L'Eclisse, the conclusion of Michelangelo Antonioni's informal, early-'60s trilogy on modern malaise, likely won't dissuade anyone of the director's reputation as an icy, inscrutable miserabilist. Yet its opening credits shake up his glacial style, with a thick animated line crawling down the left edge of the screen like the beginning of a Saul Bass illustration as the accompanying music gradually transitions from a frothy pop song to rolls of dissonant orchestration that in turn give way to piano chords that sound suited to a horror film. The gorgeously photographed ennui of the rest of the film matches Antonioni's usual style, but this beginning betrays some of the director's self-awareness regarding his image.
The film often displays a keen sense of humor. Before protagonist Vittoria (Monica Vitti) even speaks a word of dialogue, she enacts a light parody of Antonioni's focus on surroundings over traditional character interaction by holding up an empty picture frame on a table and rearranging the items visible inside of it for better composition. Later, when Vittoria visits the Rome Stock Exchange, Antonioni focuses his modern angst into a tremendous sight-and-sound gag of the stockbrokers forced to take an impatient moment of silence for a dead colleague as telephones ring off the hook, unconcerned with human reverence. It's the sort of gag that could easily have been in a late Chaplin film, a mordantly funny critique of capital-driven postwar life that executes a simple setup with sophistication.
Though the film follows a general narrative, with Vittoria leaving lover Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) and hesitatingly gravitating toward stockbroker Piero (Alain Delon), it unfolds mainly through a series of semi-connected, plotless episodes that reveal personality traits and hang-ups. Piero's fast-talking on stock-exchange floors matches his general behavior; as Vittoria notes, he cannot sit still, and though he doesn't treat her like an object, Piero's interest in Vittoria appears inexorably linked to the nouveau-riche lifestyle he buys himself. Vittoria, in a blatant bit of symbolism, is a translator who speaks several languages, yet she doesn't know what to say. Theoretically capable of deeper connection to the world around her, she's so withdrawn as to be unreadable, only occasionally showing a moment's happiness and relaxation.
Each segment also revels in the unending beauty of Antonioni and cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo's shots. The angling and mise-en-scène is perfect even from the opening shots in Riccardo's apartment, with a line of lamps forming a subtle border and paintings used ironically to add a sense of movement and action to static moments. Riding in an airplane, Vittoria marvels at the clouds, which the camera takes in with loving, placid long takes. Man-made objects attain a certain poetry, as in a scene of Vittoria hypnotically drawn to bare flagpoles swaying in the wind, becoming one with nature as the hollow metal hums when pushed by air. Antonioni gets knocked for his ostensible despair, but no one who invests every object, whether artificial or natural, with such loving aesthetic care can be indifferent to or repulsed by his surroundings.
That holds true for the final shots, haunting as they are. The ending montage returns to the places Vittoria and Piero previously visited, only the camera now cannot find them despite the pair agreeing to meet again. Romantic films hinge on the idea of certain spaces as fated spots of connection, as if certain parks, squares, or airport terminals were designed, approved, and constructed for the sole purpose of one day bringing two people together. But as wind rustles through trees and the occasional stranger walks through the frame, the reality of such spaces, totally independent of the people who move within them, is asserted against the conventions of classical moviemaking, only adding to the sense of discomfort.
Many define the struggle of Antonioni's films as one against modernity, a vague, catch-all theme typically understood as the director's reaction against technology and stifling urban development. But to say that fast-paced city life is the problem in his films ignores the alienation that pervades shots of nature, be it the desolate rock of L'Avventura or this film's early scene of the broken-up lovers' stroll through the woods. It's more accurate to say that the sense of anomie in the director's classic work stems from an inability to keep up with modern civilization's rapid social evolution. In effect, the bustle of contemporary life and proliferation of new technologies aren't the endpoint of Antonioni's critique, but a tangible metaphor for the disparity between humanity's social advancement and our biological and psychological ability to handle these changes.
In Antonioni's films, it's the geographical compartmentalization of urbanization that, paradoxically, finally gives one a sense of the overwhelming size of the world. Similarly, sexual freedom seems to paralyze romance, offering so many options that none are taken. L'Eclisse is a somber film filled with stretches of contemplative silence and exacting composition, about a woman who extricates herself from one relationship, only to fall into another one that appears headed for the same conclusion. But as the film moves through arty, amusing diversions and bold symbolism to track this unsatisfying cycle of sexual “liberation,” it could almost pass as the forefather of the anti-romantic comedy.
Criterion's Blu-ray upgrade of L'Eclisse looks great: The film's numerous close-ups brim with visual detail, black and light levels are well-balanced, and film grain is present throughout. Occasional flickers or softness, usually seen in conjunction with the more neorealist setups, are likely endemic to the print, but overall the picture lacks any discernible issues. Audio is also strong, with the LPCM mono track clearly delivering the front-loaded sound of Italian dubbing. For mono audio, the track also captures things like street noise and the roar of the stock exchange with surprising fullness.
Criterion's upgrade ports over all the extras from their old DVD with no new additions. Richard Peña's commentary is the highlight; his straightforward language and engaged tone tackles a famously intellectual director's work with warmth, inviting the listener into a challenging film with accessibility. "The Eye that Changed Cinema" is an hour-long Italian documentary on Michelangelo Antonioni, starting with his early work as a documentarian through the end of his active career. "Elements of Landscape" is a 20-minute feature, featuring interviews with critic Adriano Aprà and Antonioni's friend Carlo di Carlo, about the filmmaker's use of the environment in L'Eclisse. A thick booklet contains a great essay on the film from Jonathan Rosenbaum, an essay on the Antonioni and Vitti partnership by Gilberto Perez, as well as two excerpts of Antonioni's own writing on the film.
The final and best film in Michelangelo Antonioni's modernist trilogy comes to Blu-ray with a sparkling transfer and the same solid extras found on Criterion's old DVD.