Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni was never one to shy away from an elliptical narrative. Depending on your temperament, his cold, alienating projections have been either lauded or denounced, but always cinematically significant. At times, cinematography is his only clear protagonist. Sprawling landscapes with infinite depth of field. Other times, his characters seemed caged in stark urban deserts, tussling with deep introversion and emotional antipathy. In La Notte (1961), the second part of his ‘trilogy of modernity and its discontents,’ Antonioni meshes the players with the panorama.
Set in early sixties Milan, La Notte carries a mood of intrinsic separation between people’s innermost self. Antonioni captures the self-conscious breakdown of a stagnant marriage within the timeframe of 24 hours. Two disenchanted lovers – Giovanni Pontano (Fellini favourite Marcello Mastroianni) the celebrated writer, and Lydia Pontano (French actress Jeanne Moreau) the wealthy socialite – permit their egocentric defeatism and selfish desires to demolish whatever love they may have once shared. With the main source of exertion unravelling at a cocktail party for the rich and famous, the couple brawl over etiquette, nepotism and impulsive cravings. The lovers’ emptiness for one another fizzes in the superficial party atmosphere.
Unbearably candid performances seething in a strangely utilitarian backdrop makes the narrative devilishly challenging. La Notte is persistent with its social unpleasantries. Giovanni’s constant sexual promiscuity seems to only exasperate his emotional detachment from both his disdained spouse and his own existence. He exploits his success and social hierarchy as a tool for seduction. Lydia makes cursory stabs at reaching out to her wanton husband. Following from a disturbed interaction with a nymphomaniac, Giovanni prepares to outline his adulterous tendencies. Lydia simply replies “Do you have to?”
It’s these mournful, exhausted inferences that make La Notte so uncomfortable and fraught. Antonioni’s choice of space and time act like time bombs locked in prisons. Similar to Godard, Antonioni can be a culprit of audience alienation. His slow, sometimes voiceless, plots can be neglectful and unforgiving. But really, this particular trilogy, La Notte especially, is possibly one of his most honest pieces of work. You see realism in reality. Esoteric and aloof the filmmaking may be, but you lose yourself in the sweeping urban vistas amongst imperfect humans with personality crises. And that is what makes Antonioni a true master of cinema.