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Hard Day’s Night: Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961) – Blu-ray review

September 19, 2013 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Husband and wife don’t get on. Blame it on the modern world! (or, possibly, the fact that they’re too self-absorbed to smile occasionally.)

La Notte
(Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961)

Netflix users are used to off-beam recommendations nowadays but when the Monty Python team ended Life Of Brian by suggesting, “If you have enjoyed this film, why not go and see La Notte?” there were probably those who told that advice at face value. The joke, of course, is that there are few less appropriate films to choose out of a sense of enjoyment: in La Notte, Michelangelo Antonioni is out to punish the audience.

In 1961, Antonioni was the poster-boy for the glacial, modernist wing of European art-house cinema, whose L’Avventura – the none-more-ironic tale of an “adventure” that voyages only into bleak despair – scandalised Cannes but would soon be voted the second best film of all time, beaten only by Citizen Kane, in the 1962 Sight And Sound poll. For his follow-up, Antonioni was taking no chances.  He used his clout to unite L’Avventura’s break-out star, Monica Vitti, with two of the most popular and acclaimed stars in Europe, Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau… and then he had all three wander through the longest, darkest night of the soul ever committed to celluloid.

This, then, is the cutting edge of cinema at the time when audiences were only just cottoning on to the idea that there might be a cutting edge.  Antonioni mapped Italian style (elegant camera moves, beautiful stars) onto a cynically austere formalism of deliberately drab, near-abstract backdrops – usually revolving around the most brutalist, modern architecture he could find – and fragmentary cutting that alienate the actors from each other and from us. Stir in a hint of sex, overlay with gnomic monologues in which the characters bemoan their ennui, and the result is something that looks and sounds incredibly important and soul-searching.

But it is?  In those days, Antonioni’s style was just radical enough to pretend that sticking the actors in the margins of the frame, so that he can deploy symbolic props and decor like speech bubbles, was saying something about the modern world. Yet it’s a very narrow, elitist view of the world, marred by being trapped in the same rarified echelons of Italian society as La Dolce Vita – except that where Fellini uses carnivalesque surrealism to explode his satirical bombs, Antonoini’s default setting is to stifle entertainment.  Perhaps the film’s most purely enjoyable sequence involves a contortionist doing remarkable things with a wine glass, but she’s there only to show how miserable and disconnected Mastroianni and Moreau’s married couple are.

Things threaten to click into focus during the film’s second half, an extended party sequence in which the guests’ vacuity is so pronounced that the second it rains, they drop the pretence of upper-class chic to become a pack of deranged spring breakers. Yet at the precise moment where Moreau is tempted to have fun, she gets dragged away from the party by the only person at the party there who is more of a killjoy than she is. Meanwhile, Mastroianni spends his scenes being rebuffed by Vitti, presumably because she realises what a spectacularly ineffectual, listless sexual predator he is.

By the end, it is clear that Antonioni wants to depict the collapse of their marriage both ways – tragic and ironic. Yet, between Mastroianni’s puppy-dog-eyed neediness and Moreau’s glum, drooping mouth, they’re welcome to their stasis as long as us innocent bystanders don’t have to watch.  No wonder the final shot sees Antonioni’s camera making its excuses and sneaking away from them.

La Notte is released on Blu-ray on Monday 23rd September.  Life Of Brian is already available.

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