For all the discussion over the decades of Michelangelo Antonioni’s high-minded, abstractionist tendencies, he is, in many of the same ways, one of the most literal of filmmakers. His most celebrated succession of work, a trio of films made in the early 1960s subsequently dubbed the “trilogy of alienation,” bore the essentially elemental titles L’Avventura (“The Adventure”), La Notte (“The Night”), and L’Eclisse (“Eclipse”), each of which reflected its namesake in fairly accurate terms. Even his imagery, so consistently examined, elevated, and admired, is strikingly absolute: objects, articles, and architecture as emotion, psychology, and anthropological well-being—physical reality as individuated condition. Antonioni often deflected close readings of his films, encouraging an instinctual approach to viewing similar to that which he claimed he utilized while filming. And indeed, in Antonioni, perhaps more so than in any modern director, what you’re witnessing is the actualization of undiluted truth, existence decontextualized and rendered in visual shorthand. There’s nothing behind the images in the work of this filmmaker; rather, the frame itself is pregnant with meaning.
These coordinates, between the material and the psychological, the everyday and the emotional, are mapped perhaps most efficiently in 1961’s La Notte, the second in Antonioni’s loose trilogy and perhaps the one most in need of reconsideration. Not as narratively innovative as the watershed L’Avventura, nor as formally radical as L’Eclisse, it’s always been something of the middle child of these films, an assumedly liminal work whose bookends yielded more unique rewards. But this shortsighted view does a disservice to the substantial merit of La Notte as a standalone work. Antonioni’s most emotionally acute and devastating deconstruction of the interpersonal travails of the bourgeoisie, the film remains at once the most bracingly concrete and amorously diffuse of the director’s—for lack of a better word—structuralist period. Yet it’s Antonioni’s simultaneously sympathetic and unforgiving rendering of the nascent tensions between his characters, and the subsequent ruptures which push and pull them apart and then back together, which prevents the film from becoming simply a clinical exercise in mismanaged ennui and more of a turbulent dissection of romantic longevity.
La Notte is thus something of Antonioni’s update of Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy from 1954. Similarly charting the gradual deterioration of a relationship against an intimidating, harshly revealing backdrop, La Notte takes as stylistic blueprint Rosselini’s earlier modernist fairy tale, but rather than conceptually intervene when discord threatens to permanently engage the gravity of his characters’ situation, Antonioni instead leaves them suspended in a state of empty gestures, a hands-off approach to narrative reconciliation which evinces a pessimistic, if unfortunately realistic, view of contemporary romance. Like Rossellini’s characters, Antonioni’s married couple, played by legends Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, are fighting what seems like a losing battle, as the former courts sexual temptation—first from a curious young girl while visiting a hospitalized friend early in the film, and then later at a party where the seduction from a wealthy entrepreneur’s daughter (played with smoldering sensuality by Monica Vitti) ultimately proves too alluring—while the latter more internally wrestles with the nagging feeling that her love may be fading.
These tribulations may indeed take place over the course of a single evening, but in these fleeting hours Antonioni is able to outline the entirety of a marriage: We can sense the love that was once there between these characters, but just as their surroundings have crystallized into cold iterations of architectural urbanization, so too have their feelings gone from passionate to stubborn, stoic mannerisms standing in for genuine agency. One can sense the inevitability from the very first moments: Opening with series of urbane, vertically climbing shots of a skyscraper towering over the film’s Milan cityscape, this visually austere, thematically loaded sequence at once reflects (both literally and figuratively) the indifference of modern romance as well as the confines we often unknowingly construct around not only our partners, but ourselves. For all its visual abstractions and formal rigidity, however, La Notte presents these anxieties in uncommonly lucid fashion. Antonioni’s concern is nothing less than the human condition itself, stripped of melodrama and offered up to the viewer, to either face up to or reject outright, in the purest form the medium has yet conceived.