The Most Famous Films I've Never Seen...Until Now (Part 4 of 10): In Antonioni-land

A typically striking and off-putting Antonioni composition from La Notte (1961), the second film in his so-called Italian trilogy.  I’d already seen the other two films—the masterpieces L’Avventura (1960) and L’Eclisse (1962)—mainly because Criterion has blessed us with fine editions of both.  Despite long-held rumors about Criterion giving La Notte the same treatment, that film has only been released in North America by the dreaded Fox Lorber, and it’s quite a hack job (non-anamorphic, burned-in subtitles, etc.)  So even though I’d heard a lot about La Notte I’d never actually bothered to track down the DVD until now. 

Is it me, or does the film fail to match the brilliance of the two films that bookend it?  It’s an admittedly great film, and it complements L’Avventura and L’Eclisse beautifully; I love the way that (as Richard Pena suggests) L’Eclisse seems to pick up where La Notte leaves off, in the cold light of dawn, with Monica Vitti and Francisco Rabal taking the places of Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni as the disaffected couple.  Antonioni shows a painterly regard for repetition with variation; the three films are thematically and stylistically related rather than explicitly connected as segments of a continuous story, rather more like a triptych than a narrative sequence.  Nevertheless, La Notte feels like the slightest of the three.  It lacks the unnerving quality that we find in L’Avventura and L’Eclisse—that eerie, alien tone that Antonioni perfected in those films.  Watching them, you reach a point where you feel like you’ve passed over into some other realm of reality.  Even though you’re ostensibly watching “realistic” representations of people doing rather ordinary things (walking through cities, dancing, having conversations) you start to feel like you’re in what Gene Youngblood calls a kind of “netherworld or dreamscape” where “people don’t go to jobs [and] they dress up and wear ties and dress clothes all the time.”  It’s that sense of defamiliarization—that ability to suddenly make Italian glamour ominous and weird, without losing any of its stylishness—that makes L’Avventura and L’Eclisse so exciting and mysterious. 

La Notte captures that same tone when Jeanne Moreau wanders through the streets of Milan and eventually finds herself in a kind of garbage dump/waste land at the edge of the city.  Antonioni’s expert handling of composition, his sensitivity to architecture, buildings, and physical space, is on full display there.  Elsewhere, things get a bit dull.  Pauline Kael (who roundly praised L’Avventura) accused La Notte of posturing: “how exquisitely bored and decadent are the Antonioni figures, moving through their spiritual wasteland, how fashionable is their despair.”  My reaction to the film wasn’t as hostile as Kael’s, and I also realize that quibbling about early 1960s Antonioni is like fussing over Picasso; we should be so lucky as to have more films today that are as formally experimental (the work of Steve McQueen and Kelly Reichardt seem to me contemporary equivalents).  La Notte just didn’t seem to me to shimmer with the same glamorous menace that makes Antonioni’s other films truly great.  Maybe a properly mounted Criterion release of the film would convince me otherwise.     

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