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Antonioni’s Stark Portrait of Haute-Bourgeois Boredom and Betrayal ‘La Notte’ Lives Again on Criterion Blu-Ray

Antonioni's Stark Portrait of Haute-Bourgeois Boredom and Betrayal 'La Notte' Lives Again on Criterion Blu-Ray

Could a film like “La Notte” ever
exist today? What would it look like?

Released in 1961, Michelangelo Antonioni’s visually sleek
modernist masterpiece features two international stars of considerable pedigree
— Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau — who talk, and also don’t talk,
about the undetectable meanings of life and love.

This side of “La Notte,” the closest a film comes to
such a surgically precise picture of marital breakdown is “Eyes Wide
Shut” (1999) by Stanley Kubrick, who loved “La Notte.” And like “Eyes Wide Shut,” “LA Notte” is a dreamy nighttime odyssey that drives
apart a husband and wife as they hurtle toward something awful and inevitable,
only to bring them together again in a closing moment of possible
reconciliation. But when Giovanni (Mastroianni) and Lidia (Moreau) embrace like
wild dogs at the end of “La Notte,” there may be reconciliation, but
no hope.

While Giovanni, a novelist, is enjoying the success of his
new book, his wife Lidia begins to confront the fact that he probably doesn’t
love her anymore and that their marriage is over, just not over. As Giovanni rubs elbows with European intellectuals and ravages
their lavish praise, Lidia drifts into numb despair, wandering through the streets
of Milan and into Antonioni’s bourgeois wasteland.

In her 1963 essay “The Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties,” a diatribe against European art house cinema, Pauline Kael understood “La Notte”‘s introversion as emptiness. “La Notte is supposed to be a study in the failure of communication, but what new perceptions of this problem do we get by watching people on the screen who can’t communicate if we are never given any insight into what they would have to say if they could talk to each other?”

Point taken, Pauline. Lydia and Giovanni don’t fully and honestly communicate with each other until the film’s very last scene, and even then it occurs through the recitation of a letter Giovanni does not remember writing. There is a glass plate between them (often literally). 

“La Notte” languishes in the unspoken intimacies between two people in a long-term relationship, where words are useless and only damaging, and feelings are telegraphed through gestures, sidelong glances, raised eyebrows of suspicion. Through the inward, aching performances of Mastroianni and Moreau, the
history of their marriage is written on the faces of Lidia and Giovanni. 

In 1960, Antonioni already denounced speech as an effective tool of communication between people in “L’Avventura” where one character says to another, “Words are becoming less and less necessary. They create misunderstandings.” 

So if you’re not on board with Antonioni’s studies in the “failure of communication,” “La Notte” is not for you. 

dismissed most movies as “pictures of people talking.” Through the
purity of his images, Antonioni not only shared that sentiment but actively
explored it. He denounced speech in “L’Avventura,” a film that in
essence rewrote the rules of narrative as we know them where, like his ambling
characters, the story simply wanders off inconclusively into anticlimax.

There is little
plot to speak of in “La Notte” but what makes this film more
conventional than the rest of Antonioni’s is the sense of an ending.

A year before, Fellini made “La Dolce Vita,” a lush panorama of Roman decadence full of vigor and life. And in its opening scene, a helicopter carrying a statute of Jesus encircles a city vista. In “La Notte,” Giovanni and Lidia stop to pause at a helicopter passing over the hospital. But it bears nothing. There is no god, no hope, only absence and nothing, because if you hope for anything in Antonioni’s world, you’re as good as dead.

Criterion’s gorgeous, crystal-clear 4K transfer retains the grainy celluloid look of a 35mm print. But to have and to hold it on Blu-Ray is something special, encouraging you to look closely at Antonioni’s composition as he intended. Supplementing the disc is a sharp essay by New Yorker critic Richard Brody.

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