Michelangelo Antonioni followed up his internationally-acclaimed L’Avventura (1960) with La Notte (1961), which further cemented his reputation as an auteur devoted to a philosophical examination of human existence. Indeed La Notte was considered to be part of Antonioni’s “trilogy of alienation”, which included L’Avventura and L’Eclisse (1962). All of these films, including most others in Antonioni’s oeuvre, focus on the internal developments that take place in the minds of the principal characters. The external events portrayed are subordinated to and supportive of this internal narrative, and as a consequence, those external events may seem to be trivial or pointless to the conventional moviegoer. This tension is particularly in evidence with La Notte.
Antonioni’s films often have very accomplished acting performances, but the portrayals are controlled and subdued, not theatrical. In the case of La Notte, Antonioni had two exceptional stars who were at the peaks of their careers, Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, but their performances in this film were so controlled that they did not display the dramatic fireworks that they did elsewhere. In fact it is interesting to compare Mastroianni’s restrained portrayal in La Notte of a reflective individual swamped by upper class superficialities to his more emphatic performance of a somewhat similar character in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). For her part, Moreau had relatively recently shot to fame with her dramatic performances in two Louis Malle films, Frantic (Ascenseur Pour L'Échafaud, 1958) and The Lovers (Les Amants, 1958), and would soon star in Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim (Jules et Jim, 1962), but here, too, like Mastroianni, she is remarkably restrained, almost morose, in fact.
The story of La Notte traces the events over a roughly twenty-four hour period that lead to a marital crisis of a well-to-do married couple in Milan: the successful novelist Giovanni Pontano (Mastroianni) and his wife, Lidia (Moreau). In addition to Giovanni and Lidia, there are two other important characters in the film:
- Tommaso (played by Austrian actor and film director, Berhnard Wicki), a terminally-ill author-colleague and friend of Giovanni.
- Valentina Gherardini (played by Antonioni favourite, Monica Vitti), the attractive but spoiled daughter of a wealthy industrialist who attracts the romantic attentions of Giovanni.
The plot moves through four phases, each associated with a specific venue. This is a characteristic of Antonioni, for whom the specific landscape and architectural environment of a scene sets the mood and is a key ingredient to the narrative. The last of these four phases is considerably longer than the others and takes up more than half the running time of the film.
- Tommaso’s Bedside. The film opens with the stark, glass-windowed landscape of downtown Milan. Giovanni and Lidia pay an early afternoon visit to their critically ill friend, Tommaso, in the hospital. Tommaso is a fellow writer, but is self-effacing before his more illustrious friend Giovanni. It is later revealed that Giovanni first met Lidia through Tommaso, whose earlier romantic affections for Lidia had been spurned but who had remained her friend. The atmosphere is grim, as everyone tries to think of something pleasant to say in the morbid circumstances. Upon departing and with Lidia already out of the building, Giovanni is accosted by an emotionally disturbed woman patient who wants to have sex with him. Giovanni succumbs to the lustful urge, but nurses intervene before anything gets too far. Afterwards, Giovanni confesses to Lidia, but she expresses (or feigns) indifference.
- The Book-signing Party. Then Giovanni and Lidia go to a party dedicated to the publication of Giovanni’s latest book. Giovanni is in his element and enthusiastically greets the Italian literati, including a Nobel Prize winner. Lidia, though, has no interest, and she leaves the party and takes a taxi to an old industrial neighborhood on the outskirts of Milan where she and Giovanni used to live. The architecture here is that of urban decay – again, like the opening scene, an inhuman environment, but one that has been left to deteriorate. She wanders around, observing anything that distracts her, which includes local toughs engaged in a fistfight and a group of boys setting off home-made rockets in a park. Meanwhile Giovanni has returned home, and after getting a phone call from Lidia, he goes to pick her up in his car.
- The Nightclub. For their evening, Lidia prefers that they skip a ritzy party they have been invited to and spend some time together. They go to a nightclub, where the floor entertainment is an exotic black dancer who athletically twirls about and assumes gymnastic poses, all the while balancing a wine glass on her forehead. Giovanni is amazed by her provocative contortions, but Lidia is soon bored with it all. Abruptly she decides she wants to go to the ritzy party, after all.
- The Lawn Party. Giovanni and Lidia drive up to the estate of the wealthy industrialist, Gherardini, where a large lawn party attended by the privileged classes is well underway. The two soon get separated and involved in their own detached conversational circles, which ultimately devolve into separate romantic entanglements for both of them. Giovanni is attracted to Gherardini’s beautiful, but challenging, daughter, Valentina, and soon they are embracing. Lidia, having spied Giovanni’s defection from afar, then pairs off with a handsome gentleman who takes her away in his car for a tryst. But neither of these two engagements leads to anything, and as the morning light appears after the long night, Giovanni and Lidia finally meet up again and get ready to depart for home. They walk out onto now-vacant grounds, where Lidia takes out a letter she has been keeping in her purse and reads it to Giovanni in sombre tones. The letter is a romantic paean that was once written to Lidia confidently avowing eternal love for her. When Giovanni asks who wrote that letter, Lidia responds that he, himself, had written it to her years ago. Fuelled with painful remorse and renewed passion upon hearing these words, Giovanni embraces her, but Lidia spurns his kisses and swears that their love is dead, as the camera pulls back and pans away from them. The final frame shows an empty park in the early morning mist.
When we are engaged in a project, we are involved in a narrative of some sort. Metaphorically, all narratives are like a journey, with a planned destination and possibly some obstacles to be overcome before arrival at the destination is possible. Since we, ourselves, are the principal players in our own narratives, we are partially co-constructing them as we go. The more autonomy that the narrative structure affords, the more significant is our own role of narrative co-construction. For those who are working in menial tasks and struggling to make ends meet, their narrative co-construction is minimal; but there is always some element of freedom present that enables people to direct their passions towards some goal.
The problem for us in the modern era is that our overriding cultural narratives no longer provide much direction. We are left to construct our own life narratives without much guidance. Antonioni explores aspects of this issue about narrative through his four principal characters.
- Tommaso. Giovanni’s doomed friend, Tommaso, is introduced right away in order to establish the fundamental issues. Tommaso is a man without a future; there are no possible future narratives for him. Therefore anything he mentions to Giovanni and Lidia, such as his plans for his book, is immediately understood to be pointless. He is a writer who wants to construct narratives, but he cannot construct the most important ones about his own life, which has no future.
- Giovanni Pontano. Giovanni is a writer who lives in a world of words, concepts, and plans. When he returns to his apartment after the book-signing party, it can be seen that his office is lined with books. He picks up a random document and begins reading. Like today’s inveterate reader of Web pages on the Internet, he lives in the virtual world of words and artificial images. So he is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Tommaso: he is the active agent, busily constructing his own narratives and those for his readers. But at the lawn party, it is revealed that he is losing his artistic motivation. Although he can construct a narrative on the fly, and does so for a woman he meets at the party, he has no interest in writing another book. In fact without his artistic compass, he is now tempted to sell out and take a high-paying job as a public relations shill for the tycoon Gherardini.
- Lidia Pontano. Lidia is more immersed in the real world, rather than the world of words and plans that fills Giovanni’s life. She is constantly distracted by her surroundings, particularly things that appear in the sky: planes, helicopters, and rockets are continually interrupting her attention and arousing her curiosity. But these distracting moments have no narrative extent or continuation to them. They are short-term events, and she doesn’t become involved in any further narrative development of these happenings. She is more passive than Giovanni and less a co-constructor of her own narratives. But though passive, she is still judgmental.
- Valentina Gherardini. Valentina occupies a middle ground. She is also reactive to her surroundings, but she is also interested in the world of narrative construction – in fact her reading of the novel The Sleepwalkers is something that Giovanni finds attractive and resonant with his own nature. Significantly, she constructs her own artificial game (a form of narrative) at the lawn party, so she reveals a talent for narrative co-construction. Nevertheless, she is aware of her game’s pointless artificiality. She is looking for something more real. She remarks to Giovanni, “I’m not intelligent; I’m alert....I’m happy to observe things without having to write.”
At the end of La Notte, Lidia declares to Giovanni that the narrative of their marriage has come to an end. There is no longer any love. But the narrative constructor, Giovanni, refuses to accept this judgement. He swears that he will reconstruct their love. He will strive to revive that narrative, the one that he had helped construct in that love letter long ago. Do we believe that he will succeed? It is hard to have much confidence in that prospect. In love, it takes two to tango, and Lidia no longer believes in Giovanni’s conjurings. She has lost the plot.