Monday, April 20, 2009
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.