*. Michelangelo Antonioni, like most directors, had his ups and downs. But on my personal list of favourite directors he would be near the top. At least in the top five.
*. And yet I’m not sure I’ve ever loved an Antonioni film on first viewing, aside from L’Avventura. His movies grow on me.
*. One of the questions posed by L’Avventura is whether it’s “about” anything. It’s a question that’s even more pressing here, as even less happens: there’s no trip to an island, no missing person (though Lidia goes AWOL for an afternoon), and no mystery driving anything that could be called a plot forward.
*. So what’s it about? Love. And by love I mean a bunch of conventions that developed in the middle ages, the stuff of courtly romance and Giovanni’s (now forgotten) aubade to his wife, which she recites to him at the end. This is the art of love: not its physical expression (you can read books and consult videos on that), but as an aesthetic performance and ritual.
*. It’s love as artifice, as culture, as presentation, like that dance we watch in the night club. There’s no point to the dancer balancing that wine glass the way she does, it’s just a symbolically sexual display. She is also progressively undressed as she dances: the setting may be elegant but it’s still a strip joint.
*. This is the kind of upper-class game that our two leads — Lidia and Giovanni — have supped full of. They are bored with beauty, and receive no pleasure from pleasure. “Sometimes beauty can really be depressing.” “Life would be tolerable if not for its pleasures.” These people have had too much of a good thing.
*. The idea that eroticism is born of boredom is something I find few people want to consider, but nevertheless I think it’s true. We find the effect of love most often in idleness.
*. Perhaps living in Milan will do that to you. Or starring in an Antonioni movie.
*. Because once you’re in the bubble, beauty is a drug, a trap. We can’t trust it. Snare-like frames are sprung on us everywhere: doorways, windows, pictures hanging on walls. Every frame of this film is composed like something you could blow up and sell as a print.
*. Windows in particular are constantly introduced as both frames and mirrors, reality and reflection. It’s a motif that’s introduced with the opening credit scroll as we descend the (then very new) Pirelli Tower, with the windows reflecting the city below. As Giuliana Bruno observes, it’s like the windows are being transformed into a strip of celluloid.
*. A window is a facade, a face that’s presented to the street. And we’re always trying to look through it, to see what’s behind it, but only seeing ourselves.
*. I am in awe of the scene where Giovanni interrupts Valentina’s game of solitaire shuffleboard by seeming to come out of his own reflection in the window. Adriano Aprà sees this as Giovanni being a ghost of himself, but I don’t know if ghost is the right word. He’s just an image of himself that can occasionally take physical form, but not for long. He’s only a reflection, or perhaps a publicity photo for the dustjacket of his book that can appear in the flesh at parties and then disappear again.
*. I think this insubstantiality and lack of real identity is the point of his not recognizing his own letter to his wife when it’s read back to him. Who wrote that? Him? Not really. Just some person he used to be, for a while.
*. To her credit, Lidia finally does come to understand that her husband is not just worthless but a kind of black hole. And she has the self-awareness to admit that this is what originally attracted her to him. Few people go so far in admitting their mistakes.
*. La Dolce Vita had come out the previous year, and it’s hard not to see this movie as a kind of remake or reinterpretation. The author (played by the same actor) experiencing a night of upper class ennui and decadence, lusting after an unattainable woman, and then experiencing (or not) a sort of epiphany the next morning.
*. Antonioni only worked with Marcello Mastroianni once again, over thirty years later. Apparently Mastroianni didn’t enjoy doing this movie (and neither did Jeanne Moreau). Does he not belong in an Antonioni film? Was he more of a Fellini man? Is there a difference? What is the difference?
*. One false step. I don’t like the scene with the fight that Lidia breaks up. It seems overly choreographed and I’m not sure what its purpose is. Are the tough boys meant to represent a more authentic masculinity or virility? It’s a scene that seems echoed by the one in Zabriskie Point where Daria is surrounded by horny, threatening urchins, or when Monica Vitti is circled in the street in L’Avventura. The bourgeoisie may be boring, but the unrefined, proletarian male is savagely inarticulate and dangerous.
*. How heelish is it of Giovanni to tell Valentina that his wife has sent him after her? Or does he really believe this? I take it this is what Antonioni meant when he said he wanted the film to illustrate “the weight of masculine egotism implied by such a total abstraction of his wife’s personality to his own benefit.”
*. When does Lidia realize that Giovanni isn’t really there? She says it’s when she sees him bored at the night club, so perhaps it’s when she reaches out for his hand (or it is only his cufflinks?). There are earlier hints at their apartment though. When she stands up in the tub and he doesn’t respond to her body. And look at the way her face falls when he doesn’t recognize how good she looks in her new dress. God, what a sad woman. If you don’t feel a pain in your heart at that moment then you don’t have one.
*. That shot of her reaching for his hand is an echo of an earlier one that really took me out of myself. It’s in the hospital room, When Tommaso holds on to Lidia’s hand with both of his and kisses it. How is it that this gesture meant so much to me? Because it’s unexpected? Because it immediately makes us think of something else? But I think we all recognize immediately what it means: the dying man in the blank and sterile institutional setting reaching out for human contact, for warmth, to hold on to life.
*. I think Lidia recognizes this. The only thing she asks the hospital when she finds out that he’s died is if his mother was with him at the end. Because that’s important.
*. Lidia is a rare human figure in Antonioni. She’s full of life: laughs with strangers in the street, doesn’t mind men checking her out, is upset by Tommaso’s dying, and steps in to break up the street fight. Such a passionate figure is out of place here.
*. And she’s that saddest of all the people we meet: someone who wants to have a good time, to engage more with life, but can’t. She has a very quick smile for everyone. She’s at her husband’s book launch party but nobody talks to her. She’s a wallflower. In the street it seems like she almost wants to dance with the people she meets, but instead keeps walking. When she’s invited to dance by the guy who tries to pick her up, it turns out he can’t. She even wants to dance with the band, but that goes nowhere. She’s the girl who just wants to have fun, but she’s all grown up now and there is no more fun to be had.
*. Pauline Kael: “[Antonioni’s] conception is distasteful: his characters seem to find glamour in their own desolation and emptiness. They are cardboard intellectuals — a sort of international café society — and their lassitude seems an empty pose.” I don’t think she tried very hard on this one. I don’t think the people we meet are finding glamour in their empty lives, but rather finding a contempt within themselves for that very glamour. They don’t enjoy the empty pose, but it’s all they feel they have left, and they’re not even sure they still have that any more.
*. All is calm. No one ever raises their voice. Because the people we meet don’t feel any great passions? Because they can’t communicate? Or because nothing they have to say to each other is all that important? Note that scene shot outside the car where we can’t hear what Lidia is saying to the pick-up artist Roberto. Is it important? Are we missing anything? Probably not.
*. We are totally out of nature in this film. Even the final scene plays out on a golf course and sand trap, an artificial, manufactured landscape. You can’t get outside the frame. Is that what draws Lidia to the rockets? They seem to be breaking free.
*. I mentioned Werner Herzog’s ability to paint in white in my notes on Nosferatu. Antonioni could do this as well (and impressed Hitchcock immensely in this regard, as he stood up straight during one Antonioni film and exclaimed “White on white! There, you see! It can be done!”). And he does the equally difficult job of painting in black here. Black on black on black, but it’s all variations on shadow and depth.
*. In L’Avventura Antonioni liked to set two faces looking at the camera side-by-side. He still does that a bit here, mostly when he wants to get Monica Vitti’s face in the shot, but he’s more into the backs of people’s heads, or backs in general. We are frequently positioned behind people, looking out past them. This isn’t the standard over-the-shoulder shot but one where the point-of-view character is fully foregrounded, where their heads or bodies are the primary active elements in the frame.
*. How much time do we spend looking at Jeanne Moreau’s and Monica Vitti’s backs? I felt I got to know them quite well. Moreau has an odd spine. I think Kael is wrong to say the camera is “fixated on her rear.” It’s fixated more on the back of her head and shoulders.
*. As an example of the effect this can have, it isn’t even clear that it’s Monica Vitti reading the book when we see a woman sitting at the bottom of the stairs. I can’t tell. You don’t see the woman’s face. Later we see Vitti holding a book but we’re not sure what book it is.
*. I love the moment when Giovanni realizes that Valentina is his host’s daughter. She gives her dad a kiss and then looks straight at Giovanni and says “That’s right.” Zing! But she delivers the line with no emotion at all.
*. Is Lidia raped at the end? She certainly says No, and just because they’re married doesn’t provide Giovanni any defence. I think the way the camera slides away only highlights the cruel inversion of romantic love that Giovanni is miming. He’s just going through the motions, again. Dancing in a sand trap.
*. I found it odd that in a very appreciative retrospective essay on Antonioni that appeared in the New York Times, Stephen Holden describes this final scene as one where “the unhappy couple futilely attempt to reconnect.” That may be what Giovanni is attempting, but it’s certainly not what Lidia is after.
*. It may not be a great movie, but it perfectly captures what Antonioni set out to do: dramatize a quiet, critical moment in a relationship. Falling out of love takes time, but there is a tipping point where you’ve lost everything and you’re not getting it back. At that point even the smallest things, trivial looks and gestures, open up giant distances. Two people are no longer inhabiting the same place or time. Should we be put off by how Antonioni says all of this so elegantly? I’m not. As Giovanni says at one point, he’s telling a fairy tale but his real life is much worse.