Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Stars: Monica Vitti, Alain Delon, Francisco Rabal
At the time of writing the UK is in lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We can leave the house to work (if we’re essential workers), to buy groceries or visit pharmacies, or to take a daily regiment of exercise. Go for a walk through any district – suburban or otherwise – at the moment, and the eerie calm elicits a quixotic mix of emotions. Inundated with visions of a post-apocalyptic world by a Hollywood seemingly primed for this kind of strange disaster, the quietude is imprinted with a sense of the dramatic. But there’s also an undeniable serenity to these sparsely populated spaces. The hum of traffic has dissipated. The birds, it seems, cheep louder.
Thinking about these negative spaces – both physical and auditory – brought me back nearly 60 years to the work of Michelangelo Antonioni. Particularly three features that are marked by the world seemingly vanishing around his protagonists; 1960’s L’Avventura, 1961’s La Notte (full disclosure: I’ve not seen) and 1962’s L’Eclisse.
Early in L’Eclisse, Monica Vitti’s character Vittoria breaks away from a relationship with a seemingly successful suburban businessman Riccardo (Francisco Rabal). On leaving his apartment, she walks through deserted neighbourhoods in the EUR district of Rome. A lone small truck trundles in the middle distance of one shot; it’s very lonesomeness accentuated. All that we hear on the soundtrack is the clip-clop of Vittoria’s shoes.
The lack of other people is conspicuous and deliberate. Here it serves the purpose of reflecting the emotional and spiritual state of the character. Riccardo is left reeling from the breakup, but the decision has had it’s effect on Vittoria, too. Any sizable shift like this brings with it a sense of displacement, for both parties. A period of transition is occurring. The vanishing of the norm is what is echoed in Vittoria’s surroundings and also speaks to her internal sense of discombobulation. She feels alone and Antonioni portrays her as such – the world around her has literally emptied.
Antonioni’s work around this time was also deemed strongly critical of the vacuity of modern life. L’Avventura – a masterpiece I’ve wanted to write about many times on this site – tells the story of a woman who goes missing on an island, and the efforts of her friends to find her. Yet as the film goes on, the importance of this narrative starts to disperse. Her friends grow tired of their task or seemingly lose focus. Again, Antonioni sends his characters into increasingly empty spaces. The film is a bold rejection of narrative cinema. It depicts a set of people cast adrift from convention. The woman is lost… then everyone is.
But, back to L’Eclisse.
Ricardo catches up with Vittoria for a brief coda, punctuated sharply by the loud slamming of a gate. Following this, Vittoria is seen in crowded places once more; a little time has passed and usual service has been restored… for the moment.
In this throng of ‘normality’ we meet Piero (Alain Delon), a young stockbroker. He is one of many, part of the masses engaging in capitalist society. A cog. Even here Antonioni finds space for a kind of silence, as the passing of an esteemed colleague is respected with a gap in trading, though the persistent ringing of telephones and the immediate barking that resumes once it is over denotes that the moment – and the nature of quietness – as inconvenient and fleeting. Not the norm.
Back in the suburbs and quietude prevails – indeed, making too much noise is a faux pas – and voids appear once again in Antonioni’s frames. The spaces between buildings are emphasised. A sense of vacancy permeates, as though his characters are living in a depleted district. In a scene that now plays quite awkwardly, Vittoria blacks up as she passes time with friends imagining life in Africa… looking a photographs of open plains and mimicking tribal dance. The women codify African life, romanticising it. Perhaps they see greater honesty in the vast spaces of the Serengeti when compared to the artificial fascias that they themselves inhabit? Vittoria is worried by her neighbourhood and Antonioni frames her as dwarfed by its vertiginous constructs. She looks like Grant Williams in The Incredible Shrinking Man.
This persistent sense of vastness, of a world larger than we’re capable of filling, lends L’Eclisse a disturbing atmosphere. We might pioneer and globalise, but it doesn’t add fulfillment to our lives; we only manage to emphasise our own smallness. We lack spirituality. We may have possessions or monetary wealth, but we own things in a world that has rendered them meaningless. Piero’s scrabbling at the stock exchange becomes absurd, even pitiable. The scenes of him at work are… well… they’re boring. But that’s the point. This rejection of what we’re supposed to find comforting is bold and, very quietly, bracing. “How wonderful it is to be here,” Vittoria says while sitting on the veranda of a café by an airstrip, but the scene has been anything but comforting. The space around her is an unanswered question.
What are we supposed to fill the voids in our lives with? There aren’t easy answers here, which furthers the film’s reputation as being stealthily upsetting. Vittoria and Piero engage in a fleeting romance, but even this cannot last. It is unsustainable. One wonders if they have become in some way contaminated; no longer able to engage with or commit to genuine emotional connection thanks to a world that has numbed them on all fronts. “I wish I didn’t love you or that I loved you much more,” Vittoria says, as though some programming has broken. Antonioni sees automatons.
This might not sound especially appealing, but it is tempered by the sheer stark beauty of its depiction. The very compositions of the film provoke thought and reflection. This is form that speaks for itself. Form that becomes content. And there’s a cruel irony in the nature of that content. L’Eclisse is in many ways a film about absence, just as L’Avventura (and, I assume, La Notte) was before it. These films form a trilogy of societal commentary. L’Eclisse‘s uneasy beauty is compelling and now, as I wander our strange and emptying streets – everyone boxed up in their homes, tense, waiting – the bewitching melancholia of Antonioni and this film in particular keeps circling like the hollering gulls overhead.