Sunday, April 20, 2008

"AN EXTRAORDINARY PIECE OF CINEMA." That's what Weaverman called it over at his blog FLEAPIT OF THE MIND. That's what a great many people have called it in whichever words they chose to convey that opinion. L'ECLISSE is indeed a revolutionary, groundbreaking film for 1962 and still today. Michelangelo Antonioni's films have a tendency to be that. I wrote about L'AVVENTURA (the first film in a loose trilogy that continues with LA NOTTE and finishes up with L'ECLISSE) before on this blog but I've been famously having trouble finding the words to talk about this one. That trouble hasn't really gone away but I will attempt to give a smattering of impressions about what has become one of my favourite films.
If L'ECLISSE is one thing it's pure film. Pure cinema. I've never seen a film that was more "pure film". Every shot is perfect; and more than that, every shot feels like the only possible shot. Whereas most movies focus on an involved plot and give us cardboard characters -- or focus very strongly on the characters without paying much attention to the background or setting of the movie -- L'ECLISSE seems to me to give equal weight to every single element on the screen. What is happening to the characters is exactly as important as their characterizations which in turn is exactly as important as the surrounding setting or objects on screen. In fact, people are almost interchangeable with objects and settings; quite often in the film an actor will leave the frame and we are left looking at some object still in the frame which seems just as interesting as the actors.
And about the actors. Antonioni's muse Monica Vitti is back for the third time and I can't really imagine anyone else playing her part in L'ECLISSE. There's something about Vitti's face which conveys so much; she is always thinking, feeling, conveying so much sometimes without any dialogue at all. Monica Vitti's face is, in fact, a feast that rewards so much with repeated viewings. She really is quite extraordinary. She doesn't seem to be acting at all while at the same time providing a stunning acting performance. You never see the artifice of acting; just the truth of it. And the great French actor Alain Delon is also remarkable. Antonioni famously tried to get his actors to "stop acting"; in other words, he didn't want the fake put-on acting but wanted his actors to really exist and feel in the part truthfully. Delon is a great naturalistic actor and is allowed to do that in some scenes: especially the two stock exchange tableaux which figure so prominently in the picture. However, at other times, as it has been said, Antonioni uses him almost like a marionette (Vitti as well). Delon seems to know what Antonioni was after since he provides exactly the right performance to Vitti's "exactly right" performance. This goes for every single actor in the film; no matter how small the part. You won't catch a single person "acting" in this movie. But each person gives a performance that's "truer" than many another film can boast.
Performances are also given by objects and locations. Don't ask me how but they are. An empty picture frame in front of an abstract sculpture. The Roman stock exchange with it's ancient columns. The strange EUR building looming over the city: an architectural remnant from Mussolini's days of fascism which resembles nothing if not a mushroom cloud(!). A fossilized plant. A piece of paper which, it turns out, has flowers drawn on it. In fact, Antonioni is as much concerned with negative space as he is with foreground objects. This goes for the sound of the film as well; absolutely masterly use of sound. The film is made up of alternating passages of extreme quiet and chaotic noise. The opening credits do indeed feature a blaring 60's Italian pop song which suddenly switches in mid-credits to a haunting, discordant piano piece. This device would be used decades later in Quentin Tarantino's opening credits for PULP FICTION and, in fact, may have influenced a similar haunting, discordant bleak piano theme appearing throughout LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT from the same year 1962.
As the credits end, the first shot of the film features objects: a lamp, row of books, a coffee cup, a strange white object we're not sure of but which turns out to be the shirt-sleeved arm of actor Francisco Rabal. There is very little sound except for the faint flutter of an oscillating electric fan. Fearlessly, the opening scene features no dialogue for almost 5 minutes! However, we very quickly become aware of what's happening. The obvious tension, the hurt looks, the aimlessly fiddling with objects while deep in thought: what we have here is the very end of a relationship between Vittoria (Monica Vitti) and Riccardo (Francisco Rabal). It's been said that it's almost like we've walked in to the final reel of movie which doesn't exist; we're only seeing the final breakup and frankly that's all we need. The relationship's prior history has been jettisoned so that we can see the more interesting events to come. And this is probably the most accurate and truthful depiction of the final moments of a relationship that I've ever seen. Vittoria's mind is set; she no longer wants to be in this relationship. She's constantly looking for that "emotional connection" but isn't finding it here. Riccardo typically doesn't want the relationship to end and keeps trying to prolong it. Perhaps they can give it another try. Maybe we'll call each other in a few days. Why don't we embrace one last time. Of course, it's not to be. She leaves. He follows. They part. The time is early morning; so early no one else seems to be around. The streets are deserted and there's an eerie feeling to it all. In fact, with the presence of the strange EUR tower, it's been said the beginning of the film feels like a science fiction film as if these two are the last people on earth. When we do finally see another living soul, it almost comes as a shock.
Vittoria briefly returns to her own apartment (check out this excellent use of negative space here) and goes to the Roman stock exchange to see her mother who seems addicted to the stock market. There is a distance between mother and daughter which Vittoria can't seem to overcome. In fact, one of the most important themes of the movie is the fact that we human beings find it almost impossible to "connect" with one another. Even when we are "in love" there seems to be one last, vital thing missing: that intimate connection. This is demonstrated most vividly later in the film when Vitti and Delon embrace and kiss passionately. Antonioni then gives us a shot of Vitti's face suddenly emptied of passion. The director then gives us an alternate shot of Delon's face showing exactly the same thing. The hunger for genuine emotional connection is always there. We just can't seem to quite grab it. A masterful illustration -- one among many in this film. Antonioni is also concerned with showing absence; not only the use of negative space but simply the absence of actor's from a scene. The device of placing actors in a scene and then having them leave it focuses our attention on the on where the character was. This gives the objects and locations an incredibly powerful resonance emotionally which wouldn't have been apparent to the viewer if Antonioni hadn't done it just this way.
But back to the stock exchange. Vittoria's mother (again perfectly played by Lilla Brignone) is a small investor -- and the Roman stock exchange is a rather small stock exchange and not the main one in the country. Alain Delon plays Piero, Vittoria's mother's sorta broker who represents her for his firm on the floor of the stock exchange. The Roman stock exchange is located inside an ancient Roman building with marble and columns; it is here in the city where the soundtrack gets loud and chaotic after the relative quiet of the film so far. Later that night, Vittoria returns to her apartment where she hangs out with her neighbour Anita. Here she reveals her inability to emotionally connect in a master line of dialogue: "There are times when holding a needle and thread, or a book, or a man -- it's all the same." The pair go to see another neighbour Marta who had previously lived in Kenya. It is in this scene where we really see Vittoria cut loose and smile as she manages to find her elusive emotions only when she dresses up like a Kenyan and does an impromptu spear dance. Vittoria's fun is cut short when Marta inexplicably turns sullen and says "Let's stop playing negroes". Marta reveals herself to be quite racist saying the Kenyan natives have only just recently come down out of the trees and "lost their tails". This clearly annoys Vittoria who, even after having only just met Marta, still manages one or two pointed comments to her as her racism manifests.
Vittoria's emotional distance is only broken momentarily throughout the film. The joy she obviously feels pretending to be a Kenyan native only lasts briefly but it tells something of the deadening effect that "civilisation" seems to be having on her. Vittoria experiences another moment of brief joy when Marta's poodle gets up on its hind legs and walks around her in a circle. However, that moment is typically fleeting as Vittoria hears a strange sound from a nearby construction site and becomes rivetted by a row of tall poles swaying in the breeze. Monica Vitti is forever observing and touching things in this film; another demonstration of her constant search for -- something. The next morning Anita's husband takes them on a short plane ride and it is here too -- only after she has severed her bonds to the Earth and flies high up in the clouds -- that Vittoria literally sighs with the sheer joy of it. The freedom she feels is all too evident on her face. But this too is fleeting since the plane soon lands. It is at this point, much like in the previous L'AVVENTURA, that our heroine literally disappears from the film. But only for about 20 minutes -- she will be back.
It's here that we get the Piero portion of the film as we see the Roman stock exchange once again. However, things aren't good as the stock market has a mini-crash. The frenzied activity once again contrasts the previous quiet scenes as the stock brokers go bananas. Vittoria's mother loses quite a bundle by the time Vittoria reappears at the stock exchange. Vittoria becomes fascinated by a fat man who has lost 50 million. She follows him out of curiosity just to see what he does and how he handles a thing like that. She finds out -- I'm not going to tell you. It is also here that the nascent love affair between Vittoria and Piero starts. This makes up the bulk of the remainder of the film. I'm also not going to tell you what happens with that. Nor am I going to describe the absolutely stunning ending of the film. Antonioni is known for the "endings" of his films and this one is his best: incredibly brave and ballsy for 1962 and, indeed, even for the 21st century.
These are only some of my impressions; believe me, I could write a book. The only way to really know what the movie is about and to know what I'm talking about is to watch it. And watch it repeatedly since it only gets better with repeated viewings. It's riveting. It's absorbing. It's revolutionary. It's a downright masterpiece -- but in the vital, exciting way and not in the dry, academic way. And it's quickly become one of my all-time favourite films.


Dis Guy said...

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Cerpts said...