Alienation and Nuclear Eclipse

Sep 18, 2004 (Updated Feb 4, 2006)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Monica Vitti, Alain Delon, magnificent Antonioni direction and images

Cons:Themes will seem trivial to some, marginal print quality, little plot and sparse dialog

The Bottom Line: Highly recommended final installment of the Antonioni trilogy pertaining to bourgeois alienation and angst.


The films of Michelangelo Antonioni are better known for their style points than for their substance. Typically, his films have little plot, dialogue, or action, but the beauty and poetry of the visual images is a real highlight. You’ll enjoy his films only if you’ve learned to focus on the creativity of the imagery rather than mainly concentrating on the story.

Historical Background: L’Eclisse (1962) was the final installment in what is often considered a loose trilogy of films from Michelangelo Antonioni pertaining to bourgeois alienation. The series began with the great L’Avventura (1960), continued with La Notte (1961), and culminated with the present film. This trilogy and Red Desert (1964) are the films for which Antonioni is best known. In my opinion, L’Eclisse is the most accessible and readily enjoyable of the three films of the trilogy though I consider L’Avventura the greatest of the three based on originality, beauty, and depth of issues.

The Story: The opening scene of L’Eclisse is quite remarkable and draws viewers in immediately. A man is seated at a table while a woman is standing or pacing nearby. For the longest time, we hear only the sound of a fan whirring in the background. The air is fraught with tension. We wait and wait some more. Bit by bit, we learn that this is a pair of lovers who have quarreled all night long. The woman, Vittoria (Monica Vitti) has reached the conclusion, finally, that it’s time to end her relationship with Riccardo (Louis Seigner) and move on. Riccardo is desperate to preserve the relationship or, at least, have sex one last time. Vittoria leaves, but Riccardo pursues her in his car, offering to give her a ride home. She’ll walk instead. Riccardo insists that he’ll at least walk her home. Finally, Riccardo has to accept his fate, and closes the gate behind him as he leaves her at her apartment.

Vittoria goes to visit her mother at the stock exchange, where her mother speculates in stock trading. It is a wild atmosphere, loud and aggressive, where the mostly male participants shout bids and sales at one another. The overall impression is one of fake people fighting like predatory animals over fake money. One stock broker is the young and handsome Piero (Alain Delon). Though juggling phone calls on multiple lines and exchanging transactions with innumerable other brokers, he still manages to spot the gorgeous Vittoria. The stock market ultimately plummets, causing some to lose millions, including Vittoria’s mother. Piero, however, finds some compensation in seducing Vittoria. Soon they are involved in the eternal dance. He wants sex, she resists, plays coy and teases, makes him wait, makes him wait some more, then finally gives in. They barely know each other’s names but both are beautiful, so the surface attraction is there.

There are a couple of charming diversionary scenes. In one, Vittoria and two of her girlfriends get together to socialize and the conversation turns to Kenya, where one of the girls usually resides. There’s some racist references to the blacks in Kenya, suggesting how few of them are educated or fit for leadership. Vittoria, however, is fascinated by the pictures of the natives and native paraphernalia sitting around her friend’s apartment. She dresses up like a native, darkens her skin with makeup, and does a very entertaining native dance – or at least a white person’s conception of a native. I’m not sure if the segment is racially offensive or not, but it is certainly entertaining. There’s another appealing scene where two of the young women take a plane ride with two men through the clouds. These scenes suggest Antonioni’s notion that we would all be better off if we were less civilized and more attuned to nature.

The final segment of the film removes the story from the confines of the primary characters and expands it to the life of the city and issues of urban squalor and depersonalization. It’s a brilliant montage that makes its points poetically. The sequence ends in a glow of white light which many interpret as the eclipse of civilization in nuclear holocaust.

Themes: All three of Antonioni’s trilogy films are about alienation and existential angst. All three involve characters belonging to the Italian upper middle class or upper class. How one responds to Antonioni’s themes depends, I think, on one’s own circumstances in life. Antonioni has a valid point to make but one could question just how important it is in the hierarchy of issues confronting people around the world.

I imagine that issues like alienation and ennui among the haut-bourgeois do not impress the vast majority of people around the world as particularly pressing concerns. Most people are much further back in their ascent along Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We could start with everyone who is starving or watching their children starve, everyone who is at risk of being murdered or bombed by political enemies, everyone suffering from a debilitating disease, and everyone with an overwhelming mental health problem in constructing a list of those who would find Antonioni’s issues laughably inconsequential. For most people in the world, the foremost factors standing between them and a basic level of happiness are external rather than psychological. That’s not to say that people in poverty or pain don’t also suffer crises of spirit or psyche, but only that no amount of philosophical nurturance will provide an adequate answer to hunger. We don’t suggest to people that they should learn to appreciate their starvation.

Nevertheless, there is some value as well in exploring the crises of mind that await people who have achieved a quality of life that satisfies the most basic needs for sustenance and security. It is common knowledge that wealth is no guarantee of happiness even if poverty is a near-guarantee of unhappiness. Antonioni’s interest is in exploring those elements of the human mind that interfere with happiness even when a person is blessed with a sufficiency of resources. On one level, Vittoria has everything going for her. She is intelligent, apparently speaking at least two languages since she finds work as a translator. She has money enough for fine clothes and a comfortable place to live (with her mother). Vittoria is uncommonly beautiful and at no loss for male companionship of whatever variety she desires. Nevertheless, despite isolated moments of gaiety, it is evident to viewers that Vittoria is seething with dissatisfaction with her life. She feels unable to connect with the people in her life (lovers, girlfriends, her mother) or with the chaos and unnaturalness of modern city living.

Antonioni reveals, in L’Eclisse, what he believes to be some of the factors behind bourgeois alienation and angst. Some of Antonioni’s culprits seem credible to me while others, in my opinion, are partly his own prejudices. One issue raised in Antonioni films is “shallowness” of values and psychology among the middle class. I think one has to be cautious in applying the concept of “shallowness” to others lest one manifest simple arrogance and self-deception. There are many people that I meet or observe to whom I could readily apply the term “shallow” – from my own vantage point. Perhaps it is a person with no interest in the arts, literature, or philosophy, little understanding of science or logic, and politically naïve. It’s likely to be a person whose idea of a good time is guzzling alcoholic beverages while hanging out in a bar enjoying banal small talk with a group of friends. Some of these same people that I might view as leading “shallow” lives might look at my life and snicker at the shallowness of my intellectual pretensions and obsession with stuffy old art works or overly erudite ideas. “Shallowness”, to some extent, is in the eye of the beholder. If, however, a person is himself dissatisfied with the banality of his own existence, that’s another issue. Antonioni presents us with characters that have that kind of personal dissatisfaction with their own lives (angst and ennui), but I would contend that the vast majority of people that an observer might think ought to be dissatisfied with the banality of their lives are actually quite happy with their lives.

One particular category of shallowness is emptiness in relationships. Vittoria has fallen out of love with Riccardo and can muster no sense of commitment to him without the motivation furnished by burning desire. Later, she takes up with Piero, but without strong attachment. She says, “I wish I did not love you unless I loved you more.” Then, she adds, “To love I think one shouldn’t know the other. But then, maybe one shouldn’t love at all.” Is that shallow? Maybe, but not necessarily. I would find it so, but I once knew a young man who was a classic perennial bachelor and quite content to be so. Nevertheless, he had the sexual needs of an average young man and dated “for sex”, but having to intention of letting any relationship progress into a deeper commitment. He was honest enough not to misrepresent his intentions to his lady friends. He understood his own needs and preferences and lived his life accordingly. Vittoria may decide that she is incapable of deep psychic connection with another person but needs that physical thing from time to time. To me, it’s only an issue if she herself is dissatisfied with her inability to find deeper love.

Another item in Antonioni’s pantheon of culprits is urban squalor and dehumanizing modern architecture. There’s a marvelous montage at the end of L’Eclisse by which Antonioni poetically expands the breadth of his story from his characters to humanity in general by the device of turning the city itself into a character. We see a sequence of pictures of debris, displeasing architecture, flashing signs and crosswalks that are jarring to the eye, and nature barely able to poke its head through the concrete in the form of a few trees lining a boulevard. Antonioni suggests, here, that our hyper-techno and industrialized society is inherently alienating. Antonioni greatly expanded on this theme, later, in his film Red Desert (1964). Well, again, I think that Antonioni is ignoring that this issue is a combination of choices forced on us and choices freely made. For people living in poverty in inner city ghettos, the case can be made that squalor is something foisted on them. Their options are limited. For the bourgeois, urban squalor is, for some, a choice freely made. I once had guests from New York City visiting my rural cottage in Maine who were disgusted by the unavailability of concrete on the paths through the woods. They didn’t like the unsure footing and the dirty naturalness of it all. I once dated a gal and when talk turned to possibly living together her one condition was that she would not move out of the city. Many people get comfortable with what they are used to. For some, there can be too much nature!

Finally, L’Eclisse raises issues about the potential problem of having too much too soon. Being the most popular kid in high school, for example, is sometimes the kiss of death. When one has that much “success” with what one already has in the way of skills, what is the incentive to develop deeper qualities, capabilities and interests? A similar kind of point could also be made about the effect of acquiring too much wealth too easily. It takes away one of the usual motivating factors in living that provides us with a sense of orientation. Vittoria is an uncommonly attractive woman – the kind that turns men’s heads. Personality wise, she is somewhat sullen, undependable, and self-absorbed. The men she will attract are all those who admire a beautiful face and body and who are not particularly interested in what’s underneath. All of us average looking people tend to assume that being utterly gorgeous would be an unmitigated blessing. We forget that gorgeous people of either gender have to spend a goodly part of their lives fending off unwanted advances. Furthermore, exceptionally gorgeous people are likely to attract the interest of people with the shallowest of motivations. Had Vittoria been less beautiful, she might have had better luck meeting a man who would love her for her inner self rather than her surface beauty. She may have a cold exterior that is difficult to penetrate but most men probably have little interest in trying. They’ll settle for sex with that cold but beautiful exterior. There is one telling moment in L’Eclisse where Vittoria has phoned a mutual male friend of herself and Riccardo to tell him that Riccardo is having difficulty with the breakup and asking the man “to stay close to Riccardo.” The man replies, “I’d rather stay close to you”, to which Vittoria responds with a pained look of disgust.

Production Values: Antonioni’s forte is style more than substance. The visual composition of his shots is often exceptional. The camera will sometimes turn from one of the characters and close in on an object – a sculpture, a knickknack, a piece of clothing. Interesting lighting effects are common in Antonioni films. Much of the story and messages are provided through visual images rather than dialog or plot. Antonioni’s filmmaking philosophy emphasizes film as visual poetry.

Monica Vitti is on camera in this film much of the time. It is her face that sustains us and excites our curiosity (and, for many, lust as well). She manages to come across as an ever-changing constant! The constant is her underlying inner angst that manages to coexist with laughter, passion, anger, quiet reflection, and a host of other transient emotions. Monica Vitti’s career was made by her work with Antonioni. Alain Delon is as beautiful in his own way as Vitti. His other career highlights included Rocco and His Brothers (1960), The Leopard (1963), Is Paris Burning? (1966), and Le Samourai (1967).

Bottom-Line: I’d like to give this film 4.5 stars. It’s better than Red Desert, which I gave four, but not so great as L’Avventura, which I gave five. I’ll list it at four for lack of a better option. It’s not going to be a film for all viewers. You have to have developed an appreciation for visual imagery apart from elements of plot and narrative. The themes are of less than earth-shaking significance, but Antonioni makes his points effectively. L’Eclisse is in Italian with English subtitles. It is badly in need of restoration and perhaps Criterion or another company will get to it soon. The currently available VHS prints have scratches and debris. The running time is 118 minutes.


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You might want to check out these other excellent films from Italy:

Amarcord
L’Avventura
The Bicycle Thief
Christ Stopped at Eboli
Cinema Paradiso
The Conformist
Death in Venice
Divorce Italian Style
The Dreamers
8 ½
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
General della Rovere
The Last Emperor
The Leopard
Life is Beautiful
Malèna
Mamma Roma
Miracle in Milan
The Night of the Shooting Stars
Nights of Cabiria
La Notte
Padre Padrone
Il Postino
Rocco and His Brothers
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
Shoeshine
The Son’s Room
The Spider's Stratagem
Star Maker
Swept Away
Teorema
The Tree of Wooden Clogs
Umberto D.


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