DVD Review Of L’Eclisse

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/26/06


  Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (The Eclipse), his 1962 black and white capstone of his Alienation Trilogy that began with L’Avventura and continued with La Notte, is arguably a great film, but still a cut or two  below its immediate predecessor, the indisputably brilliant La Notte, simply because it lacks the story and excellent portrayal of a human relationship that that earlier film has. It is, however, a superior film to L’Avventura, in that its sustains it sublime weirdness and disaffecting qualities throughout the film, whereas that first film in the trilogy petered out into a dull ending after an intriguing and mysterious premise.

  This 125 minute film does not suffer from that ill, and is certainly the most Antonionian of the three films, in that it contains the trademark bizarreness of his soundtrack mixed with the runic symbolism and bizarre framing of shots that achieves the effect of alienation perfectly, if also subliminally. While it lacks the natural visual splendor of L’Avventura and the emotional drive of La Notte, this film never quite falls into predictability, even though it seems to dare the viewer into believing it will, and that it is really a love story. In truth, the film is an anti-love story, for it follows its lead character, Vittoria (MonicaVitti), a translator of literature, from the end of one shallow and passionless love affair, with a writer named Riccardo (Francisco Rabal), at the film’s beginning, through the start and abrupt end of another shallow and passionless affair, with a stockbroker named Piero (Alain Delon), and then simply discards her as easily as she tosses away her lovers, and ends with a visual essay of sorts, on the terminal state of modern existence. Vittoria embodies this emotional anomy when she laments to Piero, in the few minutes that we see the true start and end of their affair, that she wished she didn’t love him at all, or loved him much more. Then the film spends almost ten minutes in that essay, pulling us out of the world that its lead characters have familiarized ourselves with, as if to state that their lives were only randomly eavesdropped upon, and that the film could have easily turned its dispassionate eye upon any of the characters, mundane and bizarre, that we see shambling through its Roman suburban streets.

  There is a sense that all of the inhabitants of this end world are zombies, of a sort, and it is not without a sense of the zeitgeist of the times that during the same year, 1962, that this film was released, over in America, a B film classic with eerily similar imagery and an even more haunting soundtrack, was released. That film was industrial filmmaker and documentarian (just as Antonioni started out as a documenatarian) Herk Harvey’s lone fictional film, the brilliant low budget horror film Carnival Of Souls, in which the tale opens with a drag race that has one car crash over the side of a bridge. Its one survivor, a thin, pretty, but disoriented, blond, who has an aversion to the shallow male of the species, wanders cross-country and is haunted by bizarre beings that chase her, even as no one else is aware of them. Eventually, she is destroyed by them, and it is revealed that her dead body is still in the car, that is dredged up from the river, at film’s end. Antonioni has a similar scene in his film, although earlier in his film, where a corpse is recovered from Piero’s car, after it has plunged into a river when a drunk steals it. Harvey’s film had a profound impact on the subsequent mythos of George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, and its many sequel and imitators, as did another American B horror film, made in 1964, adapted from Richard Matheson’s sci fi-horror novel I Am Legend. That was the classic Vincent Price vampiric bio-terror chiller The Last Man On Earth, whose imagery of deserted and blanched out urban streets are the closest things to an Antonionian vision American film, A or B, has produced. The end of Antonioni’ film has such a strong affinity with those films that it is no wonder that many critics consider his cinematic world not to be a portrayal of our own real world, but some odd universe just next door. And, there are many moments one could imagine the then current The Twilight Zone hoist, Rod Serling, emerging from beneath some enigmatic piece of architecture, and declaiming on the angst of this film’s characters.

  Adding to that feeling, in this film, is the famed discontinuous cutting Antonioni employs, where scenes end, and an indefinite ellipsis of time passes, and then we get a seeming resumption of the narrative, only some other thread now dominates that ‘scene’, as the main tale seems to slowly emerge only from beneath the layers. Antonioni deliberately passes over those scenes that most films put center stage, for he realizes we have seen them a thousand times before, while he wants to show us what happens in the corners of conventional narratives. He, and his screenplay collaborator, Tonino Guerra, deftly know the power of the most banal of dialogue when backgrounded against silence and mere images. This narrative stroke of insight is especially true in the scenes where we follow Piero in the Roman stock exchange, or where we see Vittoria dancing in blackface and African garb at a racist white Kenyan neighbor’s apartment (the woman refers to the native black Kenyans as tailless monkeys and children), or when we follow her follow a fat old man who’s lost a fortune in a market crash, only to have the camera turn from over her shoulder to directly at her in her voyeur position. Other such scenes that are disconnected, but make a weird sort of sense, are those when Vittoria and her neighbor chase after her neighbor’s dog, or when Vittoria goes for a plane ride. In the former, the impenetrable black and white night takes on monstrous designs, and in the latter the odd shots of the plane taking off, as seen from a wing, wholly disorient the viewer. All of these ‘scenes’, by themselves, contain the germs of whole films, but none of them are picked up upon, as Antonioni wants his viewer to see the germ, not the fruition. Similarly, he does not glory in the architecture of modern Rome, nor its suburbs, in its grandeur. Yet, the Italy of nearly half a century ago looks exceedingly current and modern in its looks, decades ahead of most of America at that time. Even now we haven’t fully caught up. Rather, Antonioni gives us only odd snippets, angles, small snatches of scenes of buildings, structures, towers, and even bricks of plant growths, rather than the whole. He is showing his viewers things, and saying, ‘Assemble as you will.’ He uses the same technique with his narrative, and trusts that the viewer will use what he gives them to form the most satisfying work each individual can. Thus, providing a straightforward narrative summation of the film is both pointless and self defeating.

  This sort of approach to art is, however, despite the filmmaker’s claim, far beyond the wan, and lazy, art the Abstract Expressionists purveyed, because Antonioni is creatively working, not merely letting the ‘art’ be the product of whether or not a viewer nor critic decides it’s art, simply because they agree with the premise he proposes, and thus does all the real creative work the artist should do. In this sense, the film represents the very eclipse of the title as being the eclipse of lazy art, as well as having many other meanings, such as the eclipse of eros, or the eclipse of sentient recognition, or the eclipse of one zombie lover for another, or the eclipse of European colonial domination, or the eclipse of emotion in modern life, among the many interpretations of the title, especially as portrayed in the brilliant final scenes, which end the film with what would seem to be traditional filmic establishing shots, which seem to leave its upside down world on a tense edge, as the Cuban Missile Crisis looms, and are exquisitely framed by cinematographer Gianni De Venanzo, who can even make a pair of eyeglasses on a dull middle aged man look somehow Freudianly menacing, or a streetlamp become the symbol of the end of a world as it is known. Yet Giovanni Fusco is the real master of these last scenes, for, as great as the imagery is, it is the hauntingly spare music, that Fusco employs, which defines this denouement, for if the music was more carnivalesque, like a Warner Bros. cartoon, the very same images that evoke the hermetic suffocation of an American B horror film would, instead, become an over the top burlesque. Think of the scenes from George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead, where the zombies finally break into the mall with a biker gang, and a pie fight ensues. The music there defines the scene, and abruptly darkens once the pie fight turns deadly.

  In a sense, acting in an Antonioni film is both very difficult, and amazingly simple. Vitti is the quintessential actress for his films, because she is cool, without the Nordic frigidity of a Bergmanian actress, yet reeks of a roiling passion underneath which never comes forth. Her long feline face, with its sharp features, is almost elastic in its sexual allure. It can come alive with passion, as in her erotic African dance scene, or it can be colder than the glass she first kisses Piero through, to protect herself emotionally. Perhaps her most Vittian scene in this film, if not the trilogy, comes in one of those ultra dark night shots that only black and white can provide. Vittoria wanders about, and comes across a row of flagpoles swaying erotically yet inhumanly in the wind, and just watches them. Without even seeing her face, her whole body (and an exquisite one it is) captures a sense of literal figurative displacement, as well as sexual captivation, from the rest of the cinematic world the film portrays. Alain Delon is also perfectly cast as the vapid and shallow pretty boy obsessed with money, fancy cars, and woman, for he uses and disposes, and then replaces all of them with ease. The fact that the film has no characters that one can rally around, and even its secondary characters, like Vittoria’s mother (Lilla Brignone), are thoroughly unlikable, plus the bold innovations in narrative form, makes the fact that this film was a box office bomb seem rather obvious. Yet it has certainly grown in stature in the years between; yet again proving that Lowest Common Denominator pandering is a fool’s game. Not surprisingly, the film won a Cannes Special Jury Prize, and was a huge hit in the Orient, which appreciated its existential bent, especially in its final shots of the deserted suburbia of Eur, its zombies, its architecture in progress, destinationless buses, and exquisitely composed symmetries.

  Jean-Luc Godard once said, famously, that a film must have a beginning, middle, and end, but not necessarily in that order, and Antonioni proves that dictum correct, opening this film not only in dramatic media res, with the end of an all night argument between Riccardo and Vittoria, but by fragmenting the very expository milieu into discreet bits. We get some odd opening shots of the room- the first being of a small desk lamp (which prefigures the world devouring streetlamp that ends the film), then we see a shirtsleeve, Riccardo’s, which moves. The 1.85:1 aspect ratio of the film helps keep us visually fragmented and unawares of much of the action in the apartment, and allows Antonioni to magnificently exploit widescreen in as mundane a setting as an apartment, for the human element is not central in this world, and this is the one constant throughout the rest of the film. We never see a whole shot of the room until several minutes in, as the film only slowly concretes in the viewer’s eye, and only after Vittoria is introduced, and silence pervades Vittoria’s first real action is to move an empty picture frame, then reach into it and pull an object through it. The symbolism of this trompe l’oeil action is manifest, yet jarring. We know that what seems to be real may not be, and vice versa. The scene comes to a climax when Vittoria physically hides herself from her love, who looks at us and the camera, as she is behind a wall, where only her own visage looks at her from a mirror. She cannot stand it, recoils, and bolts for the fresh air. The rest of the film, in a sense, might be seen as an extended excursion of Vittoria from the self she loathes.

  On the supplements of this two disk The Criterion Collection DVD, the second disk contains two excellent features- a fifty-five minute documentary called Michelangelo Antonioni: The Eye That Changed Cinema, which gives a rich summary of his life and work. The twenty-two minute The Sickness Of Eros has interviews with Italian film critic Adriano Apra and longtime Antonioni’s friend Carlo Di Carlo about the film. The first disk unfortunately lacks an English language track dubbing. A little less money spent on the removal of scratches, and a bit spent on hiring a few trained stage actors for a day’s dubbing work, would work wonders to extendf this film’s appeal to a broader audience, but one of the down sides to Criterion is that they do seem to cultivate an elitist snobbery that may ultimately be self-defeating in the company’s goal of widening the audience for foreign films. Film critic and historian Ricardo Peña gives a good commentary track, short on fellatio and the rote recitation of notes, and long on insight and scene specific ideas. The liner notes include essays by film critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Gilberto Perez, as well as some pieces by Antonioni himself.

  All in all, the whole film does not proceed in a linear fashion, but this is its grace note, for it sidles forth, like a sidewinder, or perhaps, even more tellingly, like a crab, herkily and jerkily, yet lulling and luring the viewer into its odd dance, which is, what I would call ‘the theater of disaffection’, which is one that may have not been founded by Antonioni, for Ingmar Bergman’s films pioneered that milieu first, but is the one which Antonioni most definitely made his own. Would that such presumption would reign again in the arts, and we would not have the likes of the people who list through this film’s end currently deciding who gets published and lauded or what good young independent filmmaker gets good distribution. Here, again, the film is its own plaint’s answer. I would tell you more but then this essay might not end so-

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? website.]

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