The troubling, ineffable vacuity at the centre of the lives of Italy’s wealthy elite during the early 1960s formed the rarefied subject matter for a ground-breaking series of cinematic works made by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni between 1959 and 1964; this ‘tetralogy’ consisted of four mature masterpieces which broke new and sophisticated ground in the development of film grammar with their willingness to abandon traditional ‘consequentialist’ narrative story-telling structures, in favour of a determined effort to portray the interior lives of their subjects through carefully framed, exquisitely composed and highly stylised pictorial renderings emphasising the surface details of their environments, and the contingent events occurring around the central characters. Each film takes the emotional life and relationships of a specific couple for its subject matter, locating them at the intersection of a transitional period in the development of postwar Italy near the end of the fifties. Antonioni’s characters occupy a limited spectrum of privileged positions at the hub of the country’s rapidly industrialising commercial centres during a milieu defined by the old giving way to a threatening form of modernity. While providing the viewer no clear, lisible access to his characters’ inner thoughts in a way that might fix the subject of the exterior narrative for these films, Antonioni nevertheless manages to anatomise their mores, gestures, and, most strikingly in the case of “La Notte”, comment on their world in purely compositional terms through the particulars of the architecture which surrounds them -- casting an unblinking camera lens over this immaculately made landscape of consumer affluence and the crises of existence it provokes.
Each film has its own particular focus and emphasis and there is a development of cinematic technique throughout the initial trilogy of black and white films, culminating in the colour experiments of “The Red Desert” in 1964, yet each is intimately connected by a chilly air of formal detachment that appears to relate their central characters’ affairs to a problem of inauthenticity: a neurotic self-absorption allied with an arid purposelessness infects the heart of their interactions, as each of Antonioni’s beautifully sterile subjects seem to be set adrift amid a series of contingent events in often plush, upper-class yet profoundly alienating surroundings, where ambiguous feelings, fleeting thoughts and conflicted emotions come to seem as though they constitute as much of a mystery to the people experiencing them as they do to each other … as well as to us as viewers. Any hope of understanding can only be achieved by intense observation, always from the outside looking in. But there is always in Antonioni’s work that feeling that something is missing from our perception which requires from us ever more vigilante scrutinisation – and that the images which document the minutia of these characters’ behaviours can never be definitively interpreted or made entirely legible. This recreates in the viewer’s response to the works an acute sense of the emotional brittleness and fragility which affects the characters themselves -- an un-anchored drift which lending the films, ironically enough, a strange, lingering emotional resonance that elevates their meaning despite the fact that, at first glance, they appear to be about nothing in particular, with even those traditional plot threads which do appear as initial anchors of interest, rapidly dissipating in their relevance by the end.
This sense of drifting, implacable ennui particularly defines the second film in the tetralogy, which examines the long-term marriage of newly successful novelist Giovanni Pontano and his wife Lidia, and follows the events leading up to and including an all-night party they attend on the grounds of a plush villa owned by a wealthy industrialist (Vincenzo Corbella) who wishes to offer Giovanni an extremely well-paid and secure job as his biographer and commission him to write a hagiography of both himself and his company. To play this apparently happy, wealthy, good-looking couple, Antonioni cast Italian cinema’s number one leading man at that moment in time, Marcello Mastroianni – by then already identifiable as the primary exponent of the cool, detached, urbanely sophisticated womaniser type in Italian cinema – alongside the revered French actress Jeanne Moreau as his glamorous but introverted wife. The first half of the film follows them through an apparently random series of events against the backdrop of Milan’s imposing glass fronted tower blocks and the surrounding lower class suburbs. The couple first visit together a dying mutual friend in his private ward overlooking the old quarter of the city; from there they move straight on to a crowded, frivolous reception held by Giovanni’s publicists to celebrate the imminent publication of his new novel. Each then have separate experiences in the city, before finally coming together again at their apartment where they get ready to spend the night in social activity -- first going for drinks at a sophisticated cocktail lounge where they witness a raunchy floorshow in the evening; then to the industrialist’s house party, the events of which take up the entire second half of the movie. During the course of the night’s festivities, the couple’s marriage reaches a crisis point hinted at in the subtext of previous experiences and the thoughts and emotions provoked by them. By the end of this night, nothing about the malaise at the heart of their relationship has been resolved, but each of them has gained a clearer perception of the nature of the dysfunction which defines their marriage, while the husband continues to believe he can overcome ignore the problem through sheer force of will.
A clinical examination of a failing marriage amongst a wealthy, socially rarefied elite in 1960s Italy, hardly seems like compelling subject matter at first glance, and the lack of any structured plot might put off newcomers to the Antonionian world before they even start, but “La Notte” and its companions are works that cast a subtle spell the first time you see them and they only gain in hypnotic glory with each return. “La Notte” initially grabs us by establishing a weirdly unsettling atmosphere that almost hints at a science fiction landscape, as Antonioni’s camera descends the elegantly tapered modernist contours of what was until recently Italy’s tallest building -- the 32-storey skyscraper Grattacielo Pirelli, built in 1956 to commemorate the site of the first 19th century factory of the Pirelli Corporation. The cityscape of old Milan below is reflected in the glass frontage of the building, the apparently endless camera descent inducing a dissociative effect (augmented by the use of odd, discordant electronic music on the soundtrack, heard nowhere else in the film) that is caused by the tower’s sheer height emphasising the abstractness of the straight geometric lines of the buildings edges, and making the faraway city below seem unmoving in relation to the rapidly descending camera.
From the film’s opening frames the central importance of the crystalline monochrome cinematography of Gianni Di Venanzo for eliciting the striking compositional effects so central to Antonioni’s unique aesthetic is made abundantly manifest: the use the director makes of the placement of the camera, the type of lenses selected and the preponderance of high angle crane shots -- or deep focus shots of the backs of people’s heads as they observe the scene that is before them while their reaction to it is obscured to the viewer’s eye, are re-occurring visual touches of style and technique that are combined throughout the picture to establish an assured texture and depth even when the content of a sequence may seem idle or of minor interest. The scene in which Giovanni and Lidia visit their sick friend Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki) in hospital, first establishes the feeling of emotional distance between the married couple by using a wide-angle lens in the small room and placing them on either side of the stricken patient, so that the distance of their physical separation seems greater than the smallness of the room actually allows for. The juxtaposition of the graveness of the situation – Tommaso facing his imminent death – with the importance the patient continues to attach to the publication of his friend Giovanni’s book, and the way in which the private hospital ward’s sleek environs have been furnished with all the mod-cons of elegance and sophistication – buckets of iced Champagne on tap and pretty nurses employed to distract the patient from the inevitable, etc. – becomes a shallow spectacle of refined social interaction in the face of a subject no one wants to address directly and in the context of which Giovanni feels obliged to run through the motions of formal politeness (assuring his old friend that he’ll be back on his feet again in no time, even though they both know he has very little time left); Antonioni emphasises the sterile theatrical ritual of these interactions by having Tommaso’s elderly mother appear in the middle of Giovanni and Lidia’s visit, placing her at the back of the room and then often filming much of the rest of the scene from behind her head as though we as viewers were seated in the second row of a theatre performance. The motif of people remotely observing others in group situations or social activity is one of the most frequently re-occurring tropes in “La Notte”, bringing an atmosphere of alienation and introspection to the most frivolous of scenes; it is a quality that is particularly centred on Lidia. A profound separation between the central couple is suggested through their highly varied reaction to Tommaso’s plight: Lidia has to leave the room and wait outside the building, so overcome is she with distress at the sight of Tommaso wracked with pain; while Giovanni is propositioned by a young woman from one of the private wards two doors down from his friend’s room, and briefly engages in the beginnings of an erotic encounter with her before nurses rush in to chastise and sedate the patient and Giovanni realises that, far from being attracted to him for who he is, she is in fact being treated for nymphomania!
There are several striking things about this scene, not least the unlikeliness of ‘nymphomania’ apparently being considered a legitimate treatable medical condition in Milanese hospitals circa 1961. The physicality of the encounter is subjected to a microscopic analysis by Antonioni who has it play out against a blank white hospital wall that removes all depth and reduces the scene to two dimensions, as though it were an abstract display, its gestures of eroticism rendered entirely mechanical and perfunctory. It also serves to illustrate Giovanni’s capacity for being distracted by sex and all the other accouterments of a successful lifestyle he encounters at the dawn of the ‘60s, in a country that has recently experienced a radically transforming economic boom. The slavering nympho could almost stand for the groupie phenomenon, and Giovanni is evidently ready to embrace it to the full until reminded in the starkest terms of its pathological nature when he witnesses the patient attempting to kiss and caress the hands of the nurses even as they scold and slap her for her transgressions. While Giovanni revels in the superficial social chit chat of literary parties held in his honour and in the various fripperies afforded him by his success as a public intellectual, fully enjoying all the superficial trappings his wealth and newly acquired status bring with it, Lidia is isolated from the entire scene -- always pictured mutely standing apart and observing it from a distance. In what is perhaps the film’s most justly celebrated and best remembered extended sequence, she attempts to escape the oppressive atmosphere of a literary reception by taking to Milan’s teeming streets, becoming lost amid the crowds streaming past the glass store fronts and the blaring traffic at the centre of the city, and dwarfed by its monolithic buildings (one particular shot of Jeanne Moreau in a floral summer dress, squeezed into the bottom left of a shot taken from an elevated crane that is otherwise almost entirely given over to a blank, grey, slab-like side of a towering building, has surly come to signify the Antonioni aesthetic of existential loneliness represented through architectural detail and landscape terms par excellence). This flight through the city eventually takes her to its rundown outskirts where she watches some local toughs engaging in a ritual fight and some young men setting off rockets on some parched scrubland. We learn that this area is where Giovanni and Lidia used to live when they were first married. Lidia is keen to remind herself of happier times in the relationship, but this nostalgic trip down memory lane holds little interest for Giovanni, who is content to enjoy the elegant party lifestyle of the minor celebrity, if only as a means of escape from his own fear that he no longer has the artistic inspiration or talent necessary to sustain it for very much longer.
The second hour of the film, in which the couple attend industrialist Mr Gherardini’s all-night garden party with the chattering great and good of Milan’s upper middle class society, brings the inauthentic nature of the couple’s ailing relationship into sharp focus with Giovanni pursuing a trivial rapport with a young female fan of his novel and openly flirting with Valentina (Monica Vitti), the pretty bewigged twenty-three-year-old daughter of the party’s wealthy host, whom he first encounters playing her own made up game with her compact on the chequered floor of the main reception area, but who will ultimately rejects him. Meanwhile, Lidia briefly engages with a handsome party guest, Roberto (Giorgio Negro), after a sudden torrential downpour on the party guests and an attendant power cut during the indoor celebrations, briefly allow her a pretext for losing her inhibitions and becoming for a short time as one with the rest of the guests -- to the extent that she is prepared to join them in jumping fully-clothed into the outdoor swimming pool. This hour-long segment of the movie allows the trio of Mastroianni, Moreau and Monica Vitti (who appears in all four pictures making up the tetralogy) to engage in an acting tour de force, full of subtle displays of internalised thought and shifting emotional landscapes suggested by a mere glance as their characters come together and break apart in an complex undulating tapestry of personal interactions with each other and the other guests. Antonioni crafts each and every shot into an exquisite, framable piece of potential portraiture, capable of being freeze-framed and used as a perfectly composed still life; but it is the sensitivity of his actors whose work here is of paramount importance, and turns this film from being merely an artfully shot confection into the work of art it was and still is though.
The cool jazz soundtrack by Giorgio Gaslini provides a sophisticated context for the gorgeous black and white imagery (now rendered pin-sharp in HD) provided throughout by Venanzo, who would go on to photograph Mastroianni in pristine black and white again two years later in “8 ½” for Fellini. “La Notte” is cold and ambiguous -- a perfectly crafted rendering of empty reflective surfaces, it seems to have a boundless capacity for sustaining interpretive meanings. It is oblique yet always fully emotionally present while defying any attempt to completely capture its essence in words, as all good movies should in the final analysis. This Blu-ray release from Masters of Cinema features a pleasing upgrade on the DVD version. There are a few blemishes and the occasional hair in the film gate, but the extra clarity and visual texture evident in this upgraded transfer will undoubtedly be reward enough for fans of Antonioni’s pristine compositions. The only extra beside the film’s Italian trailer is a lengthy booklet featuring Brad Stevens’ analysis of the film’s shifting array of meanings alongside a transcript of a Q & A session, which took place in Rome in 1961 just after the release of “la Notte”, in which Michelangelo Antonioni answers questions from journalists about his work in a revealing and candid summing up of the kinds of effects he had been attempting to achieve with his films up to that point. There is also a scrap book of quotes relating to “la Notte” and the booklet contains a plethora of black and white production stills and some fascinating behind-the-scenes shots of the director and the lead actors relaxing off screen. A very worthy new high-definition upgrade of a masterpiece of 20th century European cinema.