Your vigilance as an artist is an amorous vigilance, a vigilance of desire.
—Roland Barthes to Michelangelo Antonioni, 1979
It’s lamentable that Michelangelo Antonioni, one of the most fashionable vanguard European filmmakers during the sixties, has mainly been out of fashion ever since. Part of this may be due to the sixties themselves—an era of artistic innovation when making ambitious films about the zeitgeist was still considered both possible and desirable—and all they’ve come to represent in ensuing decades. It seems that the curiosity and metaphysical doubts about the world, which resemble at times agnosticism about reality itself, are more easily tolerated when the glamour of that world is more readily apparent.
This was a time when intellectual activity about the zeitgeist could be debated, if not always welcomed, with Godard and Antonioni the two most commanding figureheads. L’eclisse (1962) appeared the year after Chronicle of a Summer, Last Year at Marienbad, and Paris Belongs to Us, the same year as The Exterminating Angel and Vivre sa vie, and the year before Contempt and Muriel—a period, in short, when large statements and narrative innovations often came together.
L’eclisse also came as the climax of a loose trilogy about Eros, art, business, and emotional alienation in the contemporary world that consolidated Antonioni’s international reputation, preceded by L’avventura (1960) and La notte (1961). And in some ways it upped the ante of his provocative modernism by being the most radical of the three in both its defiance of narrative conventions and its chilling poetry of absence and desire. L’avventura’s central mystery—the disappearance of a major character, Anna (Lea Massari), on a volcanic island during a luxury cruise—is never solved, and its narrative focus shifts partway through to Anna’s best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti)—anticipating the shock tactics of Psycho a year later, whereby Vera Miles “replaces” Janet Leigh. La notte, adhering to a stretch of almost twenty-four hours, has a more conventional shape, though most of its middle consists of a seemingly directionless narrative drift. L’eclisse—beginning with the termination of one love affair and ending with the apparent scuttling of another—appears at times to consist of nothing but narrative drift, and the fact that none of the film’s characters, including the two leads (Vitti and Alain Delon), appear during the final sequence only adds to the impertinence. Some U.S. exhibitors were in fact so troubled by this ending that they lopped off the entire seven minutes—perhaps the most powerful sequence in Antonioni’s work.
This chilling climax brings to a head Antonioni’s preoccupation with objects and places overtaking and supplanting people that already figures in such sequences as the visit to the volcanic island in L’avventura and the helicopter buzzing outside the hospital window near the beginning of La notte—as well as earlier in L’eclisse, after the couple’s morning breakup, when various objects in the room, and a tower seen outside through the window, momentarily seem to displace them. In all three cases, one is suspended in what initially feels like narrative digression but may in fact be a dispersal of the narrative in an unforeseen direction, away from the characters and into the setting. (In the opening shot, this movement is reversed when a pan reveals that one of the objects on a table is in fact a man’s elbow.)
Paradoxically, though Antonioni is rarely viewed as a director of actors, I would argue that L’eclisse features the most expressive and exuberant performances of Vitti and Delon in any movie, and the achievements of this highly structured masterpiece would be unthinkable without them. This even applies to the last sequence, constructed around both their absence and a recapitulation of motifs associated with them. Their intense physical chemistry already starts to feel remote once the objects around their favorite meeting place are deprived of their company—a development that virtually recapitulates the transition from a twist to anxiety-ridden modernist music behind the film’s opening credits.
The eroticism of this couple indeed announces a thematic reversal in Antonioni’s work that has continued up to the present, a shift away from viewing Eros as a kind of contemporary sickness and toward a less-reserved appreciation of it. The earlier position is powerfully illustrated in the previous two films—in the tryst of Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) with a prostitute near the end of L’avventura and the brief encounter of Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) with a nymphomaniac near the beginning of La notte, among other places—and was stressed by Antonioni in a famous statement made at the Cannes premiere of L’avventura:
Why do you think eroticism is so prevalent today in our literature, our theatrical shows, and elsewhere? It is a symptom of the emotional sickness of our time. But this preoccupation with the erotic would not become obsessive if Eros were healthy—that is, if it were kept within human proportions. But Eros is sick; man is uneasy, something is bothering him. And whenever something bothers him, man reacts, but he reacts badly, only on erotic impulse, and he is unhappy.
Sexist pronouns and all, this prognosis is tied to the issue of art and business coexisting in the modern world, with the specter of selling out a near-constant in the trilogy’s first two films. Sandro is a former architect who becomes rich by forsaking his art in order to make cost estimates for other architects’ buildings. Giovanni, a successful but bored novelist, is offered a job by a wealthy industrialist whose party he attends with his wife, Lydia (Jeanne Moreau). Sandro lusts in turn after Anna, Claudia, and a hooker, while Giovanni responds to a nymphomaniac hospital patient, to the teenage daughter of the industrialist (Vitti again), and, eventually, to Lydia, who no longer loves him.
But in L’eclisse, Antonioni started regarding Eros more positively, without the same overlay of guilt, and capitalism a little less monolithically as a vehicle for compromise or corruption. These changes become the first intimations of what appears to be a new attitude. Apart from a few throwbacks to treatments of Eros as illness—most notably in Red Desert, his next feature, where Vitti plays the most neurotic of all his characters—the celebration of eroticism has continued all the way up to Antonioni’s episode in the recent Eros, while his view of business, in spite of remaining critical (especially in Zabriskie Point), would also become a little more appreciative, as in his wonder at the vitality of the stock market in L’eclisse and the beauty of certain industrial landscapes in Red Desert.
In L’eclisse, Vittoria (Vitti), a translator in a Roman suburb, after breaking off with a writer, Riccardo (Francisco Rabal), becomes involved with Piero (Delon), a stockbroker in Rome employed by her mother. And if anyone in this quartet is seen as neurotic, it’s Riccardo and the mother, not the other two. Piero may be driven, but neither his work at the stock exchange nor his restless love life is viewed as an illness; in fact, Antonioni choreographs them both like vibrant (albeit somewhat spastic) dances. And he choreographs the drift of the more sluggish Vittoria as well, such as when a repeated camera angle makes her “rhyme” with one of Piero’s former girlfriends. She may be fickle about whom she gets involved with and unclear about her fluctuating impulses, but he clearly empathizes; her refrain, “I don’t know,” is virtually his own watchword. It yields a multiplication of perspectives that suggests a narrative equivalent to Cubism. Significantly, if he’d had his way with this story and not been overruled by his producer, it would have yielded two features rather than one, exploring the same events from the separate viewpoints of Piero and Vittoria. (In that case, one wonders what would have happened to the ending.)
Antonioni’s appreciation of both Vitti and Delon must have affected his altered view of Eros in L’eclisse, and perhaps his interest in these actors as spectacle—Vitti’s unbridled mugging and Delon’s dancelike movements—has something to do with the relative diffuseness of his narrative. On the other hand, though he pays only nominal attention to Vittoria’s work as a translator—a lapse for which he was widely criticized—her everyday existence is much more carefully established than that of L’avventura’s Claudia, who comes from a less moneyed background and has no visible means of self-support. (Critics didn’t seem to mind the latter gap, perhaps because the more alluring milieu of the idle rich discouraged such questions.) When it comes to Vittoria’s idle drift, he seems happy to follow her on her most wayward passing impulses without viewing them as either decadent or desperate (in contrast to some of the forays of Claudia and Sandro), such as when she impersonates an African woman in the flat of a colonialist neighbor from Kenya or boards a plane flown by another neighbor’s husband for a moment of almost ecstatic peace.
Antonioni’s first films were documentaries, and it’s worth noting that he employed mainly real stockbrokers in the stock-exchange sequences of L’eclisse, getting Delon to model his gestures on one of them. Part of what makes these scenes so breathtaking is his compositional style in using the edges of the frame and playing off different sections of the crowded image in relation to one another—much as Jacques Tati would do in the restaurant sequence of Playtime five years later (as Manny Farber wrote, “L’eclisse has a parody, very exciting, of people using their arms and hands in a stock-exchange scene; most of the time these actors working on telephones, sandwiches, penciling, seem to be trying to fling their hands away”).
Only a large screen can do full justice to the virtuosity of Antonioni’s mise en scène; a sense of monumentality is basic to his conception throughout, whether the focal point happens to be a rotating electric fan at dawn, a car with a corpse being hauled from a river, an illuminated streetlamp at dusk, a couple necking on a sofa, or a crowd of screaming speculators. And, again as in Playtime, even our misrecognition can play a role in overall dynamics: characters with fleeting resemblances to Piero and Vittoria pass through the intersection where their meeting fails to take place, teasing us with possibilities. What Roland Barthes has called Antonioni’s vigilance of desire has become our own, though it remains unsatisfied.
It’s almost as if Antonioni has extracted the essence of everyday street life that serves as a background throughout the picture, and once we’re presented with this essence in its undiluted form, it suddenly threatens and oppresses us. The implication is that behind every story there’s a place and an absence, a mystery and a profound uncertainty, waiting like a vampire at every moment to emerge and take over, to stop the story dead in its tracks. And if we combine this place and absence, this mystery and uncertainty into a single, irreducible entity, what we have is the modern world itself—the place where all of us live, and which most stories are designed to protect us from.
Jonathan Rosenbaum’s collections include Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (1993) and Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (2004), both of which contain essays on Antonioni.