By Daniel Barnes
As much as Antonioni stripped the narratives of L’Avventura and La Notte down to their bare essentials, those films had natural forward momentums and classic narrative shapes. L’Avventura takes on the basic structure of an unsolvable, Laura-like mystery, while La Notte outwardly assumes the form of an up-all-night film such as After Hours, or a Bunuel-like journey into the soul.
His 1962 film L’Eclisse, the third in his unofficial “Alienation Trilogy” with actress Monica Vitti (she would also star in his next effort, 1964’s Red Desert), is even sparser in terms of story, characters, and context. This is easily the most oblique of the three Antonioni films in this festival, a frustrating study in form, mood, space, inexplicable incongruities, and moral malaise that is mostly empty and often bluntly obvious. At times, Vitti’s ravishing beauty is all that holds L’Eclisse together.
There isn’t much in the way of narrative momentum – the film opens with Vitti’s spiritually dissatisfied Vittoria ending her engagement to a wooden sugar daddy who used to be her boss. By the end of the film, she has drifted without much enthusiasm into another relationship with a shallow stockbroker played by Alain Delon. In between, there is a stylish but almost documentary-like depiction of an Italian stock market crash, which Antonioni predictably equates with a more profound moral descent.
The stock market scenes have a stolidity that sticks out and often drags in contrast to the film’s more dreamy aspects. However, they do allow Antonioni to flash some of his cutting dark humor, as when a “moment of silence” for a fallen stock market colleague is persistently interrupted by ringing phones. As usual, Antonioni is far more interested in creating setpieces than in crafting a cohesive whole, but without a stronger story to compel us, L’Eclisse becomes a very hit and miss endeavor.
However, Antonioni’s visuals are more vivid and intense than ever in L’Eclisse. It feels like there are more abrupt and violent edits here than in the previous two films, while the camera moves less with a La Notte-like grace and more with a sense of anxiety. The visual depth of field is spectacular and almost disorienting, an effect thanks in no small part to the pristine Criterion transfer.
It might play a little too much like a student film today, but the closing rush of images is the most powerful sequence in the film, even if it feels like a crescendo to which the film neglected to build. I’m not going to act like I know what Antonioni wanted to say (if anything) with each individual shot of tree shadows, construction beams (again! – all three films in the “Alienation Trilogy” use unfinished construction as a visual metaphor), crosswalks, baby carriages, and doomsday newspaper headlines, but it does seem like the boundaries between the natural and manmade worlds have completely faded by the time “Fine” fades in.
Over the course of these three films, I think that we can also chart a course into tighter and more restrictive spaces. As this festival has made clear, Antonioni is certainly a master of spatial movement and detail, and through these films he has shown a fascination with wedging his characters into ever more claustrophobic environments.
L’Avventura took place mostly in open spaces – on the sea, on the barren island, in the deserted mountainside village. La Notte moved those same themes of modern alienation and ethical vapidity into a more urban/suburban setting of house parties and nightclubs. Finally, L’Eclisse practically imprisons its characters in their environments – towering skyscrapers hem people in, and cramped apartments fail to inspire intimacy or tenderness.
It is no accident that right before the beginning of the final sequence, Vitti adorns a necklace made out of a chain and departs into an unknown abyss. In Antonioni’s world, a society that acts entirely on avarice and self-interest is a society destined to lose its own soul and doomed towards savagery. By the end of L’Eclisse, humanity has become a zombie race, a gaggle of monkeys returning to primordial treetops of their own design.
TOMORROW: Clips related to L’Eclisse, plus my Criterion Collection review of Seijun Suzuki’s brilliant 1963 crime film, Youth of the Beast.