Monday, April 20, 2009

L'eclisse


The typical descriptions of Michelangelo Antonioni's great L'eclisse make it sound like an unbearably dull affair, a true product of the 60s art film era. It's about "alienation," right? And disconnection, and the isolation of people from one another in the modern age. Given the typical critical wisdom surrounding Antonioni and this film, one could be forgiven for expecting a bracing, obtuse, rather chilly affair, a humorless intellectual statement that maintains its distance from its characters. Upon seeing the film, of course, one begins to suspect that this is an instance of too much critical discourse threatening to smother the life out of a vibrant, complex work of art. L'eclisse pulses with energy and beauty, with the formal ingenuity of Antonioni's images, which have a lush, sensuous quality. This is a film about the disconnected modern era, yes, but much more importantly it's about the people who have to live in this age, people who aren't willing to take alienation and lack of communication as a given, who fight against the sometimes suffocating constraints placed upon their lives.

Specifically, it's about the lovely Vittoria (Monica Vitti), who breaks up with her lover Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) in the film's extended opening set piece, which masterfully creates tension solely out of the manipulation of space and movement. As Vittoria and Riccardo pace around his apartment together, they are engaging in a dance of disconnection, their words flying past unheard even as their bodies clang off one another whenever they're on the verge of coming together. Antonioni accentuates these disjunctions with his camera, which purposefully creates jarring angles within which the quarreling lovers are awkwardly fitted. At one point, an abrupt cut pushes the lovers out of the frame almost completely, so that a large gray lampshade fills most of the empty space, until Vittoria turns away from Riccardo to face the camera again. It's a great, raw scene, all abstracted motion and hard lines, but its rigidity is contrasted against the equally wonderful sequence in which Vittoria commiserates after the breakup with her girlfriends Anita (Rosanna Rory) and Marta (Mirella Ricciardi). At the apartment of Kenyan native Marta, Vittoria is delighted to study the photos and memorabilia of the other girl's homeland, and she and Anita playfully dress up as blackface natives and dance to the rhythms of an African drum music record, their snaking limbs making fluid "S" shapes in the air.

Despite the racial obliviousness of these middle-class Italian women — Marta puts a stop to the game, seemingly offended, but then derisively calls the blacks she grew up with "monkeys" — they're trying to have fun, and Vittoria at least possesses a genuine spirit of intellectual curiosity, a desire to absorb learning from her surroundings, to learn about other people. She's a woman who will randomly follow strangers on the street to see what they'll do, or who will be suddenly struck by the quality of a person's face. She has a playful, whimsical spirit, a perhaps unconscious desire for something more that drives her to leave Riccardo at the beginning of the film. She's a product of her time and her culture, and she shares the flaws of her milieu, but she's also a spirited and independent woman who isn't willing to settle for the dreary existence that's seemingly plotted out for her: a discontented marriage, like her friends have, to some man who's perpetually away on business.

She's more in touch with the world: a night-time chase through the streets for her friend's lost dog leads to a wonderful shot of her laughing, unguarded, as the dog walks on its hind legs away from her. Later, she's drawn to the clanging sound of tall metal poles bouncing off each other in a strong wind; she has a sensual sensibility that appreciates the urban poetry of these subtle moments. Antonioni is, like Vittoria, attuned to the sensuality of the world, to the puffed cotton wisps of a cloud bank or the ripples spiraling out from a finger as it breaks the surface of stagnant water. His images reflect engagement with the world, even when he isolates Vittoria in pale gray expanses of nothingness that visualize her loneliness and alienation. He's able to find beauty even in a construction site lit by street lamps, in a splinter of wood floating in a barrel filled with rain water, in the abstract lines of an apartment block set off against the vast empty sky.


Despite her free spirit and thirst for more, almost immediately after breaking up with Riccardo, Vittoria finds herself being drawn into the orbit of the stock trader Piero (Alain Delon), a driven, intense young man who spends his days in the relentlessly fast-paced world of the stock exchange, where he shouts into phones and races back and forth across the office's floor placing frantic buy and sell orders. He's completely immersed in the world of money all day long, and is sometimes just barely able to peek his head above the water by night. Vittoria meets him because she goes to the stock exchange to see her mother (Lilla Brignone), who spends all day there as though playing a game — she's a precursor to those old ladies who today would be found sitting in front of a Las Vegas slot machine for endless hours at a stretch. Vittoria has nothing but contempt for this world, and she's pushed away whenever Piero can't resist talking about his new car or the money he's made or lost in the course of the day. And yet she also feels a strange attraction to him, a slowly sparking connection.

The slow, halting courtship between Vittoria and Piero is warm and human and touching, marked by hesitations and withdrawals and false starts. Antonioni is a master at portraying the difficulty of love, the incredible psychological and sociological obstacles to forging a connection between two independent beings. But what's too often overlooked is the hope and beauty that are also contained within his vision of the world: despite the difficulties, despite the seemingly insurmountable barriers separating us, we frequently do make connections, if only momentary ones. The playful wrestling and cuddling of Vittoria and Piero, their stylized come-ons and maneuvers, are a dance of desire, a response to the hard-edged dance of disconnection between her and Riccardo in the film's opening minutes. In contrast to the earlier scenes, the love scenes with Piero often dissolve into frantic, messy movements, uncontrolled and passionate — two reserved people letting go with one another.

There is, of course, a sense even at the height of their love affair that this cannot work in the long term. One knows instinctively that there is little room in Piero's busy work schedule for true, enduring love, and that Vittoria will not have the patience of Piero's less serious old girlfriends for his habitually broken dates and long, unpredictable working hours. And yet Antonioni allows the couple their moments of happiness, then lets them drift out of the film altogether. The final seven minutes of the film are a poetic, dialogue-free collage of quiet, unassuming street scenes from around the city, scenes of urban life going on, no matter what the fate of this one couple might be. This is a sublimely humanist statement, a refusal to give his attractive movie star couple their proper denouement, focusing instead on the ordinary people who get on and off of buses, reading papers, walking to or from work, sitting in a park. Antonioni even includes a clever joke halfway through, a shot of a blonde woman's head from behind, briefly giving the audience the impression that Vitti's character has returned, until the woman turns around, revealing someone else altogether. The main couple are represented again, symbolically, only in the penultimate shot, a haunting nighttime image of the construction site where they planned to meet, empty and desolate, lit only by a single street lamp, perhaps the site of an unkept date, the onset of their disconnection.

7 comments:

vic said...

I've been following this blog for a while, and I first must compliment you. You are an astonishingly terrific writer and I'm jealous. Secondly, I absolutely agree with this review and thank you for putting it in the words I couldn't quite form. I absolutely adore this film. Antonioni's camera work and the sound work is simply immersive and I wasn't bored once following Vittoria's silent and occasionally poignant drifting. Antonioni is a genius and an artist and I hate it whenever I hear people shrug him off as some snobby or boring film-school hack or something. So, once again, thank you.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the very kind words, Vic. I love a lot of Antonioni's films, but this one is truly something special -- and the antithesis of the stereotypes so often thrown around about this great director. Thanks again for reading.

Sam Juliano said...

I second Vic's sentiments on Ed's writing talent.

This is not an easy review to write (none of Antonioni's films are easily and confidently assessed) but this review is proof that in front of the right viewer (and writer) his films can be successfully negotiated. L'ECLISSE is not my favorite of the 'alienation' trilogy, which comprise the upper-level of the director's greatest work (RED DESERT pushes close though methinks, and others like IL GRIDO and THE PASSENGER have their adherents) but it's as masterful as the others. The poetry of LA NOTTE (the only film of the three that isn't so hopeless) has always ravished me.
The lack of human beings in that famous last scene, where we see only the locations and the space that surrounds the players who aren't there, of course speaks volumes, informing the central theme of the film--the individual's sense of alienation in modern society.

But you've already said that?!? LOL!

Pat said...

Ed -

This is a great post. You've done justice to a difficult but ultimately rewarding film.

Coincidentally, I just reveiwed this at my blog last week.

I had particularly found the opening scenes of Vittoria's and Riccardo's breakup to be mesmerizingly tense, but I couldn't articulate what it was about those scenes that drew me in. You've done a terrfic job in illuminating how the composition of those scenes - and the focus on objects rather than the actors, who never really connect - makes them so rich in meaning and tension.

I'll admit, my first viewing "L'Eclisse" had me exasperated and baffled and rolling my eyes quite a bit. But I gave it a second chance and found more genuine depth and layers of meaning than I was able to appreciate the first time out. Antonioni is not an easy director to appreciate, but taking the extra time to really look deeper at his work is always rewarding.

MovieMan0283 said...

This is one of your best reviews, of a stunningly gorgeous film (and MEANINGFULLY gorgeous, every image unites form and content, which is the true beauty). Oddly enough, Sam, La Notte is probably my least favorite Antonioni of the half-dozen or so I've seen...but I've only seen it once, years ago, perhaps I should give it another chance.

and Ed, interesting interpretation of the last scene. I always saw it as more cold than calm, more tragic than contemplative. To me the significance was not in the world going on without the protagonists there, but rather on their very absence from the frame: a rendezvous for which neither of the lovers attend (but the audience does). Leave it to Antonioni, king of the anti-thriller (setting up unsolved mysteries in L'Avventura and Blow-Up) to fashion the perfect anti-climax, as tense and yet un-cathartic as any ending in cinema.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, all. Pat, I can certainly see why some viewers would find this patience-testing at first, though I was rapt the whole way through. Each image is just so perfectly formed, as aesthetically appealing as a well-framed photograph.

MovieMan, I can see your take on the closing minutes as well. But as much as those final scenes suggest that the lovers do not keep their date, it struck me that these images had a very tranquil tone that leavened some of the sadness. All the images of ordinary people just going about their day -- and the playful shots of people who look, from behind, like Vitti or Delon -- open the film up to a whole different range of lives and experiences beyond these two lovers. It's a melancholy closing, but not tragic: life goes on, there's more going on in this city than just this one story of lost love. Anyway, it's definitely an amazing finale.

MovieMan0283 said...

You may be right, Ed, but for whatever perverse personal reason I think I prefer the tragic reading!