La Notte (1961)
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Easy to parody, impossible to replicate, what Andrew Sarris called “Antoniennui”—glamorous European movie stars composed in tableaux in front of brutalist architecture, speaking past each other in existential aphorisms—can be embraced as a Marxist-influence tract on the alienation of contemporary life or snorted at as chic pretention, equal and opposite visceral reactions to ambitious modern aesthetics which in either case and for better and worse say more about you than about the film. Though actually, beyond the Berselli-tailored early-60s zeitgeist, it’s no stretch to point out that inexplicable fatigue, boredom with yourself even more than others, inability to focus on a task or be present for a conversation are hardly abstract conceits—as you surely know already if you arrived at this page via Twitter.
La Notte, the middle film of Antonioni’s name-making, purely distilled “trilogy” with L’Avventura (1960) and L’Eclisse (1962), is an incredibly relatable portrait of distracted disaffection and residual tenderness in the last 24 viable hours of a marriage. In the opening scene, author Marcello Mastroianni and heiress wife Jeanne Moreau visit a dying friend in a scene which, with the oblique precision of a play, lays out the inevitability of disappointment, the finality of regret, and the failure of love, projecting a shade of self-pity that colors Mastroianni and Moreau’s dual dances of withdrawal into the self and desperate leaps out into the world. At a mostly empty nightclub, while a black dancer performs an elaborate gymnastic striptease to hot jazz, you see the mostly silent couple struggling to remember that they chose to be alone, together; then it’s off to a “come-dressed-as-the-sick-soul-of-Europe” party, in Pauline Kael’s coinage, at the villa of a rich industrialist (it’s predictably full of vampiristic capital and vapid amusements, but also extras executing sight gags in the back of the frame, as if they’ve wandered in from a party at Fellini’s or Blake Edwards’s filmography). There, both meet depressed little rich girl Monica Vitti, with a pile of hair as black as runny mascara, who holds a mirror up to their sadness and inspires an upswelling of gratitude and dependency in Mastroianni and a draining-away of illusions in Moreau, the two wrestle to a stalemate in an ending Kubrick rewrote as happy for Eyes Wide Shut. Mark Asch (September 14-22 at Film Forum; showtimes daily)