The night referred to by the title of Michelangelo Antonioni's 1961 La Notte seems to me in reference to primal fears and insecurities associated with the night as a time when one must seek shelter and protection from a vast space cloaking unknown dangers. This effective, cool film is a story of people finding themselves in a wilderness where animal instinct proves truer than the accumulated values and beliefs of a lifetime.
The film begins with a married couple, Giovanni and Lidia (Marcello Mastoianni and Jeanne Moreau) visiting a dying friend in the hospital shortly following his surgery. "The surgery was a success, but the patient has died," the man jokes. The group kids one another with strained gallows humour, feebly trying to keep the atmosphere light as the man's fear of his eminent death can't be disguised. He'd been living with the couple and, like Giovanni, is a writer, though not nearly as successful. "The advantage of a premature death is that you escape success," he jokes. He wonders aloud if it was fear that held him back all along.
Lidia leaves early and as Giovanni exists later, he encounters a beautiful, mentally disturbed girl who pulls him into her room and takes her clothes off, at which point Giovanni finally stops resisting and kisses her but is interrupted as the nurses enter and restrain the girl.
He confesses to Lidia about the experience later and discovers his wife isn't terribly upset--she says she understands; he was taken by surprise. She muses, "Maybe that girl's happy now . . . Because she's irresponsible."
There are occasional shots in the film of noisy aircraft passing overhead, as though a reflection of the inscrutable heavens. First a helicopter Lidia sees from the hospital window, then later a plane as Lidia wanders alone through her and Giovanni's old neighbourhood, a place of harshly modern but crumbling architecture, mostly eerily deserted.
She says later in a nightclub that Giovanni seems so "controlled" around her, appropriately enough as the two are watching a strange strip tease act, where a nearly naked man removes articles of clothing from a woman, dancing and contorting herself while balancing a full glass of wine on her forehead and between her legs.
It all adds to the impression of Lidia's life being one of going through difficult, stilted motions in imitation of former happiness. The reality of the dying man's agony both directly and indirectly casts harsh light on her situation--the man feels jealous of her husband, whose value Lidia sees as comparatively dubious, and the dying man is grieved by opportunities missed, which seems to make Lidia question the value of her own lifestyle.
The movie seems to tie the value of personal relationships with the value of artistic expressions, first in the dying man's jealousy, then in Valentina's feelings towards Giavanni. Valentina, played by Monica Vitti, is the woman Giovanni seems ready to leave his wife for at the party which takes up the bulk of the film.
It's Lidia who first sees Valentina, drawing her husband's attention to her as a beautiful woman who's absorbed in reading one of his books. Valentina later plays a recording of some of her poetry for Giovanni, which she immediately erases in an act of self criticism.
This party is not unlike the ones shown in pictures released by Fellini around the same time, also starring Marcello Mastroianni. The parties in Fellini's films, like the one in La Notte, portray rich people seemingly writhing in the torments of fundamental boredom. One wonders if the extraordinary thing about Giovanni and Lidia isn't their revelation of the hollowness of their relationship but that they have a frustrating sense or memory of having something better and truer, somewhere.
Twitter Sonnet #471
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