November 2, 2013 | 6:17pm EDT
With the opening scene of La Notte (“The Night”) (1961), Michelangelo Antonioni (director) challenges how the modern subject is seen. Beginning within an empty reflection of an elevator, gliding down the side of a Modern skyscraper without emitting sound of its own, one must become aware to the metaphor of modernity: Alienated romance. Following the dark and restless L’Avvenutra (1960), La Notte is a troubled, sterile, and suffocating experience of an emotionally deadened marriage and its agonizing exploits throughout the intellectual circles of Milan. At the center of the film is the story of Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), an intellectually affluent couple, whose marriage appears predicated upon the empty promise of romantic love. Whereas the rural countryside of L’Avventura openly admits to its isolationism and restlessness, the urban landscape of La Notte assures the modern subject that there are abundant friendships and commonalities to be found within the Modern City. As the rural countryside of L’Avventura fades into the repetitive and gray cityscape of Milan, the immensity of Modernity’s industrialization returns as the central theme of Antonioni’s en-framing of Modernity. Unlike the docile and describable characters of L’Avventura, never giving birth to any sense of self-awareness or self-worth, the characters of La Notte bear the distinct marks of human beings. The film’s two main characters, Lidia and Giovanni, reluctantly attend a book signing for Giovanni’s latest book, when he and Lidia have the opportunity to involve and experience themselves with other affluent members of the intelligentsia, they are forced to confront their utter lack of interest in each other. However, as members of the educated elite, are they not bound to each-other by personal choice? How could there be a desire not to want to spend time together if they chose to be together?
La Notte remains distinctly Marxist, the centrality of alienation within freely chosen arrangements remains a site of profound contradiction in Modernity. The modern subject, in experiencing herself through the abundantly empty and emotionless spaces arising between individuals within the modern city, echoes Marx’s sentiments on estrangement; “the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another […] it belongs to another; it is the loss of his self” (Marx,1844). One must reflect on how Modernity experiences itself. As the question of meaning and purpose evacuates itself from one’s career, relationships with loved ones, and most agonizingly, relation to the self through, where is one to locate the production of meaning within one’s life? This is the question that drives Antonioni’s story of Lidia and Giovanni as they struggle to find connections between themselves and others — and most importantly, to find a solution to the suffocating and crippling sense of despair and emptiness that accompanies so many daily experiences. The search for meaning locates itself uniquely in the problematic of the most affluent and intelligent actors of in Modernity. After all, it seems that the educated are motivated into commitments by their own choosing.
However, the nature of these commitments is primarily sexual in nature. The sexually frustrated and experienced woman is the focus of this film as she navigate her social landscapes primarily dominated by sexual contrasts, tensions, and commitments. Unlike the failures of the rich woman in La Adventura, to derive any kind of emotional value from a paradigm of materialism, the intellectual woman in La Notte finds herself unable to grasp a sense of commonality, excitement, or general interest from her peers without the intervention of sexual seduction, possibility, and domination. La Notte is a radical exposé on the centrality of sexuality within the intellectual world, as it rejects the emptiness of materialism by sentiments of erotic pleasure and romantic love. These societal acts come to see money as false, fake, and ultimately unrewarding, whereas the possibility of love, sexual lust, and erotic pleasure drives actors into the most unexpected social arrangements, which initially promise a chance of emotional connection. As Giovanni chases Valentina Gherardini (Monica Vitti) through a party, ultimately seducing her and promising himself to her in front of Lidia, the centrality of sexuality within the intellectual world cannot be understated. But as these societal actors violate and break their promises to each other, in the end, they remain only with their abstracted promises of eternal love through marriage.
This subtle, and depressing paradox within Modernity concentrates us into a landscape of utter loneliness and self-absorption. However, by no means does this film lack in emotional quality. In many scenes, Lidia follows the haunting memories of her and Giovanni’s past; locating herself near their first home, watching young lads shooting rockets into the sky, having coffee at old and familiar cafes. Lidia, emblematic of the modern subject, is haunted by the specter of her idealized past. When struck by a romantic moment with Giovanni, both quickly flee, avoiding any chance of experiencing an emotional cathexis. Through Lidia, La Notte demonstrates itself as a chilling and sublime study of the urban identity, an identity that revolves around numerous sexual friendships predicated on shaky commonalities and commitments. Most of the film is spent in the quiet moments of Lidia and Giovanni, each desperately clinging to erotic possibilities and disappointments. By the conclusion of film, one is forced upon the question: Can love exist even for those who reject the materialist world? More than that, can one even reject a romantic love that has turned sour and hope to be happy? As Andrei Tarkovsky, director of the infamous Stalker (1979) and Solaris (1972), commented on the film:
The final sequence of Antonioni’s La Notte is perhaps the only episode in the whole history of cinema in which a love scene became a necessity and took on the semblance of a spiritual act. It’s a unique sequence in which physical closeness has great significance. The characters have exhausted their feelings for each other but are still very close to each other. As a friend of mine said once, more than five years with my husband is like incest. These characters have no exit from their closeness. We see them desperately trying to save each other, as if they were dying.