A lot can happen in one night. The action in La notte (1961) takes place over slightly less than twenty-four hours in the life of a married couple, beginning with their midday hospital visit to a dying friend and ending early the next morning in the sunrise aftermath of a lavish party at which their simmering tensions drive them openly apart. The story of Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni), a novelist, and Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), his wife, of unstated profession, is defined by time, but the time in which it exists is offscreen—the past, the early days of their love and the accretion of their discontent, the time in which he wrote the book for which, in the course of the day, he is repeatedly feted; and the future, the possibility that the couple will overcome their estrangement, will remember what brought them together, will heal their hostility and rediscover their lost love.
It’s a strangely self-displacing story, one that’s pulled back to the past and catapulted forward into the future. Time itself seems to efface Giovanni and Lidia—which makes the casting of two intensely dramatic stars as the quietly smoldering, tensely involuted perhaps ex-lovers all the more crucial. Michelangelo Antonioni has Mastroianni and Moreau restrain themselves; he leaves overt theatricality to other characters, whose flamboyant expressivity is more or less the mark of their insubstantiality, insincerity, or frivolity; their brazen self-assertion in the fullness of the moment seems blind and trivial. Giovanni passes through the world with a withholding temperament that presumably feeds a keen and discerning sense of observation but that also results in a peculiar passivity—he goes where he’s invited, he yields almost somnolently to seduction in grotesquely inappropriate situations—as a result of which his handsome and finely set features seem as featureless as a mirror. Meanwhile, Lidia, a capable, sensitive, intelligent, and worldly woman, is emptied out by her subordination to Giovanni’s existence; her own intellectual life has become merely a reflection of his—a reflection of a reflection.
The drama of La notte is offscreen too—the question of whether Lidia and Giovanni still love each other—but Antonioni, rendering characters who are remote from their own emotions and detached from their own existence, severs the link between action and feeling and turns his protagonists into distracted and puzzled spectators of their own gestures. The movie culminates in Giovanni’s dalliance at the party with his host’s daughter, Valentina (Monica Vitti)—a dalliance that gives rise to a remark- able solidarity between two women of great character whose way of life has reduced them to supporting roles in the lives of others.
Yet even this series of emotional shocks, and the element of suspense that arises from it, is muted and refracted, as if the drama doesn’t pertain to the characters themselves, as if their actions were taking place at a remove from them. Though the crux of the story is internal, its correlates are less in the things that Giovanni and Lidia do than in the places they go and the milieu they inhabit. Antonioni’s work with time turns into a cinematic exploration of space—the actual spaces that the characters pass through, in and around Milan—and, just as the time of the movie is wrenched out of the present by the past and the future, the spaces of the film and of its characters are themselves displaced.
Instead of establishing the movie’s locations as theaters of action, Antonioni turns them into the frames of abstract forms, which are the real stars of the movie. He films buildings, interior design, and the innumerable incidental objects of daily life as a kind of visual music that is stretched out on staves of time. In the hospital where Giovanni and Lidia visit their friend Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki), shots out the window from different angles slice the cityscape into its past (with weighty and ornate buildings) and its future (a clean- lined, gleaming, abstracted modernism). Vast blank surfaces that overwhelm identity, immense glass walls that beguile identity, hypnotically repetitive shapes that chill identity, bare monumental vistas that distance identity, sharp lines that define no distinctions, a shining white staircase that leads inward to nowhere—all are the objects of Antonioni’s fascinated camera eye.
The world of visual abstractions that beguiles Antonioni and dominates La notte is the one that the industrialist Gherardini (Vincenzo Corbella), the host of the film’s climactic party, openly admits to having set out to create. Gherardini may be a self-interested philistine, but his work involves a visionary creative energy (he says, “I have always looked upon my businesses as works of art”) that Antonioni’s own art seeks out, depends on, exults in—even as Antonioni rues that vision’s menacing, dehumanizing effects. While Gherardini, in the open-air luxury of his villa’s garden, discusses his life’s work, the camera lingers on the luminous, striated purity of a round picnic table and the geometric rigor of the garden behind him, forms of an elusive, permanently receding future that seem endowed with greater vitality and greater power than their creators and, for that matter, their interpreters.
Paradoxically, Antonioni’s highly inflected, graphically rigorous images reveal his irrepressible delight in the oppressive and desolate forms of technological modernity—and these images are themselves among the prime examples of that modernity. He had worked for more than a decade on the theme of the displacement of consciousness to such public forces as media, architecture, and fashion before he discovered—at the age of forty-seven, with L’avventura (released in 1960)—a way to bring this idea to its exemplary cinematic realization, in the first of a tetralogy of films (all featuring Vitti). It was followed by La notte; then, in L’eclisse (1962) and Red Desert (1964), he carried these abstractions to the breaking point of ecstatic beauty in soul-stealing oppression.
In La notte, the new abstractions emerge with a riotous profusion in the new city, which displays its breathtaking and chilling wonders even before the start of the action, in the credit sequence. The city of the living future is utterly alien to nature; when Giovanni returns to the couple’s pristine modern apartment, in a massive complex, the breeze that lifts their curtains passes through them like an atavistic intruder. The moment offers an uncanny thrill of repressed spirits emerging from the awesome purity of the urban order and the monstrous, inhuman disproportion of its scale.
With understated shifts in perspective, Antonioni captures a world that is subtly yet deeply out of joint. (In L’eclisse and Red Desert, the visual dislocation would be more radical, and the emotional one irreparable.) One sequence in La notte shows Giovanni and Lidia entering his publisher’s office for his book party. As he passes behind a rack of his books and pauses for a mortal instant, his name appears repeatedly in front of him like a caption that’s empty of meaning, an incantation of nonsense sounds that are somehow him and that he’s there to somehow impersonate—an anti-verbal opacity that lends its meaninglessness to the little bricks of words that lie beneath these tags and that also reduces to inanity the suited and dressed, coiffed and elegant, witty and eloquent intellectuals who are there to celebrate him and his opaque creation. The world of La notte isn’t an absurd or meaningless one; it’s one that hides its profoundest meaning in plain sight, that owes its almost incalculable profundity to the immediacy of its visual patterns and abstractions, and that Antonioni both damns and redeems in the same gesture, the same moment, by means of his own art.
Richard Brody is the movies editor for the New Yorker’s Goings On About Town and the author of Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.