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A curious thing about Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1961 classic La Notte: it moves faster each time I see it. I first discovered the movie years ago at a packed screening at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, and had been somewhat grudgingly impressed. The film depicts the last day in the life of a marriage, right up to the early-morning moment when Giovanni and Lidia (Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, at their best) can no longer deny that the love between them is extinguished. Their marriage has collapsed, and Antonioni means for us to experience all of the torpor, the despair and the ennui afflicting this couple.
On that first viewing, while the film felt entirely convincing emotionally, to me it came across as not just a long slog but suffocating as well. Only two hours long, but it felt as if we’d spent every minute of that last day with Mastroianni and Moreau. I left the theatre feeling like I’d just gotten out from under a crushing weight.
A few years later, at a September 2005 screening at LACMA, I liked the movie more, though part of the enjoyment may have stemmed from the thrill of having the 93-year-old director himself in the audience, just a few rows in front of me. It was hard not to regard the sight of Antonioni in person with awe — with his long face and shock of white hair, a more distinguished-looking figure would be hard to imagine. Years earlier Antonioni had been rendered mute by a stroke that also confined him to a wheelchair, but he was still creatively active and could still communicate through sign language and gestures, aided by his wife Enrica.
(Yes, he could communicate just fine. A few nights earlier the Motion Picture Academy had held a screening of The Passenger  with Antonioni and Jack Nicholson in attendance. On this uproarious occasion, Nicholson was jubilant and apparently half in the bag, and he overwhelmed a film professor who had the thankless task of trying to initiate a serious discussion onstage. The high point came when Antonioni delivered an unmistakable “Whatsamatta you”–type gesture to Nicholson, much to the hilarity of the audience. But despite the infectious high spirits onstage, my abiding impression of the evening was how clear it was that Nicholson loved Antonioni.)
When I saw La Notte a third time, as an assignment, I was struck by how speedily — speed being a relative concept here — it moves along in the first hour, building up to the painful, drawn-out, all-night party that makes up the film’s second half. During the party, the movie is considerably livened up by the arrival of Monica Vitti as an alluring playgirl, the jaded daughter of a wealthy industrialist.
The story is crammed with memorable incidents, telling details and shifting moods. Late in the afternoon of the day shown here, there’s still some sign of affection and need between Giovanni and Lidia; it still seems possible that their marriage could survive. Along the way, the atmosphere of a hot day in Milan is evoked with uncommon vividness. The seeming lack of a plot — famously, Jeanne Moreau’s Lidia goes for a long, meandering walk through Milan — generates its own kind of suspense (what is going to happen here?) and adds to the spontaneous, unpredictable feel.
Some critics have complained that the scenes of Lidia’s wanderings suffer from heavy-handed symbolism, but the sequence works if you don’t belabor the significance of what Lidia sees and instead sink into the random, moment-to-moment distractions of a melancholy late-afternoon stroll.
Above all, the movie now seems achingly sad to me from the get-go, suffused with the weight of experience, shot through with regret. The viewer certainly believes that this is what it feels like when a marriage peters out.
Contra the conventions of modern indie dramas, the emotional honesty and sense of intimacy here aren’t dependent on the use of a shaky digital camera that gets into the actors’ pores. Hell, no — this is Antonioni. Thus, the movie is visually stunning, in the most refined way: shots begin with one notable composition and then the camera moves, elegantly and unobtrusively, to find another striking tableau within the same scene. The use of deep focus, even in seemingly mundane settings, is exceptionally thoughtful, sophisticated.
And this being Antonioni, the camera is remarkably attuned to each environment, whether modern architecture or desolate lots, and how the space weighs on the characters — and the dead end of their relationship.
Feel like a quick fix of ‘exquisite alienation’? Check out Criterion’s “Three Reasons” trailer for La Notte:
Click here for a review of Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960).