Maria Pia Luzi
2 Hrs., 2 Mins.
La Notte May 2, 2018
was struck by the moment when a woman offers an unwanted story pitch. She is standing opposite Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni), a successful novelist. Although both are attending a party meant to celebrate the recent release of one of the latter’s books, the woman, ever-garrulous, takes it upon herself to tell Giovanni what she thinks his audiences might want to read in the future.
“I’d like a novel about a woman who loves a man, but the man doesn’t love her,” she says. “He does admire her intelligence, her character. They live together.” She pauses, suddenly bemused. She shrugs. “But how could such a story end?”
Little does she know how narratively similar her story idea is to Giovanni’s marriage. Though he and his droopy-eyed wife, Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), were likely in love some years ago — which contrasts to this always-loveless purgatory the woman describes — reflected is the idea that admiration is more there than affection. That “living together,” which sounds so clinical and akin to roommating, is a better descriptor of their relationship than “married.”
La Notte (1961), written and directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and the second part of a Monica Vitti-assisted trilogy detailing “modernity and its discontents,” details Giovanni and Lidia’s tottery marriage for a 24-hour period. It begins with the visiting of a dying friend, transitions into a Giovanni-centric soirée where no one seems to be having fun, and ends with a bleak attempt at romantic renewal. It's the most straightforward chapter in the unofficial trilogy. L’Avventura (1960), a 143-minute, existentially uncertain odyssey, was long on symbolism and ennui but devoid of even the slightest of pleasures; 1962’s L’Eclisse was temporarily convinced that even the emptiest of a romance could bring some sort of excitement to a lethargic life, only to conclude pessimistically and rather ambiguously.
With La Notte, though, what we see is what we get. Antonioni wants it to be a snapshot of a failing marriage, attentive toward the all the necessary minutiae, and that’s exactly what it is. It is, however, the least intriguing part of the thematically linked saga, in part due to the way we can more or less discern why these characters are so unhappy, or because Vitti, consistently the lead in Antonioni’s best films of the 1960s, is secondary. (She plays a young temptress who makes Giovanni contemplate whether it’s worth it to have an extramarital fling.)
But there’s a reason why the trilogy has arguably remained the utmost defining chapter of Antonioni’s filmography, even if some modern-day critics have come to believe that much of what he did was tedious, almost aggravatingly patient and slow to unfold. L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse — which respectively translate to The Adventure, The Night, and The Eclipse, titles whose banality seem to mean something more — are such masterpieces of the naturalist form because they so eerily capture what it feels like to be lonely. What it feels like to distinctly know what you should want, what you should feel, what you should think, and yet remain inexplicably unable to do anything besides feel barren and removed.
Perhaps I’ve always distanced myself from La Notte because it is, to its core, so much more intransigently sad. Whereas L’Avventura simply watched young characters try to navigate their tedious lives after a single event jarrs everything they’ve come to know about themselves, La Notte showcases a pair of people who, for all intents and purposes, should be happy. They’re professionally fulfilled, and have realized all the requirements of a “good” marriage, save for the societal expectation of having children. Yet even after doing everything supposedly “correctly,” they are still unsatisfied. And this has recurrently shaken me: What if I, like Giovanni and Lidia, go about my life the right way and still end up in a miles-deep, ladderless pool of ennui, where escape isn’t an option so treading water is a necessity?
La Notte’s disquiet is unshakable, and certainly is the kind only able to be replicated by Antonioni, who’d more painfully spotlight it in Red Desert (1964), where misery is practically a side character. What accrues is a dark, abnormally aloof movie whose honesty and defeatism makes it hurt all the more. Antonioni's finest features made for some of the saddest melodies in the world, and La Notte is no exception. A-