My retrospective of the films of Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007), which began before his death at the end of July, has reached what I still consider the high point of his films in black-and-white, the 1962 "L'eclisse" (Eclipse). Seeing the Antonioni films in order increased my appreciation for the first two in the "alienation trilogy": "L'Avventura" (1960) and "La Notte" (1961). As movies (that is with characters and plots being what matters most), they easily seem too slow and cryptic. But as visual composition that register fleeting, unarticulated emotions, all three films of the "trilogy" (which was never intended to be a trilogy) are masterpieces. "L'eclisse" is the most daring, with the most dazzling mise-en-scène and joins two of the most iconic beautiful screen stars ever -- Monica Vitti and Alain Delon -- in a romance... and in an embrace the still photograph of which rivals that of The Kiss between Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift from George Stevens's "A Place in the Sun in iconicity (neither of these couples were about to live happily ever after, though this is far more obvious in the shot from "L'eclisse" than from The Kiss...).
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Plot was of little interest to Antonioni, but knowing that there are many epinion denizens for whom the story is everything or close to everything, I will get it out of the way.
The famously "cubist" beginning gradually makes it clear that a couple have been up all night as the man (Riccardo, played by the somewhat rough-hewn Francisco Rabal) has been trying to convince the woman (Vittoria, embodied by the sublime Monica Vitti) not to break off their relationship (which involves her working for him doing translations). The viewer has no idea how long they had been together or what he did to make her want to break off the affair (she does not seem at all sure of this herself).
She goes to the Roman stock exchange (one subsidiary to the one in Milan, where the major investing is done, one where smaller investors gambled on what had been a temple built by the Emperor Hadrian). Her mother hangs out there. Her broker (Piero, embodied by Alain Delon while he was still the most beautiful man in the world) is frenetically buying a rising stock. He has noticed Vittoria before and is interested in bedding her (usually only making time for quick tricks with prostitutes). The middle of the film includes a hesitant (on her part) romance (and a drunk stealing his convertible and driving it into the Tiber).
She tells him that it would be better if she loved him more or loved him less. He is content to glean from this that she loves him some, and wants to marry her. Along with the embrace in which they are not looking at each other, this part includes my favorite verbal exchange from the film:
Pierro: You won't marry me?
Vittoria: I don't have any nostalgia for marriage.
Pierro: Where does nostalgia come in? You've never been married.
Pierro's question is IMO quite sensible, but Vittoria is not a woman who is going to marry from logic (if this category is not a null set!).
They make an appointment to meet at their usual rendez-vous point at 8 PM. That is the last we see of either of them (though there are instances ahead in which someone who looks like each of them appears). The last seven minutes of the film, during which the streetlights come on, contain 58 shots of the vicinity (things the viewer has seen before mostly). As "cubist" cinema, the end of "L'eclisse" is even more famous than the beginning. (I counted fourteen reflection shots, while reporting descriptive statistics.)
Don't go lookin' for plot in an Antonioni film! Look at what's on the screen.
Not much happens (though we see a boom-day and a bust-day of stocks, the stolen car, an escaped cat, and a very peculiar blackface dance by Vittoria) and those expecting what appears on screen to advance a plot are frustrated. This is not the way to watch an Antonioni film. Bergman said of Antonioni that he took great photographs, but was not much of a maker of movies, and there is something more akin going to a museum than going to a popcorn movie in watching Antonioni's films (giving rise to the "Antoniennui" slur). Antonioni himself rejected the demand that cinema be "only entertainment" -- and was very attuned to abstract art, including the anti-narrative "new novel" of Robbe-Grillet, Duras (, and Resnais, who filmed screenplays by each of them).
Dialogue is not very important (or frequent!) in Antonioni's films after "Il Grido" (1958), which, no doubt, made using French-speakers like Delon and Jeanne Moreau relatively simple. Moreover, there are many shots in Antonioni films--particularly "Il Grido" and those made after it--in which people are missing or irrelevant--not just the final seven minutes of "L'eclisse." He seems to me to have been very interested in urban landscapes--scars on Mother Earth, perhaps. In Monica Vitti, Antonioni found a sphynx for the camera to contemplate. She laughs and cavorts more in "L'eclisse" than in the other three films she made with Antonioni ("Il deserto rosso," his first film shot in color was the fourth) combined.
Vittoria is very conscious that she is cut off and doesn't fit in. Alain Delon's stockbroker, in contrast, works long hours and has little apparent craving for intimacy. Delon is far more animated playing Italians (in "L'eclisse," Il Gapparto," "The Yellow Rolls-Royce") than in his native language (where, especially in the films directed by Jean-Pierre Melville) he is super-super-cool (yes, alienated). Lord knows, the youthful Delon might have been made to show off Italian tailoring, but his animation (including talking with his hands in the Italian manner) makes him less a clothes-model than in his French films of the 1960s. There is something of the little boy here, rather than the too-cool-to-break-a-sweat Melville Delon.
The geography of the faces of Vitti and Delon are (to me) practically sufficient to make a film great. They have lines to speak, but they are great screen actors, which is to say that their body language and what flickers in their eyes are more important than what they say. And they both made their highly tailored clothes look great.
Although Geoffrey Nowell-Smith was writing specifically about "L'aventurra," it seems to me that what he wrote about Antonioni seeking "to capture the world of fleeting emotion, feelings which are unstable and crystallize only momentarily in the camera's gaze" applies even better to "L'eclisse," which also showed, as "L'Avventura" and "La Notte" had that "films do not have to be structured around major events, that very little drama can happen and a film can still be fascinating., and that "events in films do not have to be, in an obvious sense meaningful" (though humans being sense-making animals will read some in!). Antonioni's films of the 1960s (still quoting Nowell-Smith) presents its "characters behaving according to motivations unclear to themselves as much as to the audience.," while with the partial exception of the characters played by Monica Vitti "have little apparent consciousness of the lack of direction that afflicts them."
BTW (a leitmotif I have been tracing), Delon and Vitti do not have a roll in the dirt, though there is a scene of the two of them sitting on a hillside that links with scenes in "L'amíche," "Il Grido," "L'Avventura," and (amplified) "Zabriskie Point."
When I first saw "L'eclisse," the meaning-generator in me saw the very famous final sequence in which neither of the principals shows up as the failure of both of them to keep the appointment they had made for 8 p.m. I remembered it showing only objects (especially a streetlight turning on). Seeing it again, I was surprised that there are a number of people in the final sequences--and people who have been in the background at earlier meetings of the lovers at the same place. And I realize that there is absolutely no indication that the shots of the urban landscape around their usual rendez-vous point are of the night of their appointment. That their amour is over is inference without any firm basis (though there is certainly nothing to suggest that they met and went off unobserved by the camera!). And my memory in removing the people form the final sequence fit it with a post-human, (post-apocalyptic) interpretation that I am far less confident in now than when I first saw "L'eclisse" (ca. 1972).
The Criterion DVD
I think that "L'eclisse" is a great film, and the greatest one of those I've seen so far in my Antonioni retrospective. Since its greatness is primarily visual, the DVD image is very, very important to fully appreciating "L'eclisse." I'm told that the VHS that was in circulation was muddy; I saw it three times projected from good prints.
I have frequently lauded Criterion transfers and don't like to repeat myself, but the print of the Criterion DVD of "L'eclisse" is superb. Well, the audio transfer is superb and the Criterion video transfer of "L'Avventura) are superb, but I can't think of an adjective of greater approbation to give the visual transfer. ("Superbest"? One can't add -best the way one can add -issmo, alas.)
I found the commentary track by Richard Pena (director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center) very informative and helpful both about general matters and specifics in some scenes.
A second disc includes a 56-minute long documentary "Michelangelo Antonioni: The Eye That Changed Cinema" that provides a good overview/introduction to what Antonioni was about (I did not watch it on DVD, having seen it screened at the Pacific Film Archives a year ago). Some context is also provided in (separate) interviews with Italian film critic Adriano Apra and Antonioni's friend Carlo di Carlo). Plus, there is a 32-page booklet that includes production photos and stills from the film, essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Gilberto Perez, and some of Antonioni's own (gnomic) pronouncements (Jack Nicholson reads some longer ones on the bonus disc for the Criterion "L'Avventura").
© 2007, Stephen O. Murray
Although some might not find this great DVD of a great film to be a "good movie," as a five-star review, my review is a contribution to CaptainD's Good movie writeoff.
I've written about the earlier five Antonioni films that are available on DVD:
Cronaca di una amore (1950)
Il Grido (1958),
La Notte (1961)
plus the one that was popular beyond art-house theaters,
and his putrid contribution to the trilogy Eros (2004, but see the bonus feature on it of Antonioni!)
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