L’Eclisse (1962)

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*. This movie is usually considered to be the third part of a very loose trilogy that’s been given different names. Indeed Antonioni’s next movie, Red Desert, is sometimes thrown in to make it a tetralogy, just because.
*. In any event, the first two “parts” were L’Avventura and La Notte, and since I consider those movies to be among my favourite films of all time, it’s always been hard for me to see the trilogy (if that’s what it is) ending on a high note. L’Eclisse is a fine movie, but I don’t think it’s in the same league as the others.
*. That said, to have produced these three films in only three years . . . the mind boggles. When an artist is in a creative groove then everything comes together.
*. We start off in very famliar territory. The alienated couple, silent in the midst of cultured affluence (he is some kind of intellectual, she is a translator). All of it carefully, artistically arranged and photographed, with preternatural clarity and an emphasis on architectural units in the mise-en-scène. The woman leaves and enters a world of empty and nearly-empty streets, a foreshadowing of the gradual desertification of Antonioni’s landscapes. We know where this was heading.
*. It’s often remarked how stills from Antonioni’s films are individual works of art. It’s something he seems to have grown more conscious of as he went along. There’s the same emphasis on shots foregrounding the back of a spectator’s head as he used in La Notte, but he’s added an emphasis on frames within the frame of the screen. This is a motif that’s introduced right from the opening as Vittoria plays with an empty picture frame, arranging a still life, but it can be seen throughout. Our first outdoor shot of the mushroom tower had to be seen framed by trees. Elsewhere windows and doorways serve the same general purpose.

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*. A digression on that mushroom tower: it’s still there, housing a restaurant I believe, but it’s very much a bit of architectural sculpture of its day. In the early ’60s it was a landmark. You’ll remember it from La Dolce Vita (1960), and The Last Man on Earth (1964). The latter film makes for an interesting connection, as the science fiction qualities of L’Eclisse have often been remarked upon. Where are all the people? Is this the post-apocalypse? Should we expect to see Vincent Price running around?
*. It’s an urban desert, an aesthetic wasteland. All that’s left are Modernism’s dehumanized angles and lines, empty streets and collections of building materials.
*. Also familiar is Monica Vitti, though this time she’s a more central figure than in the other two films, where she remained a somewhat distant object of desire. Is that a good thing?

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*. I don’t think so. Pauline Kael observed of this movie that “Even she [Vitti] looks as if she has given up on this one.” It’s hard to fully disagree. Vitti’s persona in these films had become a routine, and here she seems tired of the role: so languid and wilting, if she didn’t have all those walls and doorframes to lean up against she’d probably collapse. In her own words, Vittoria is “tired and depressed, disgusted and confused.”
*. So can we say that we’ve passed into the territory of parody now? Antonioni’s style was so individual and so pronounced, that’s where it had to end up eventually. Unfortunately, where he does seem to be doing something new here, it’s not often a change for the better.
*. In the first place there’s all the Roman Borsa, or stock market, material. It’s beautifully shot and choreographed, the crowds looking at times like something out of a Renaissance painting, but it goes on too long, isn’t finally relevant to much of anything, and doesn’t carry any thematic weight beyond the obvious: that this is the new Roman money ironically playing amid ancient surroundings.

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*. Then there’s Alain Delon’s Piero, a pure creature of the Borsa. Antonioni’s heroes can seem empty or lightweight, but I can’t think of any others as unsubstantial. I think I cared more about what was going to happen to Bud Fox in Wall Street. Bud was crass, but he did have some principles. Watching Piero I was reminded of when they remade Lord of the Flies with American school kids and every critic raced to be the first to say that this ruined the story since American kids were supposed to be homicidal monsters. Here it’s no revelation that Delon has no soul. We know he has no soul the first time we see him (stealing some insider information). He’s all about the money, the women, the cars, and dangling a cigarette from his lip at an impossible angle.

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*. As a representative of the new and the young, he’s just a pretty face. Though I think he represents someting more (or really less) than this. Antonioni likes to juxatpose ancient and modern, old and new, but here’s he’s on to something else. Piero doesn’t care about the art on the walls of his apartment. This isn’t a movie about the clash between old and new but of the worlds of class and no class. Piero represents the latter, as does Marta with all her vulgar native kitsch, tourist posters, and coffee-table books. And yet both Piero and Marta are native members of the older, ruling class. Vittoria, meanwhile, comes from a poor family, but has good books on her shelves (she’s an academic translator), and has just brought home a fossilized flower to set among them. She has real culture where the inheritors of culture and wealth have neither culture nor taste (except maybe in clothes and hair).
*. You’ll usually see their break-up described as Vittoria being disillusioned by Piero’s materialism. I’m not so sure. It’s clear what Piero is all about from the first time we see him, and given Vittoria’s proximity to the market it’s hard to imagine her not recognizing the type. And is she against materialism? How spiritual is she in other respects? Isn’t she just put off by the circus/boxing ring atmosphere of the trading floor more than anything else?
*. No, I don’t see the story unfolding quite that way. I think Vittoria drops Piero because she realizes what the nature of their relationship would necessarily be. She’d be another “hot number,” at best a kept woman with an inside link to the market, capable perhaps of helping her mom out in her investing. She doesn’t want that. And since Piero is only a vulgar albeit pretty playboy, she should move on.
*. What does she want? I’d like to think it’s something profound, but it may be nothing more than the universal desire to be twenty years old again. She remembers she was happy then. But that just makes things worse, doesn’t it?
*. There’s something about that desire to recapture youth that is further developed in an odd way. It’s just a little weird how Piero first tries to seduce Vittoria at her mother’s house, in her childhood bed. Then, in his parent’s house, just after she drifts through what appears to be his childhood bedroom, they’ll have sex for the first time on a bed that has photographs of his parents prominently displayed over it. We get the feeling they’re not quite grown up yet.
*. As always with Antonioni, you have to puzzle over things like this. What has meaning in this world? What is significant? For example, there is much made of the play of hands between Piero and Vittoria. What I find most striking however is the way her hand, tossed outside the sofa she and Piero are making out on, visually rhymes with the dead hand of the drunken man hanging outside the car being pulled from the water. Surely this if foreshadowing! Piero and Vittoria’s relationship is already dead. But at other times their hands seem so alive.

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*. You can play this same interpretive game with various characters throughout the film. Who are we supposed to be noticing? Who will turn out to be important and who is someone we can forget about? The first time you saw him, did you think the drunk in the street who later steals Piero’s car was going to be seen again? Or the fat man who loses all the money on the market? Compare these figures to other ones who are completely irrelevant eye candy, like the woman leaving Vittoria’s building who Piero watches get into her car, or the handsome fellow Vittoria watches walk down the street. We stop and notice these faces on the street, turn and look at them, but they’re just here and gone.
*. The ending is one of the most celebrated in film history. Vittoria and Piero don’t meet again. We are, I think, meant to assume that they didn’t even make an attempt to reunite (though this is really just one interpretation of what happens).
*. I have a confession to make. The first time I saw this film I had no idea what was going on with the ending, because I hadn’t registered that they had made a firm date to meet each other. I thought they were just murmuring sweet nothings to each other as she headed out the door and he got back to business. As with those characters who walk through the frame, with Antonioni so much of the dialogue consists of banalities it’s maddening when you find out later on that something that was said was actually supposed to be an important plot point.
*. Was I just being thick in missing the point of their setting a date at “the usual place”? Yes, but . . . I wonder if times have changed, and expectations. It just seemed to me that these two had hooked up but didn’t really like each other and so they probably wouldn’t be seeing each other the next night, or the night after that. So my experience of the ending was (and still is) something different from what contemporary audiences took away from it. (That is, when they even got to see it. The final montage was apparently cut from some prints as non-essential.)
*. Given how unorthodox it is, and the importance Antonioni puts on his endings, you have to make some effort to address its ambiguity. As I see it, the two key components of the ending are the emptying barrel and the coming of night. Things are running down. After the eclipse the new dawn will be the false, artificial one provided by a street lamp. As for Vittoria and Piero, they don’t matter. And they never did, even to each other.
*. So does it all leave us “tired and depressed, disgusted and confused”? Not at all. You could find it dreary and deflating, but I see a film like this as witness to a faith in life and art. Can a world as beautiful as this really exist all around us? If it did once, even in the imagination, then it can again. Antonioni presents such a vision of the street as the street hardly understands. Like all great artists, he teaches us to see.

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