La Notte

La Notte (The Night) (1961)

La Notte first published by Film4

Summary: In Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (The Night), a married couple’s crisis reflects the anxieties of modernism in an age of death and oblivion. Marcello Mastroianni (La Dolce Vita) stars.  

Review: “Whenever I try to communicate, love disappears.” 

So confides young Valentina (Monica Vitti) to middle-aged Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni) at a soirée being hosted by her industrialist father (Vincenzo Corbella) – and those seven words (even, arguably, just the last two) serve to summarise La Notte, the second in Michelangelo Antonioni‘s so-called ‘incommunicability trilogy’, bracketed by L’Avventura (1960) and L’Eclisse (1962). 

Spanning a day and night in the life of intellectual writer Giovanni and his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), it begins with them visiting a dying friend at a clinic, where the departing Giovanni gets in a clinch with a nymphomaniac patient. Thereafter, Giovanni confesses in the car to Lidia, before attending the launch party for his latest book and then having a siesta, while Lidia takes a long, symbol-heavy walk down memory lane. As afternoon turns to evening, the two reunite and go first to a night club where Giovanni is too diverted by the burlesque act to pay any attention to Lidia’s attempts to communicate; and then on to the decadent soirée, where Giovanni flirts with both Valentina and the possibility of a new life, while Lidia must deal for the most part alone with the news of her friend’s (and her love’s) death. Finally, as dawn breaks, we find the married couple still somehow together, but stuck in that most evocative of ruts, a golf bunker, their game not yet fully played out, but certainly stalled in a difficult place.

La Notte
Valentina (Monica Vitti) embodying the seductive narcissism of an era

Giovanni is a writer whose abilities have become blocked, a husband who has forgotten his once-strong feelings for his wife, and a one-time leftist who is considering taking up an executive sinecure under a millionaire – in other words, he epitomises the severed roots and lost values of his modern age. Fittingly, the couple’s day-long odyssey unfolds under the crumbling tenements and rising skyscrapers of post-war Milan, shot with alienating aloofness by Gianni Di Venanzo in an unforgiving monochrome. Indeed, the whole film is constructed like a dizzying modernist edifice: the characters are all enigmatic (if not impenetrable), their books (real or imagined) all invariably reflect and refract elements of the principal narrative, and coded games are played, so that the viewer feels no less lost in the tomb-like hall of mirrors on offer here than in, say, Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad, released in the same year.   

In February of 1962, when La Notte had just opened in New York City’s Little Carnegie, the film critic Bosley Crowther gushed in the New York Times that “even boredom is made interesting” by its director, before adding somewhat more diffidently: “Whether one finds it stimulating or a redundant bore will depend, we suspect, in large measure upon the subtle attunement of one’s mood.” Compared with today’s pacier cinema, however, La Notte is more unequivocal in its capacity to bore, no matter how subtly attuned the viewer’s mood – and even compared with Federico Fellini’s dazzling La Dolce Vita (made just one year before La Notte), which also starred Mastroianni, and which was not altogether dissimilar in theme, Antonioni’s film feels like one very long, not entirely rewarding night of despair. For despite its many undoubted qualities, after nearly two hours of chilly stasis, you too may feel your love fast disappearing.     

Verdict: For all the sublimity of its craft, La Notte will leave most viewers feeling no less bored than its ennui-afflicted characters. 

© Anton Bitel