Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Straps and eyes, fingers and existential nothingness

“It may be nothing.” – “Yes, it may be nothing.”
Nothingness: though scarcely explicitly expressed, it´s one of the issues all of the upper- middle class characters in Michelangelo Antonioni´s La notte are compelled to deal with.
But it´s not by accident that this nothingness is being expressed only near the end of the film in a dialogue between the two female protagonists.
The women (this suspicion is confirmed in the course of the film) seem to be the key to understanding this symbolically laden and challenging film, that tries to delve into the times of the sixties, into the mentality of the industrially booming postwar Italy.

Nothingness, and yet there is so much to say about this film, in which Monica Vitti and Jeanne Moreau play the roles of Valentina and Lidia so convincingly, both intangible and helping to “manifest their strange resistance to meaning of their numerous superabundance of it”, that we remain breathless.
The epicenter of the film are recently successful writer Giovanni Pontano and his on first sight eerie wife Lidia. The film starts with Giovanni and Lidia going to visit their fatally ill friend Tommasso Garano. That the existential ground, on which the protagonists are moving, dealing with life, death and nothingness, is never detached from sexuality – becomes clear, when the first strap falls off the shoulder onto the upper arm – here of the nymphomanic woman in the hospital. That this connection throughout the film will never be trivial becomes clear a moment after that when instead of reacting jealously to Giovanni’s liaison with the woman in the hospital she envies the woman’s inability to control herself, a hint to what Lidia will be struggling with, with her (in)ability to express herself, falling into nothingness instead.

One could write volumes just about the scene that follows:
Lidia – escaping her husband’s book party (and the intellectual middleclass), takes a taxi to San Sesto, walks through the streets, through a strange world which is not her world at all. She observes boys setting off rockets and fighting. The spectator, bewildered, wonders what she might be searching for and why, but we won´t find out. Nothingness again and no frame of reference to cling to, yet so much foreshadowed. The melancholy, the searching for sense, for independence, for own paths, the emptiness, the incapacity to express oneself (and to envy uncontrolled instead), the allusions to the industrial boom, for example in form of the rockets that are fired by the boys, the (only discreetly shown) class society of postwar italy - but we move on, and see Lidia calling her husband in order to get him pick her up, claiming that everything is alright.

Nothingness again in the nightclub and close-ups of Lidia’s fingers moving over the table, seeking Giovanni’s attention in vain.
The spectator is left behind with an eerie awkwardness, maybe feeling the nothingness that Lidia seems to be experiencing - implicitly expressed when Lidia changes her mind again and finally wants to go the party they were invited to “Tanto per fare qualcosa.” (Just to do something).
So we move on to the upper class party of the industrial magnate Gherardini, a paragon of a superficial and hypocritical high society party, composed brilliantly and perfected by the background sounds Antonioni chooses: a jazz band playing smooth jazz music, mixed with womens´ giggling and laughter and people exchanging empty phrases. It´s a party you don´t want to be at: nothingness again.

For the most part Giovanni and Lidia attend the party separately. Once in a while they are shown in shots together, we see the condescending glances Lidia throws at Giovanni or Giovanni asking Lidia, “ma è possibile che tu non ti diverti mai?” Answering that she enjoys herself more alone she points to a woman she saw inside “Anche li c´è una donna che si diverte da sola. È anche una bella ragazza.” It´s not the last time that we will see these two women paralleled.

So Valentina appears. She is playing a game on a huge chessboard, probably marble, childish like and erotically creeping over the floor, when Giovanni joins her. They start a strange flirtation that will last for the whole night. Their dialogues are minimalist, naive, existential, erotic, cynical and superficial at the same time . Astonishingly it´s especially Valentina who is leading the conversation, turning it around and it´s Giovanni following her.
While Giovanni is involved in this flirtatious exchange, Lidia calls the hospital and learns that their friend Tommasso just died. Lidia makes a slight effort to tell her husband but there is no space for death on the party and Giovanni interrupts her in order to follow Valentina. No space for death – yet it is so present.
So the party goes on.
And Lidia leaves the party with some man who asked her to dance.

Meanwhile: the downpour scene. With a sudden rainfall, women are diving childish-orgiastically into the swimming pool completely dressed. One woman is smoothing her body against a statue, kissing it over and over. It´s a strange mixture of uncontrolledness, instinct, and childish-orgiastic-erotic behaviour that is supposedly not by chance being let out in precisely that moment in which nature in form of a strong downpour comes into play. And instead of hearing women giggling or vulgar laughter in the background we get to hear women groaning.

On the other hand, there are women that are reflecting on a high level, for example Lidia and Gherardini’s wife, spitting out the truth and unmasking the hypocrisies of their husbands and the upper class mens’ world in general in an amusingly cynical way.

Back to the triangle comprised of Valentina, Giovanni and Lidia.
When Valentina finds out that Giovanni is married to Lidia, she feels “misery […] creeping back, like a melancholy dog.”
It´s exactly that melancholy, connected closely to the feeling of nothingness and emptiness, that the women in this film are able to feel and to express, unlike the men. At the same time, the “real feelings” seem to be made impossible and outcries become possible only in a hidden or covered way: – in the “immediate” behaviours of the women during the downpour, in the cynical objections of the industrialist’s wife or in the behaviours of the two female protagonists, in feelings of emptiness, in attempts to break out and escape or to distance themselves from the world by cynicism – but they are never as far away from the real world as the men.

So it´s always women to whom Antonioni in La notte leaves the most beautiful, the most depressing and frustrating, the most cynical, the most intelligent but also the most silly remarks.
And what all of these women seem to have in common is that their remarks seem to be the most unadulterated, immediate and therefore closest to truth.

The camera supports this focus on the women. It is permanently searching and observing their bodies, close-ups are shooting their eyes, their movements, their hands and fingers, maybe trying to follow their ways through this world. That these movements are often filmed in a highly sexualized way is only too “natural” – since sexuality is one of the ways the portrayed women try to stay alive, to feel something, desperately. But even this assumption, and here we see Antonioni´s ability to never become simple or bromidic, is breached when Lidia states to have found her real vice: “it´s warm, it´s soft” and it´s got nothing to do with sexuality, it´s alcohol.

She admits her vice in a scene, that might be of high interest approaching the film: Lidia is coming back from her short excursion with the man she was flirting with, wet from the rain, and meets Valentina and Giovanni in the hallway. Valentina asks her to come with her to help her get dry.
Lidia confesses her despair to Valentina with Giovanni standing unnoticed by the two in the background, in the doorframe. She says, “Stasera vorrei solo morire. (Tonight, all I want to do is dying). An end to this agony, something new.” And Valentina answers, “It may be nothing.” “Yes, it may be nothing,” confirms Lidia. And it´s obvious that this agony Lidia is experiencing is her fight against nothingness.

When Giovanni and Lidia turn around to leave the camera is taking a shot of three backs, two of which could easily be mistaken for one another: the same cut of the dress, the same color and cut of hair. We see two backs of women, of whom one is already fighting against her age, against an unloving and failing marriage, drowning her feelings of nothingness in alcohol, cynicism and silence, and the other one, still young, obviating nothingness with cynicism and in a mixture between childish and erotic behaviour. But both of them are still struggling with feelings – or the absence of feelings – and their senses are not yet suffocated by hypocrisy.

Asked about a potential new morality Antonioni distinctly expresses his disregards against morality or religion, claiming “We live in a society that compels us to go on using these concepts, and we no longer know what they mean… When man becomes reconciled to nature, when space becomes his true background, these words and concepts will have lost their meaning, and we will no longer have to use them.”
He opposes the artificiality and superficiality of the upper-middle-class in postwar and industrially booming Italy his search for a way, or way back, to “nature” and “truth”, discovering layers relentlessly, letting the camera go in search of the truth. “We know that under the image revealed there is another which is truer to reality and under this image still another and yet again still another under this last one, right down to the true image of that reality, absolute, mysterious, which no one will ever see or perhaps right down to the decomposition of any image, of any reality.” (Encountering Directors, 23).
So is that the womens’ role?
Women as the key to truth? Women as a path to immediacy?
Are women, according to Antonioni ,the way back to nature, a door to the right path? Looking at the way he gives voice to them in La notte it seems a possible interpretation. And one could again quote Antonioni, who claims the female sensibility to be a “much more precise filter than anyone else´s, and because the man, in the area of feelings is almost always incapable of understanding reality, since he tried to dominate.” (Dictionary of films, Georges Sadoul, 250).

It´s a point of view that cannot bear up against a postmodern feminism, but that is performed cinematically so brillantly and intelligent that you are tempted to excuse this point of view.



CDAbrams said...

First off, I'd like to say nice job Judith! Your post touched on many of the elements of the film that peaked my interest. I love your reference to the falling dress straps. Along the lines of what you wrote, and the Sitney article, sexuality and eroticism were definitely running themes. As Lidia wanders through the streets of marginal parts of Milan it seems she is "cruising," for sex. If we pay attention to her gaze on several men we many be able to see this more clearly. For example, Lidia cranes her neck to stare at two men as they walk and talk, and she suggestively giggles and touches her hair. More obviously, Lidia's interest is peaked by two young men brawling, and a different group of young men shooting rockets. The rockets may even be seen as phallic symbols (thanks Franz for the insight on this!), along with several other objects depicted, including the city sky scrapers and the cement posts lining the sidewalk where the elderly woman leaned to polish off a cup of ice cream. Despite all of these "tantalizing" images, Lidia does not act on her desire, leaving her empty and again with the "nothingness" that Judith so eloquently described.

Piero said...

Yes, good job Judith! Really, I feel like there is not much to add to your analysis! I will try with reporting my personal experience in watching the movie. I admit I started watching this movie without knowing much about it. In Italy, in fact, Antonioni, although considered an absolute artist, does not have a huge audience, and you can surely understand the reasons behind that. While watching it, the words nothingness, existentialism, absurd, emptiness, and senseless were turning in my head (well, Italian words were doing it...) and a book that haunts me since years appeared in my hands: Sartre's "Nausea". Interesting enough, to link my thoughts to part of your analysis, Antoine Roquentin, the main character of this book, tries to find a meaning in his existence by trying to re-establish a contact with the woman he loved. At the end of the movie, I thought it is the best cinematic representation of the existentialist philosophy.

sficano said...

What an in-depth analysis and summary! My only note is about "La Notte" perhaps being misnamed, with the other possibility being "La Noia" (Boredom!) I am still having a hard time wrapping my head around the concept of being bored not because the film is boring, but because the "reality of the film" is unable to communicate itself with the audience. I felt I was in that reality, trying to take interest in it, yet the bizarre aspects of the film did not allow me the chance to even want to connect with the messages. I never felt I did not understand the reality; it was more I did not want to be part of it. After our class discussion, I took a little more interest in the film as an artistic piece and the poetic construction of the symbolism (such as in the alley scene and what each element represented) but in terms of dialog... I just could not connect.

H Jennings said...

Judith I thought the arguments about the role of sexuality inthe film were very astute. The dynamic found between a married couple that are floundering as well as the atempt to find meaning and excitement outside of the relationship were an interesting plot point that recurred throughout the film. Antonioni had to have experienced way to many of these unfortunate parties in order to recreate the pain and triviality so well. Marcello also seemed to represent the role of ordinary people in post war Italy. THere is the familiar way of life (the wife) that led to a world of unknown fortune. However the riches are do not satisfy what Marcello thinks he wants so he moves from woman to woman trying to capture what he thinks he wants. Knowing deep down it has little to with a satisfying of sexual/ material needs but more an acceptance of possibilities and limitations within the self.