Michelangelo Antonioni’s name seems to have fallen somewhat into disrepute in US film culture over the last several decades, his main concerns – alienation and the collapse of communication – the subject of a collective yawn. Once seen as the cinema’s most adept observer of alienation as the dominant tone of postwar industrial civilisation, Antonioni often seemed regarded by film culture as passé, an anachronism whose interests were located in the long-dead zeitgeist of the 1960s. Alienation has been embraced by the vacuous hipness of postmodernity as the accepted state of being, or argued as having disappeared entirely as consumer culture meets all needs.
This attitude points to a failure within film culture and mass society far exceeding the insights of Antonioni. Has alienation vanished, or has it merely expanded many times over since the release of the major works of Antonioni, becoming a symptom of social and economic crises which have metastasised even as they are ignored or celebrated in the postmodern cultural climate? Yet it is clear that Antonioni isn’t seen by everyone as a fossilised dinosaur, since his intellectual project has been undertaken and expanded by the most conscientious of contemporary (largely European and Asian) filmmakers, including Michael Haneke, Catherine Breillat, Gaspar Noé, Wong Kar-wai, Claire Denis, Bruno Dumont, and more than a few others, filmmakers for whom the observation of a decaying society is not merely a passing idée fixe suggested by some current reviewers who continue to deride Antonioni. For example, Haneke’s Der Siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent, 1989) and Denis’ J’ai pas sommeil (I Can’t Sleep, 1994) owe much to Antonioni; their projects, always marginal to the mainstream, may quickly be relegated to the dustbin.
Fortunately, an Antonioni renaissance of sorts has taken place in the last several years, with excellent DVDs of La signora senza camelie (1953), I vinti (1953), Le amiche (1955), Il grido (1957), La notte (1961), Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964), and a passable disc of Zabriskie Point (1970), now available. Perhaps the most notable resurrection of all is that of L’eclisse (1962), the stunning third part of the trilogy that includes L’avventura (1960) and La notte. L’eclisse appeared in the 1980s on VHS, but has until fairly recently been available only on unwatchable bootlegged versions. The 2004 Criterion Collection DVD edition of L’eclisse is among the most exemplary attempts to return Antonioni to us, a release compelling new readings of the film.
L’eclisse is a remarkable work. It is the most accomplished of the trilogy films (the other two, of course, are also extraordinary), offering an unsparing, even horrific condemnation of life in European postwar bourgeois society. Shot largely at the Rome stock exchange and in the Esposizione Universale di Roma (EUR) housing development – a tract of arid modernist buildings begun by the fascists and set within mostly empty lots – Antonioni finds at these locations remarkable settings for the film’s vision of a modern wasteland. Antonioni brings to L’eclisse the fullness of his skills as a graphic artist. He carefully frames his actors within the rigid, off-putting yet alluring geometry of this quintessential representation of the postwar urban landscape. A huge mushroom-shaped tower dominates many frames of the film, and may be its signature image. The sense of atomic doom that the tower evokes saturates the film, making L’eclisse the eeriest of any of Antonioni’s work. Giovanni Fusco’s remarkable score underlines the sense of apocalypse. The movie opens with a “Twist” theme, quickly replaced with Fusco’s ominous chords; like many modernist European filmmakers, Antonioni saw nothing in pop-rock but evidence of disintegration (see the Yardbirds sequence in Blow-Up , portrayed as a chaotic, quasi-religious ceremony serving a congregation of zombies). But one can also see the shift in music as the joy of youth being symbolically strangled by the current civilisation, an idea implicit in the film. (Antonioni used a good deal of contemporary popular music to provide atmosphere for Zabriskie Point, with the director mostly sympathetic to young people and their [hopeless] attempt at striking at the existing order, but his conflicts with recording artists over his use of their music are legendary.)
Seldom regarded as an overtly political filmmaker, it is difficult to miss the ideological themes (and rather feminist vision) of L’eclisse, which extend beyond the broad philosophical meditation on the eclipse of humanity in the modern, post-Hiroshima era that seems the more apparent reference of the title. The point-of-view of the film is largely that of Vittoria (Monica Vitti), whose responses to events anchor audience point-of-view. Her fear, surprise, joy and anguish are Antonioni’s representation of the last vestiges of human affect and experience. Her two boyfriends, Piero (Alain Delon) and Riccardo (Francisco Rabal), are boorish and narcissistic. Piero is a young, manic-depressive stockbroker working the floor of the Rome Borsa, a building set on the remains of a monument to Hadrian. A temple created for a man seen as a god is represented here as the site of the frenetic, bankrupt rituals of finance capital. Capitalism of the postwar Italian economic “miracle” is associated with the legacy of European colonialism, most famously depicted in the distracted evening excursions of Vittoria, a translator recovering from the depressing final phase of an affair with Riccardo, who won’t take no for an answer. Their parting is portrayed with a terrible stasis, since Riccardo simply cannot understand why Vittoria could want to end things. Antonioni displays his remarkable skill in showing, in the lengthy, wordless scene that opens the film, how dreadfully uncomfortable such moments can be – due mainly to the male need for affirmation, even in the face of an obvious dead-end, amounting to the wasting away of moments of one’s life.
There is an old refrain that Antonioni’s films are “supposed to be boring”. But I have never found them so; to the contrary, he is the key filmmaker who suggests how the torpor of modern society is a trap flowing from common assumptions about gender, economics, and all human interaction under late capitalism. But it is a trap that Antonioni presents with compassion even as he is uncompromising in suggesting its terror.
The film’s political commentary seems more pointed than elsewhere in Antonioni, with the possible exception of Red Desert. In one of the film’s deliberately disjointed vignettes, Vittoria visits a girlfriend, Marta (Mirella Ricciardi), whose apartment is lined with guns and photographs of Kenya and its population, prompting a goofy, half-mocking dance by Vittoria in full “native” costume, undertaken chiefly to relieve boredom. She is informed about the “Negroes”, who are dismissed as nothing more than “six million monkeys”. Marta hypocritically scolds Vittoria for going native as she dances in black makeup, making the potential joy collapse into guilt, then boredom and anguish. Afterward, as Vittoria ventures into the night, fascinated by the sound of a clanking metal fence, a pack of dogs scurries down a large stone staircase, a resonant moment alluding to the predation carried out or visited upon the people within the world of the film.
While not explicitly discoursing on neo-colonialism and postwar capitalism, this sequence, those in the Borsa, and the equivocating affair that develops between Piero and Vittoria, set the film’s framework and sensibility, one more focused on gender and politics than the other films of the trilogy. The failure of people to connect is rooted less in vague existential dread than in concrete social realities, in the ennui of a burned-out European civilisation, connecting L’eclisse both to Antonioni’s origins in neo-realism and to the later, often problematical, political explorations of Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point, Chung Kuo Cina (1972), and The Passenger (1975). The Roman stock exchange becomes a specific site of alienation, a scene of hysterical routine taken for granted by an affectless humanity, as traders scream their buy/sell orders in moments rendered as bizarre, showing, in Antonioni’s inimitable style, how the quotidian elements of daily life make absolutely no sense. The traders convey a view of humanity as manic or outright insane as they insist on getting attention for their deals. The Borsa scenes are especially instructive for our present moment, as capital is shifted, especially in the US, from production to speculation, taking away meaningful work while giving the populace a sense of the fragility of the future as savings and retirement funds evaporate in the freneticism of the “market”, turning all of us into Piero. In one telling sequence, the traders abruptly pause in a “moment of silence” out of feigned respect for a dead colleague (Piero tells Vittoria he is annoyed that money is being wasted) only to return, as if by electrical switch, to the shouting matches that Antonioni constructs as the death of affect under capitalist culture.
Much has been said about Antonioni’s use of actors as objects, as components of his complex, often abstract and haunting compositions (the film has many moments iconic in film history, including a brief shot of Piero and Vittoria separated by a huge pillar as they stare at the Borsa activity). True enough, but L’eclisse elicits an extraordinary performance from the impossibly handsome Delon, whose work here reminds us of his central presence in’60s European cinema – Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers, Luchino Visconti, 1960), Plein soleil (René Clément, 1960), Il gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963), and Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville) suggest the scope and importance of his distinguished career. As Piero, he represents an older European culture (he comes from a prestigious family) that easily connects to the new world of speculation and soullessness. When his car is stolen and smashed, Piero is concerned with financial loss rather than the dead driver, emphasising the predation to which I alluded. Delon’s Piero is a lithe, graceful, latter-day aristocrat who moves balletically on the Borsa floor; he is also a rude, overgrown adolescent whose failure to connect with Vittoria is based as much on his shallowness, on the sense that he isn’t an adult, as on a failure of communication.
Monica Vitti delivers a remarkably modulated performance as Vittoria, her characterisation the singular embodiment of the “sickness of Eros”, the most recurring Antonioni theme. Vitti’s character strongly conveys Antonioni’s sympathy for the female, the sense that the feminine embodies the sex-drive/life-force being extinguished by patriarchal culture. Like many of Antonioni’s female protagonists, Vittoria is searching, curious, open to experience for all of her directionless self-doubt. Piero offers to Vittoria a possibility for sexual and emotional fulfillment (far more than, say, the relationship of Red Desert), in part because of Delon’s particular masculinity, which is more androgynous and playful than that of other Antonioni males. But the sexuality of this extremely vital and appealing couple (hampered by Piero’s cloying gestures) cannot survive the quietly harrowing world of L’eclisse, even with its (deceptive) scenes of unfettered joy, uncommon in Antonioni. Although they plan to continue their assignations, Piero and Vittoria simply disappear from the narrative.
No film has contained a greater sense of ineffable calamity. This is most completely captured in L’eclisse’s final eight minutes of images, a climax that Amos Vogel (in his crucial book Film as a Subversive Art) very correctly termed “monstrous” (1), since it signifies a horror beyond the imagination of much of the fantastique. This conclusion, excised from many prints as irrelevant, consists of largely empty, near-dusk street scenes in the EUR suburb. Piero and Vittoria have vanished, since their trysts are finally suggested to us as irrelevant, merely a tiny moment in a world at the precipice. In their place, we are offered images of barren lots and empty EUR avenues, street lights, a rustic fence where the couple once stood, a leaking water barrel, a passing bus, people staring (perhaps in desperation), a man reading a newspaper whose headline reminds us of the nuclear anxieties that marked the film’s production era – still relevant in our own age, as disaster threatens the planet on various fronts. A glaring streetlight fills the screen, then burns out to be replaced by “FINE” and blackness. The images might be seen as a preamble to countless industrial art installations of the last 40 years. This conclusion is among the most astounding in the cinema, suggesting the demise of humanity far more poignantly and economically than Hollywood’s tawdry, frivolous disaster/apocalypse cinema. Its importance rests in Antonioni’s deep humanism, his sympathetic interest in the fate of people who occupy the world of his narratives. His is a sensibility light years removed from the smug, detached “irony” that pervades the trivial cinema of the present moment, one that would chill to the bone Michelangelo Antonioni.
L’eclisse/The Eclipse (1962 Italy/France 125 mins)
Prod Co: Cineriz/Interopa Film/Paris Film Prod: Raymond Hakim, Robert Hakim Dir: Michelangelo Antonioni Scr: Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Elio Bartolini, Ottiero Ottieri Phot: Gianni Di Venanzo Ed: Eraldo Da Roma Prod Des: Danilo Marciani Mus: Giovanni Fusco
Cast: Alain Delon, Monica Vitti, Francisco Rabal, Lilla Brignone, Louis Seigner, Rossana Rory, Mirella Ricciardi