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La Notte
cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, and Monica Vitti

director: Michelangelo Antonioni

118 minutes (PG) 1961
widescreen ratio 1.75:1
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
A year on from Luchino Visconti's Rocco And His Brothers, Milan seems a very different place. The stunning aerial views of the city under the opening credits suggest vistas of plenty from 'smart town apartments' and here too, as in the song by Roxy Music, there is In Every Dream Home A Heartache. While Visconti considered the dehumanising effects of a move to the city by sound peasant stock seeking to better themselves, Antonioni examines the angst ridden navel gazing of the intelligentsia.

Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroiannni, Ginger And Fred) is a successful novelist; with his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau, Jules et Jim) he visits their dying friend Tommaso. Presumably, Tommaso has cancer. We see his doctor administer morphine and the nursing home indulges him by serving champagne to him and his guests. Tommaso suggests that the nurse who serves them isn't medically qualified she is simply employed as an attractive distraction. Tommaso and Giovanni talk books, and the former introduces the couple to his mother as his only friends. Lidia says she has to leave and outside gives in to tears. When he leaves Giovanni is waylaid by a disturbed young women in the next room, he gives in to temptation and goes into her room where she strips and encourages him to caress her on her bed, whereupon the nursing staff disturb them and Giovanni makes a rapid exit. When Giovanni tries to confess to Lidia she is dismissive.

The couple attend a book party to celebrate Giovanni's novel; he is forced to answer vapid questions such as which side of his book does he sign. Lidia leaves and wanders the streets, staring frankly into the faces of taxi drivers and running her hands over broken plaster on walls; there is the suggestion that she is seeking some form of experience denied to her. Lidia takes a taxi to a part of town that obviously has some significance for her; it turns out that the humble neighbourhood is where she and Giovanni first lived. Lidia watches the young men launch huge rockets from the park, and intercedes when she observes a gang fight. While Lidia roams the city Giovanni dozes in his study, book-lined and filled with heaps of periodicals.

Reunited, Lidia suggests that the pair attend a party to which Giovanni has been invited by millionaire Gheradini, she teases her husband that he is to become the latter's "tame intellectual." The pair rarely go out, but as Lidia suggests "one must do something." When she cannot face Gheradini, Giovanni takes Lidia to a nightclub where a black dancer in an increasing state of undress performs acrobatics with a wine glass. Lidia changes her mind and the couple go on to the millionaire's.

Giovanni attempts to romance the Gheradini's troubled daughter Valentina (Monica Vitti, Modesty Blaise), while Lidia initially responds to the attentions of the playboy Roberto before rejecting him. Gheradini has a proposition for Giovanni, to enhance the cultural life of his workforce he wants him to write a history of his company and take up an executive post. Gheradini mentions in passing that Lidia came from a wealthy family; this alters the perception of the relationship, given the earlier visit to the humble part of Milan where the couple first lived. Gheradini's relatively throwaway remark opens up a subtext that perhaps Lidia gave up a privileged background to follow her intellectual lover.

That Giovanni and Lidia's relationship has reached a state of ennui is indicated with such subtlety that certain scenes only resonate in retrospect. Lidia is unconcerned with Giovanni's flirting; she has no jealousy but observes him as if attempting to recapture an experience of emotional involvement. Bathing before their night out, Lidia asks to be passed the sponge and seems genuinely disappointed when that is all her husband does. She gets out of the bath and in a rare moment of tenderness he wraps her robe about her, she enjoys the sensation but the moment passes. He observes that she has a new dress and, smiling, she does a catwalk promenade for him, but her expression fades when he makes no further comment. The scenes with Giovanni and Lidia and Valentina play like something by Harold Pinter, the grotesque choreography of his The Collection perhaps. Helping Lidia get dry after her dalliance with Roberto in the rain, Valentina suggests Lidia remove her wet dress but the latter, unwilling to make herself vulnerable, questions the younger woman's intentions. Giovanni only approaches animation in the film when he discusses his art, even though he seems to concede that he is suffering writer's block; he queries the very act of writing itself.

This film is slow and heavy with meaning, although the meaning may be obscure. Not everything in life may be of significance; the audience is allowed a glimpse into the slow decline into inertia of a marriage, why this relationship has reached this impasse is only hinted at. Jeanne Moreau looks fantastic in this film; she can allow herself to look tired and older than her 33 years yet when she smiles her face is lifted into radiance. Monica Vitti is only three years younger than Moreau yet her character is supposed to be 22; this just about works as one tends to remark on the maturity of Valentina rather than scoffing at the conceit. The one point when Lidia seems truly to lose herself in delight is a partly obscured scene in which she and Roberto cruise in his car in torrential rain, they engage in an animated conversation but we never know what they are discussing, when they emerge and teeter on the brink of passion Lidia withdraws into her shell once more.

Lidia rings the nursing home and discovers Tomasso has died. Rather than go home she and Giovanni take a walk in the grounds of Gheradini's home. What seems to be open countryside is actually a full-sized golf course, another layer of artificiality. Lidia reads a piece of prose affirming love for her, Giovanni asks who wrote it and when she tells him it was him he suddenly seems to rediscover his passion for her. She complains that she no longer loves him but he persists, and as the camera leaves them to it they presumably consummate another delay in their inevitable estrangement.

Not to everyone's taste, one imagines, but worth viewing to enjoy three excellent central performances, and to put Antonioni's later work for MGM, Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point, and The Passenger, into some sort of cultural context.
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