By the 1960s, the glamorous hedonism of Europe had reached a new peak. The scars of the Second World War had given way to new, youthful vigour, at least for those who could afford it. The hollowness of the new hedonism became a theme in the cinema of the time, but nowhere more so than in Italy.
In films such as Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960) and 8½ (1963), the lives of the rich and fashionable were gradually picked apart, showing the emotional void underneath the sharp suits and little black dresses. Style had eroded substance.
Yet it was another Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni, who more critically dramatised this distinctly urban pessimism, notably over the course of a trio of films known as the ‘alienation trilogy’. Bookended by L’avventura (1960) and L’eclisse (1962), it’s in Antonioni’s 1961 film, La notte, that his critique of the rich jetsetters hits its mark most powerfully.
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La notte is set over roughly a single day. We follow Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) as they are subsumed by their shared silence over mutual infidelities. Giovanni is an author with a novel just released and a launch to attend. First, however, the couple visit their sick friend Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki) in hospital – the visit upsetting the couple in different ways. At the book launch, Lidia wanders further into town to where the couple lived when first married, wondering whether she should have chosen the dying man all those years ago rather than Giovanni.
She watches life go by, far from the social milieu she now inhabits, before she is picked up by Giovanni. They attend a club before going to an expensive party, where they both flirt and almost cheat on each other – Giovanni with Valentina (Monica Vitti), Lidia with Roberto (Giorgio Negro). Having failed to find any meaning in fidelity or infidelity, they walk one final time as the night meets the morning.
Although it’s named after night, a large portion of Antonioni’s film unfolds in the daytime. It’s a wandering film for the most part, the characters only washing up on the shore of the party out of boredom later on.
The opening titles are distinctly urban and sketch the cityscape of Milan perfectly. Contrasts fill the screen, between the rubble of development and the sleek new lines of postwar architecture, all scored by inhuman electronic hums, as if the city is an alien landscape. The sky is filled with helicopters, disturbing weary hospital patients.
As in his swinging London film, Blowup (1966), Antonioni fills the city with diggers in the process of streamlining spaces into the perfect habitation for these cold, lost people. At one point, Lidia leans against one of the unforgiving walls as her emotions get the better of her. The concrete support fails to help her stem the tears; it’s as uncaring as the people around her. So she walks.
Lidia wanders the streets with no particular purpose, except perhaps to escape her reality for a time before the coming night. Communication in these streets, as in so many of Antonioni’s films, never reaches its intended destination but simply echoes and reverberates between the walls of buildings before dying away.
Such walking shots feel close to the Italian neorealism films of the 1940s, but then again so does the architecture that Antonioni momentarily zones in on; all piles of bricks, the corpses of better buildings. Lidia looks to the world that once was, its remains stacked in between the new blocks as it crumbles into nothing before her. Later on at the party, one character says: “Don’t look at me like that, I know I’m showing signs of ageing.” Bodies are like buildings in Antonioni’s world, a world where old things become ruins waiting for demolition.
When the night does finally arrive, it comes in the form of a party. Similar to Fellini’s skill in portraying the milieu of the era, Antonioni’s parties feel authentic. The characters talk endlessly about culture as a means of avoidance, taking every opportunity to turn away from their emotional reality. These are people who write articles about Theodor Adorno and invite Umberto Eco to their gatherings; anything to avoid the absence in their hearts, the void of meaning in their lives. The night fizzes with potential, especially for romance, and affairs spark before coming to nothing almost instantly. Even this latent eroticism is momentary.
The rain arrives briefly and seems to wash inhibition away for a time. Water falls onto patios and into a swimming pool. It fills the silence for a moment. It’s no wonder Lidia walked earlier. It’s all that’s left to do.
When the party’s over and the night is leaving, Lidia and Giovanni wander again. In the end, the only landscape left for them is a fake one, a golf course next to the lavish house of the party. With all of its faux-pleasantries and quaint challenges, it’s a landscape that reflects their denial of the truth: that their friend in hospital is dead and their relationship is drained of any further meaning. There is nowhere left to walk.