March 22, 2010

0 L'Eclisse (1962)

Country: Italy
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

The first time I watched Antonioni's L'Eclisse was years ago, and I remembered so little about it—two brief scenes and the amazing silent coda which lasts several minutes—that when I recently watched it again I was essentially seeing it for the first time. The greatest impression the film left with me was what a completely visual filmmaker Antonioni was. Paul CĂ©zanne once said of Claude Monet, "He's nothing but an eye, but what an eye." I think this comment could equally be applied to Antonioni, for here incident is less important and has less impact than visual detail. Each shot in L'Eclisse is masterfully composed, at once abstract and fraught with significance. The choice of objects and people; their placement and movement in the frame; the geometry, perspective, and depth of the intricate yet crisply delineated compositions; the subtle tonal gradations of the black-and-white images; the purposeful transitions from one image to the next; the architecture of buildings, rooms, and streets—all visual aspects of each image in the movie are carefully and precisely planned by Antonioni.

In contrast to this complete control of the visual elements of the movie, the most important elements of conventional narrative—character and plot—seem startlingly casual. The main characters, Vittoria (Monica Vitti), a translator, and Piero (Alain Delon), a stock trader, are only sketchily defined. She is a detached observer of her own life living almost entirely in the sensations of the moment, while he is a shallow materialist driven by an ethos of competition and acquisition. The events of the movie seem almost self-propelled, unfolding in an episodic way that defies conventional narration in which one event leads to the next as the plot proceeds to its conclusion. Antonioni instead simply lays out a series of incidents whose impact is essentially cumulative.

The movie does have a clear beginning, as Vittoria breaks off her engagement and her relationship to Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) in a long, elaborately choreographed and edited sequence as self-contained and visually distinctive as the lengthy montage at the end. But from that point on events, although presented chronologically, seem to evolve spontaneously as the movie meanders from episode to episode. Events occur almost in isolation from one another, and the most memorable parts of the movie have little causal connection: The evening Vittoria spends with her girl friends, chatting, dressing up, and fooling around. The eerie episode when Piero's car, having been stolen by a drunk, is lifted from the river where it has crashed, with the drowned thief still in it. The frenzy of the stock exchange where Piero works, at one point interrupted by a minute's silence for a dead colleague before the trading bell rings and pandemonium instantly resumes. A quiet interlude in a small private airplane, where Vittoria seems to come unmoored from her ordinary existence and float free for a brief time, a sequence that more vividly than any other in the film gives a sense of the contrast between interior confinement, with four people crammed into a tiny airplane, and the openness of exterior space, with the plane floating through the sky and clouds.

Even the ending is wholly ambiguous. After their last tryst, Vittoria and Piero vow to meet again that evening and every day after that. Yet after they part, Piero replaces all the telephones he has taken off the hook for the duration of the tryst and resumes his normal commercial life, while Vittoria wanders down the staircase hesitatingly, her facial expressions hinting at indecision and conflict, actions that mirror those of the first sequence when she was working up the nerve to tell her fiancĂ© she had decided to end their relationship. Yet there is method to this apparent narrative randomness: it corresponds exactly to what I take to be the point of the film, that in the modern world people's lives simply proceed from one stage to the next without clear meaning or purpose. Tellingly, Antonioni declines to do with his narrative what storytellers traditionally have always done—impose form where there is none inherent.

The one element of conventional narrative that Antonioni does not minimize is setting. In fact, he makes this the centerpiece and the unifying element of the movie. Always there is the emphasis on space—the lack or surfeit of it—and the contrast between overfilled interior spaces and empty exterior spaces—the vast, soulless ultra-modern postwar suburbs where Vittoria lives, places that are nearly silent except for the rustling of foliage, the spooky vibration of metal fence posts in the breeze, the clang of metal gates as they open and shut.

All this attention to visual detail is not just decorative, but profoundly thematic. The places where these people live and work, the landscapes through which they move tell us more about them than do their words and actions. The people in the foreground and what is happening to them are less important than the buildings, streets, objects, even other people in the background and on the periphery, for it is through location that Antonioni reveals his preoccupation with mood. The movie is ultimately more about the shifting moods of its characters than about their personalities, problems, or motivation. The people in the movie are almost vacuums. The places where they exist have greater substance and form than they themselves do, in a sense standing in for the vacancy of their inner lives.

Then there is that stunning final montage (Antonioni's version of Ozu's pillow shots?) when we revisit outdoor locations where scenes in the movie have taken place, but without any of the main characters present, ending as the streetlights come on and night falls. Containing no dialogue and with no obvious narrative connection to the rest of the film, this sequence is still perhaps the most meaningful in the entire movie. Antonioni seems to be saying that people and events are transient, that only places last. This is most strongly expressed in recurrent images of a barrel of water in which Vittoria earlier dropped a stick and which has now sprung a leak. As Antonioni repeatedly returns to the barrel we watch the water slowly emptying from it and flowing down the street and into the gutter. Life simply goes on, he seems to be saying, slowly flowing away, leaving behind only the empty vessel that once contained it. It is to Antonioni's credit that he has made a film about ennui that itself is never boring, a quality due largely to his astounding ability to use the camera to evoke mood and to transfer that mood almost subliminally to the viewer.

The strongest memory of a living person we take from the film is of Monica Vitti, whose Vittoria—in her aimless drift through life, unable to connect for long with anyone or anything—is the human focus of the movie. And the strongest human images that remain behind are the many lingering shots of her unreadable face, her expressions enigmatic yet hauntingly suggestive of a woman lost in a strange, bewildering, and apparently meaningless world.


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