By Mike Dub
The second leg of Michelangelo Antonioni’s so-called “Alienation Trilogy” picks up pretty much where L’Avventura left off with La Notte. Though unrelated to its predecessor in plot, the themes and relationships circle the same areas: lovers don’t love each other, industry and capitalism encroach upon human decency, ennui consumes the wealthy, and everyone seems lost in the modern world. If anything, La Notte is more personal than L’Avventura, and in some ways more difficult.
The great Marcello Mastroianni stars as Giovanni, a successful, intellectual writer plagued by boredom and the fear that he may have nothing left to say. “I no longer have ideas,” he tells his emotionally desperate wife, Lidia (Jeanne Moreau). “Only memories.”
During exchanges like these, Lidia struggles to keep her emotions alive. Stuck in a loveless marriage and surrounded by ironic detachment, she seems to be the last person alive with any humanity left. She may be afraid and confused, even if she can’t summon the energy to be angry anymore, but at least she feels something.
When she and Giovanni visit a dying friend in the hospital, Lidia excuses herself because she can’t stand to watch him decay. Giovanni stays, seemingly because he is stronger than her, but really because he is so emotionless that the situation just doesn’t affect him.
At almost every turn, Antonioni invites us to see Giovanni as a stand-in for himself. A highly regarded artist, Giovanni becomes the talk of the town shortly after his latest book is released. Equally hounded by intellectual and wealthy circles, everyone wants to show him off, as if his cultural cache will rub off on them. As he walks into a bookstore for a signing, he stops to ponder his books on display. Antonioni creates the image of a man isolated by his popularity, imprisoned by the expectations and obligations created by such success.
During a wealthy industrialist’s party, Giovanni is carted around by his host like a show pony. He wades through obligatory compliments made by other guests. One of them, a woman named Remsey, insipidly proclaims herself “his biggest fan,” while others seem to know nothing of his work other than its reputation. At one point, Remsey corners him with her own idea for a story, about a woman who sacrifices her happiness for the man she loves. “But why?” Giovanni asks. “She just does,” she answers, “It makes me want to cry.” It’s a comical exchange, but it reveals the contempt that Antonioni has for faux-intelligent fans. There is also a deeper accusation, one aimed as much at the artist as the audience.
Remsey holds the childish notion that sadness equals artistry. She seems to have a shallow approach to her appreciation of art, so if she truly does love Giovanni as an author, what does that say about his work? Not to put too fine a point on it, but is he really a great artist, or is he simply exploiting the modern ethos of alienation? Probably, like Antonioni, he falls somewhere in between.
In La Notte, Antonioni suggests that a world existed before the vapid one in which he lives. There was a time before everyone fell in love with their own neuroses, before self-centeredness was a model of behavior, before people adorned themselves with detachment like they would jewelry. It was also a world before the reign of unfettered capitalism, before the construction of skyscrapers caused the deterioration of neighborhoods. In this not-too-distant past, the film somewhat dreamily suggests, emotions could be sincere and love could be selfless.
Now that those days are gone, society has become a vacuous, cynical sphere, and while Antonioni seems perfectly aware of his own contribution to stylish cynicism, he seems unable to stop himself. In criticizing his culture’s fashion of isolation and emotional hollowness, he has created the bleakest of films, absent of the least amount of hope. That is not to say that the film itself is empty. It is a quiet sigh of despair where even a sunrise is ironic, underscoring the emotional devastation of his characters.
Antonioni alone did not kill sincerity. Obviously, he is part of a larger cultural monster that revels in gloom. La Notte serves as evidence of cynical chic more than it consecrates it. However, some of his contemporaries in world cinema – Fellini, Bergman, Wajda – covered similar intellectual ground and found more invigorating ways to discuss the same themes. At times, La Notte seems more like an exercise in narcissistic cynicism than a film about it.