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Film | La Notte (1961)

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No one does ennui with such effortless chic and glamour as the Italians. It’s no less true for this beautiful portrait of hubris from auteur director Michelangelo Antonioni. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the art of cinema at its best.

La Notte (The Night) follows estranged married couple Lidia (the superb Jeanne Moreau) and writer Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni). It opens with the couple visiting a mutual friend on his deathbed – not even the company of death can move Lidia or Giovanni together. The film then follows them until dawn the next day.

To recount the plot feels ridiculous and incredibly insufficient because this movie really stands outside our conventional experience of cinema. It’s not driven by narrative or plot. Which is not to say there isn’t one, just that it’s not driving the car.

Because the plot is backseat, everything else has room to move – things like the jazz score, photography, design, mood and location.

La Notte is set in Milan in Italy’s north. By 1961, it was the country’s industrial success story and the heart of Italy’s preeminence in design. The city itself is a character in the movie – there’s a sense in which the city, like us, is silently watching these characters. At the same time, life goes on in spite of them – the noise of helicopters, toy rockets, demolition trucks abruptly enter into the story with the irreverence of getting done whatever it is they do and oblivious to our concerns.

The opening sequence beautifully introduces the city, with the camera descending the exterior of Milan’s 1958 trophy for success – the Pirelli Tower. The rest of the city is cleverly reflected in the building’s glass windows to a soundtrack that reflects the same.

The sequence also introduces another key part of the movie — its photography.

What is so enjoyable about this movie is that the dialogue is turned down and the camera turned up — dialogue is sparse, allowing the camera to do the telling. Like in this shot below.

Still shot from 1961 film from Michelangelo Antonioni's "La Notte"

Click on images to enlarge.

Scenes are often shot from quite subjective, idiosyncratic positions, looking down on the characters from perilously angular heights, or carrying their weight from below. Again, it’s the camera doing to job of telling the story … of expressing mood and feeling. It puts us in touch with our sensibilities again. Everything is stylised and evocative, like a painting. The way the camera delicately, slowly draws this image and rests on it is just divine. It’s like a hand gesture.

Still shot from 1961 film from Michelangelo Antonioni's "La Notte"

As I said earlier, the city has a strong presence in La Notte. Conventionally, we’re used to actors/characters being the centre of the screen because plot and dialogue are what’s important. Here, though, the actors make room for the built environment. There are shots of an expanse of white wall with just a single actor to the side. The actor and environment are integrated into the image.

The shot below is one of my favourites and so obviously illustrates the point. In this scene, Lidia is wandering around the streets of Milan and strolls around the corner of this building – the expanse of concrete presses her into the corner.

Still shot from 1961 film from Michelangelo Antonioni, "La Notte"

Through the use of the image, Antonioni invites our senses to read the story of these two characters. It’s a slightly alienating experience because we’re so used to dialogue and plot bridging (spoon-feeding) that.

Antonioni paints the portrait of a modern couple, Lidia and Giovanni, as two individuals a little lost in their own worlds. Lidia is caught between wanting to break free but anchored to sorrow, while Giovanni is tied to complete self-interest.

The French would wrap this up in philosophical pensiveness, but Antonioni, an Italian, wraps it up in style and chic. La Notte doesn’t leave us with alienation and ennui. On the contrary, it awakens us to our sense and our world. And, for me, this is what the movie inspires (much like the lithe dancer in the middle of the movie inspires Lidia).

La Notte reminded me of work by David Lynch and Gus van Sant. So, if you like their movies then check this one out. Grab a bottle of Asti and enjoy.

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Written by Darren Smith

10 January 2010 at 10:12 pm

One Response

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  1. I have to say that I really enjoy this website. I thought I would drop a comment and say what a awesome job you’ve done. I wish more people would put so much energy into their blog. Keep the posts coming.

    Marion Blette

    16 September 2010 at 7:24 pm


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