David Reviews Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte [Criterion Blu-Ray Review]

La notte header

It isn’t fair to judge a classic film this way, but there’s no getting around the fact that in this era of watch-on-demand convenience, a movie’s accessibility and packaging have as big (if not bigger) an impact on its reputation among today’s cinephiles as the quality of its contents.

La notte‘s diminished standing as the most neglected and least appreciated of the three films in Michelangelo Antonioni’s early 1960s “alienation trilogy” can at least partly be traced to its lack of availability for quite a few years. The old Fox Lorber DVD issued in May of 2001 has been out of print for several years, leading to a badly inflated mark-up (in the $50-60 range) on the secondary market that crashed almost immediately when Criterion announced La notte as an October title earlier this year. Even when the disc could be easily obtained at retail price, the transfer was fuzzy, the image was non-anamorphic, the audio hissed and the glaring lack of any supplements left a lot to be desired. Long before hi-def blu-ray editions were even dreamed of, the overall package wilted drastically when compared to the robust treatment that Criterion gave to its predecessor L’avventura (released just a month later in June 2001) and successor L’eclisse (which had to wait another four years before it got it’s own dual-disc Criterion package.)

Now, like the proverbial neglected middle child who suddenly comes of age and gets her chance to shine in the spotlight, La notte is looking positively radiant in the glow of fresh scrutiny as a result of this week’s eagerly anticipated release on Criterion Blu-ray (and, oh yeah, there’s a DVD only version too – presumably the last new title they’ll ever release in split formats.) For many months, it was the title I listed as “Most wanted in the collection” on my personal My Criterion page – not that it was indisputably the best film out there but simply because its absence seemed the most glaring and inexplicable. Nobody does art house like Criterion, and when it comes to the very definition of “classic art house cinema,” the Antonioni/Monica Vitti collaborations have only a few rivals as textbook examples of the form. Now, happily, that void has been filled, and in fine, glistening high-contrast style that I expect will earn the film a new groundswell of admiration from viewers like me who’ve had to overcome a bit of low expectation bias based on some of the not-so-great things we heard or read about the film, or even saw in its inferior presentation. (I have a bootleg file of the DVD that I used to supply the mediocre screencaps accompanying this article – sorry, my assortment of blu-ray players don’t provide that function – so don’t let the muddy grays and pixely artifacts in that banner up top scare you away now!)

Another reason that La notte  may still be subject to ongoing disdain is that, upon first impression anyway, it seems like a wasted opportunity to have stars the magnitude of Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, each at the pinnacle of their youthful energy and appeal, take on roles that leave them expressionless and emotionally inert so much of the time. They portray Giovanni and Lidia, a handsome, affluent and childless couple who have been together for some years but are going through a critical downturn of passion, lacking even the simple ability to relate comfortably with each other without tossing in barbed gratuitous digs with each exchange. As marital spats go, their conflicts are muted, not especially intense or dramatic. The most apparent stressor that they’re dealing with is the rapid decline in health of a mutual friend, far too young to be in such a deadly predicament. Their visit to his bedside in the hospital clearly stirs up mournful thoughts of mortality, lost opportunities and wasted time, but the impact of the friend’s impending demise doesn’t overtly drive a wedge between them as much as it cracks open the facades of confidence and control that each of them rely on to keep their respective dis-eases concealed. As subtly as their roles are scripted, and as relatively little is asked of them in the emoting and line-reading departments, its hard to resist the conclusion that the impeccably stylish couple were cast mainly for their looks – almost like Bressonian “models,” only this time with major box office appeal.

For Moreau, this casting is not such a big deal, I suppose, because a lot of footage was shot for this film and many others where her primary function was to stroll around with an enigmatic but sharply focused gaze and an imperious determination in her fine, mincing stride. In that particular aspect of performance, I doubt that she’s ever been excelled by any of her peers, past or present, so her achievements in La notte rank right up there with the best of her career. Her eyes convey a relentlessly intelligent but increasingly weary assessment of the shallow and manipulative relational games going on around her. Primarily, it’s her distracted, inattentive husband who’s at fault. He’s a novelist of some repute, earning enough to travel in comfortable circles of society but increasingly self-absorbed and seemingly fatigued from the endless quest for anecdotal material he uses as filler for the stories he tells. As the beneficiary of Antonioni’s perennial benefit of the doubt in favor of the woman’s perspective, Moreau has the most to be proud of in her acting work here, but she’s not overtly brilliant in comparison to what Harriet AnderssonIngrid Thulin or even Gunnel Lindblom were doing in a different art house trilogy that Ingmar Bergman was directing right around this same time.

But Mastroianni’s role here is a different story altogether. His character comes across as strangely forlorn and tentative throughout the film, especially for a successful writer being celebrated in public and in private on the occasion of having his latest book published. We can take him at face value that he’s reached a point in which he’s become dismayed, perhaps even mildly nauseated, by all the praise and deference accorded to a popular intellectual of that time (back when Big Ideas seemed to matter a lot more than they do nowadays.) But it seems natural that he’d at least be a little more willing to go along with the ego-stroking formalities befitting his fame; instead, he comes across as a bit socially awkward, kind of a downer really, though not quite sick enough of it all to have a full-fledged existential crisis. His main vice is an exceeding vulnerability to random come-ons by beautiful young women in social circumstances where such behavior has highly unfavorable risk-to-reward ratios. Early on, he nearly allows himself to be raped by a hospitalized nymphomaniac in the room adjacent to his dying friend, until nurses barge in, start beating on the girl and allow the gentleman celebrity to make a smooth and dignified transition back to his normal routine. Later on at a lavish party thrown in his honor by a wealthy industrialist, Giovanni gets caught up in some tantalizingly cerebral flirtations with his host’s nubile daughter (gorgeous Monica Vitti, all slinky and inky in her raven locks and little black party dress.) He makes a move to embrace her, knowing (almost anticipating, actually) that his wife could step into the room at any moment, and he pulls away abruptly the instant a light switches on in the hallway. What exactly is he trying to accomplish in all this? I doubt that anybody has a persuasive answer to that question. Despite Mastroianni’s magnetic charisma and air of stylish virility, he doesn’t project much of a sex drive here. Fans of his, recognizing that this film was shot between some of his liveliest and most memorable performances in La dolce vita and Divorce Italian Style, might understandably feel a bit confused as to why he was never allowed to kick it into a higher gear in La notte.

Of course, it all has to do with Antonioni’s intentions. He wanted to create a film that kept viewers at some distance (yep, that whole “alienation” thing), but with enough substance and mystery apparent on the first pass to draw them in for further viewings and more sustained consideration. For viewers who really aren’t interested in having to cycle through a movie more than once to extract the insight it seeks to reveal, I don’t see any reason to recommend this film; its rewards weren’t as apparent to me even on the initial viewing as they were when I watched L’avventura and L’eclisse, which both do a better job at mesmerizing and dazzling their audiences through the power of their images and the beguiling intrigue of their story lines. Still, I have a lot of admiration for La notte, in that of the three films of this trilogy, it’s the one that speaks most powerfully to my experience and condition as a man going into his thirtieth year of marriage. That sense of diminished returns on the investment, the telepathic signaling of mistrust, suspicion and mutual fatigue, those signals that get crossed due to forgetfulness, spite, anxiety or a simple craving of diversion… my wife and I have been through all that, and I can only say with gratitude that while I’m glad we weathered the storm, there’s still a lot to learn from skillful depictions of such angst, since no couple is ever immune from the risk of such crises if they allow complacency to set in. What La notte may lack in overtly gut wrenching dramatic shifts, it profoundly communicates through dozens of knowing glances, forced smiles, bitten tongues, choked-back insults and, finally, desperate attempts to somehow force things to become right again.

And veering away from the personal applications for now, I also have high recommendations for those who might be inclined to simply admire the brilliant visual constructions that Antonioni and his d.p. Gianni Di Venanzo crafted here. One of the two new supplements on this disc, a meditation on the role that architecture plays in La notte, sheds tremendous light on details that will make a second, third or fourth viewing all the more enjoyable. It’s this abundance of ideas that Antonioni packs into his films that have made me a big fan of his work, eager to explore some of his less revered titles. Of course, stacked up next to other releases that Criterion has unleashed this year, La notte is fairly light when it comes to all the extra goodies, but as I’ve said, I’m quite grateful for this linchpin title from the Golden Age of Auteurism to finally take its rightful and long overdue place on the Criterion shelves.  And fr those who wish that this disc had been issued as part of a new box set including blu-ray upgrades of L’avventura and L’eclisse, I’ll preach patience – that day will come, I’m confident of that. But for now, I think it’s great that La notte can stand on its own merits and have the night all to itself.

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