One question I am often asked is why the women in my films are more lucid than the men. I was raised among women: my mother, my aunt, and lots of cousins. Then I got married, and my wife had five sisters. I have always lived among women; I know them very well . . . Speaking for myself, I find that the feminine sensibility is a far more precise filter than any other to express what I have to say. In the realm of emotions, man is nearly always unable to feel reality as it exists. Having a tendency to dominate woman, he is tempted to hide some of her aspects from himself and see her as he wants her to be. There is nothing absolute in this area, but it seems to me that is at the heart of it.
– Michelangelo Antonioni (1)
In reviewing the critical reception of La notte (1961), it strikes me that many observers seem to almost completely miss the fact that the film is, in part, a feminist critique of capitalist society, which centres around women, consumption, and the failure of our ecosystem, and not just the director’s trademark alienation and ennui.
Conventional plot summaries of the film routinely insist that La notte centres around a male author, Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni), his uncertain career, and his failing relationship with his wife, Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), as well as his flirtations with beautiful socialite Valentina Gherardini (Monica Vitti).
I would argue, rather, that women are both the centre of the film and the mirrors upon which Antonioni reflects his dark perceptions and stark conclusions about the human condition. At a launch party for his latest novel, those who celebrate Giovanni’s newest book spend precious little time actually reading, opting instead to party all night, while simultaneously remaining oblivious to their own mortality.
As in most of his films, Antonioni’s wealthy protagonists in La notte live in a hell of their own making. So thoroughly alienated are they from one another (and from the environment) that they experience the rain from the sky (in the pool sequence) as a sublime rapture from above, giggling like schoolchildren, briefly lifted out of their stupor for a moment’s play with the actual elements.
The tragedy of Antonioni’s characters is not simply a matter of bored bourgeois ennui; these people are disconnected from the feminine, from the earth, and from life itself. Perhaps no critic got it more wrong than Pauline Kael in her infamous essay “The Come-Dressed-As-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties: La Notte, Last Year at Marienbad, La Dolce Vita,” in which Kael attacked the film, demanding less ambiguity:
La notte is supposed to be a study in the failure of communication, but what new perceptions of this problem do we get by watching people on the screen who can’t communicate if we are never given any insight into what they could have to say if they could talk to each other? (2)
On the contrary, Antonioni gives us nothing but insight into the various relationships, and thus I find her dismissal baffling. More recently, critic Christopher Sharrett takes a far more perceptive feminist eco-critical approach to key Antonioni films such as Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964) and L’eclisse (1961), noting of L’eclisse that “the failure of people to connect is rooted less in vague existential dread than in concrete social realities”. (3) For me, it is those specific social realities that are most vividly explored and exposed in La notte.
Antonioni’s key, early films are best understood from the point of view of a feminist director – keeping in mind Antonioni’s own philosophy, as noted above, “the feminine sensibility is a far more precise filter than any other to express what I have to say.” Sharrett’s perceptive comments on Red Desert also apply to La notte. He notes that Red Desert is:
explicit in its insistence that the sensitive individual (who must be, in the director’s view, axiomatically female, with little possibility for the male partaking of authentically human sensibility) cannot enjoy happiness in this end-product of patriarchal capitalist rule. A pervasive theme in Antonioni’s work is the concept ‘Eros is sick,’ meaning that the erotic, the drive for life, is sickened and doomed by the death drive in a society operating under the assumptions of capitalism and repression . . .(4)
Filmed on location in Milan, the opening credits shot is a stunner. The camera glides in a long track down the exterior of a glass-facade building, suggesting a descent into hell. Images of nature are fleeting in La notte – a few scrub trees in a desolate urban environment; the sky violated by amateur rocketry competitions; unfinished buildings everywhere – depicting Milan as an unnatural colonization of the feminine earth.
Humans in La Notte shuffle along resembling zombie-like “sleepwalkers.” Specific allusions to sleepwalking abound, the most direct being a reference to Hermann Broch’s classic 1932 novel, which Giovanni picks up at the party with an air of surprise, wondering aloud, “Who is reading The Sleepwalkers?” (5) Broch’s own obsession with the death of values and the decay of humanity mirrors La notte’s central preoccupation with mortality as it relates to the value of love and art (as Eros).
Mortality is omnipresent in the opening sequence in a hospital room, where Giovanni and Lidia visit their dying friend, an author named Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki). Tommaso wonders aloud if any of his life’s work is of value, and ironically Giovanni himself is battling the same sorts of questions, the central post-war preoccupations of modernism; self-doubt, alienation, and existentialism. Giovanni’s self absorption precludes him from a loving relationship with his wife, Lidia, who patiently waits for him to grow up during the entire length of the film.
Antonioni crafts our perspective so that we see Giovanni primarily through Lidia’s point of view. Though he is unfaithful, selfish, and childish, Lidia still loves Giovanni, but she is keenly aware that their marriage is barely alive. Lidia observes Giovanni trying to woo the stunning young Vitti, but instead of protesting, she seems to almost push her husband into Valentina’s arms through her powerful gaze.
Though Moreau is said to have disliked the role of Lidia, it is one of her finest performances and most of her power is established through her active gaze. In a strong and memorable sequence, Lidia wanders the streets looking at life going on around her, watching the activities of workmen and women of all types. Lidia seems keenly aware that life is going on around her, but in many ways without her, as she feels the pain of her own mortality and her unraveling marriage. Antonioni clearly empathizes with Lidia strongly.
A particularly acute feminist moment comes when Lidia witnesses some young men fighting near a construction site seemingly for no reason at all. The fight summarizes patriarchy in a nutshell; macho, pointless, violent and dangerous. There is a brief moment when we think that perhaps Lidia will be hurt or even raped by the men, but she shoos them away and calls Giovanni to pick her up. The couple wanders through the nearby railway tracks where they first met and fell in love, even as the environment has taken over, and numerous wild plants have sprung up since they last visited, many years ago. Eros is still possible, even between these two. Thanatos has not won yet.
La notte makes it clear that women’s artistic talents are wasted in a society that values them only for their beauty. As if to demonstrate this, in one telling sequence, Valentina uses a tape recorder to tell a story to Giovanni. She is a far better storyteller than the author, but after she finishes her narrative, Valentina erases the tape rather than playing it back. We hear a whiny, high-pitched squeak as the recorder rewinds the tape, thus destroying her story – and making us acutely aware of the myriad untold stories of all women.
Whether or not Lidia and Giovanni’s marriage is saved at the end of La notte seems insignificant in light of the larger issues raised by the film. Antonioni offers us far bigger issues to contemplate. What have humans made of the earth? How do we love one another? What is the value of women, art and love in a world defined by men of commerce? Can we wake from our sleepwalking? These are but a few of the questions raised by La notte, a masterwork that only gets better with time, provoking a wakeful regenerative response to 21st century consumption, devaluation of Eros, and our reckless destruction of the natural world.
- Michelangelo Antonioni, “My Film,” L’humanite February 26, 1961, trans. Nicholas Elliott, archived on The Criterion Collection Website, November 4, 2013, <http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/2937-my-film>.
- Pauline Kael, “The Come-Dressed-As-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties: La Notte, Last Year at Marienbad, La Dolce Vita,” in I Lost it at the Movies: Film Writings, 1954-1965 (Boston: Little, Brown; 1965), pp. 161-175.
- Christopher Sharrett, “L’eclisse,” Senses of Cinema 62 (March 2012), <http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/cteq/leclisse/>.
- Christopher Sharrett, “Red Desert,” Cineaste 36.1 (2010), <http://www.cineaste.com/articles/emred-desertem-web-exclusive>.
- Hermann Broch, The Sleepwalkers (First publication London: Martin Secker, 1932, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (New York: Vintage, 1996).
La notte (1961 Italy/France 122 mins)
Prod Co: Nepi Film (Rome)/ Sofitedip (Paris)/ Silva Film (Paris) Prod: Emanuele Cassuto Dir: Michelangelo Antonioni Scr: Michelangelo Antonioni, Ennio Flaiano, Tonino Guerra Phot: Gianni Di Venanzo Ed: Eraldo Da Roma, Art Dir: Piero Zuffi Mus: Giorgio Gaslini
Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, Monica Vitti, Bernhard Wicki, Vincenzo Corbella