With ambivalence and ennui, Michelangelo Antonioni targeted the institutions of modern Italy, reserving both contempt and awe for his bourgeois subjects. In La Notte he examines the fledgling relationship of Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) during the span of a single day. The couple has long settled into a mood of ambivalence and contempt, staying together out of habit more than anything else.
The difficulty in discussing the work of Antonioni is that his characters thrive on contradictions, and are often pursuing goals and hungers that will ultimately leave them empty. All that they endeavor seems to be a pointless interlude in the face of a world crumbling under the weight of their own mortality and man-made destruction. His upper class characters, with their abundance of leisure time and mobility, are plagued by the fear of their futility, and a crippling fear of truly living. La Notte, in particular, portrays a lavish upper class who thrive on sin and decadence. The party that they attend is over the top, but nonetheless does very little to inspire any life in his characters.
Yet, as an embodiment of the same contradictions that plague his characters, Antonioni reveres his characters as much as he is critical of them. In spite of their languid ennui and selfishness, beauty holds utter importance in his work. His characters are effortlessly stunning, gliding through life like Grecian statues. Aristotle argued “Virtue aims at the beautiful” in the Nicomachean Ethics, and perhaps Antonioni holds that idea in the back of his mind, ironically toying with the idea that beauty is somehow related to morality. There is something genuinely alienating about the beauty of the characters, they are no longer relatable or aspirational, instead they exist as abstractions of the ancient Gods.
Yet, these characters are very mortal. This is a particular concern for the ageing Lidia, who is faced with the younger Valentina (Monica Vitti), a woman attracting the attentions of her husband. Valentina is a different point of fascination for Giovanni, not just a fling, but the promise of a new life. While she is charming, it is her beauty and youth that attract him. Lidia is still beautiful, Moreau has never looked better – she is elegant and elusive. Yet, the age that she does carry in her face hints at a life lived and habits formed. The appeal of the younger woman is not just her beauty, but how she is somehow further from death.
In spite of the seeming painful drone of living, there is nothing more terrifying than death in Antonioni’s world. Beauty, decadence and leisure are just ways of forgetting the end, but they bring little joy to life. La Notte is a film very much about resignation, resigning to the fate of the monogamy and perhaps the inevitability of death.
Justine Smith lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies, and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.
Follow Justine on Twitter @redroomrantings.