La Notte (1961 Italy/ France)

notte2This film was a product of a time and a place and a sensibility that is now long gone. But be that as it may, this is an excellent film about a married couple who have fallen out of love. OK, no one will be viewing this looking for escapist entertainment. Can anyone imagine someone making a picture like this these days? Michelangelo Antonioni was definitely firing on all cylinders of cinematic refinement in the early 60s.

I like to consider it an artistic statement in photography, music and architecture. The modernist, functionalist spirit of booming 1960s Milan is captured marvelously as the stars walk aimlessly around apartment buildings and state-of-the-art houses under the sounds of cool cocktail-jazz. In fact, I think that there are at least 10-15 scenes that, if ‘frozen’, could be seen as high-quality artistic photographs in and by themselves. It’s the marvelous cinematography and the divine stars that render such movies immortal, even though they tackle such dated issues as the relation of intellectuals with politics and money, the role of art in overcoming modernity’s excesses and the vulgar conduct of the bourgeoisie.

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Of course the movie is rendered timeless because its main theme : alienation and inter-marital fatigue is equally timeless. La Notte is not Italian neo-realism, in the vein of what dominated that country’s cinema in the prior decade. This is clear from the film’s opening shots, slowly scaling down the side of a skyscraper to the strains of an otherworldly jazz-like score. The straight lines of the building and the reflected isolation of the city of Milan, dead in its modernity, evoke the suffocating sterility and a barred prison-like feel that permeates the film from start to finish. The sight of decaying urban areas, along with the odd film score, and the moments of lunacy and borderline surrealism, lends the whole film a hermetic quality. It is as if the film is its own world and apart from that which the viewer experiences every day. It could be set almost at any time in the last century, and in almost any major urban area.

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How does one make an interesting movie out of a failing marriage, where the woman is reaching the firm conclusion that it cannot be saved and that she no longer loves her husband, where she has reached the point at which she might almost prefer to die than go through the agony of its emptiness? How does one make a compelling movie where the husband is content to make advances to other women and no longer is attached to his wife? It is Antonioni’s signal achievement to have written a story which is really about internal feelings, and then filmed it with episodes that hold our interest while illustrating the ultimate conclusion of the film, which is the absence of love and the end of a marriage.

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Mastroianni is a writer who is detached and self-centered, which is what attracted Moreau to him years before. But this was the seed of a wrong turning, because feeling secure in her love, he could wander away from it. The couple visit a seemingly dying friend in the hospital, before attending a book signing for the husband’s new novel. Then they stop at a nightclub where they barely even react to probably the greatest erotic floor show in cinematic history. (the black lady who did this exhibitionist/dance/gymnastic/acrobatic miracle of sensuality is the real highlight of the film for me as all of these images attest!). And then they head off to a party for a rich industrialist who is celebrating the first win by his new racehorse. Both Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau do terrific work as the deadened and estranged couple. He no longer even identifies with his own writing, feeling it’s just a product, like that made by the industrialist. He’s even lost his sense of lust. She no longer feels love for him, and seems locked in loneliness and depression. It’s a tough movie to take, grim, humourless, almost as dead feeling as its leads, but that would seem to be the point. But the dancing black woman is really the main reason you should watch this one… Adios.

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