Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1961 film La Notte is a revelation. The second in a trilogy that includes L’avventura and L’eclisse, this is an understated film that nevertheless manages to say everything it needs to with nary a word. Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) and Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni) are a married couple living at the edge of their relationship. Lidia is desperately searching for something vital in her life, whether it be meaning or simply experience. Giovanni has given up and no longer searches for anything while his successful writing career has become meaningless and distracting. The muted frustration of La Notte is striking. This is a couple that has completely lost touch with each other. They move through the world almost blindly. They separate then seem to come together again only out of habit and expectation.
Giovanni finds himself consistently distracted by other women. The mad young woman who lures Giovanni into her hospital room is clearly not equipped for random sexual encounters. Even as she violently forces Giovanni to kiss her, pressing her teeth against his lips, he doesn’t resist. This is the extreme. Giovanni is adrift and his world feels like nothing to him but empty, blank surfaces that can never be filled. In the second half of the film Lidia and Giovanni attend a large party on the outskirts of Milan. Giovanni becomes enamoured with Valentina (Monica Vitti) who, in the penultimate scene, finds herself wedged between Lidia and Giovanni. First, she spends time with Giovanni who flirts with her, but Valentina is a tease and knows marital desperation when she sees it. Later, she spends time with Lidia, unaware that she is married to Giovanni. When the three meet, the costuming tells it all as both Lidia and Valentina are wearing the same dress, with almost identical hairstyles. We see the two women through Giovanni’s eyes. One mature, the other young and cynical. This scene is very pathetic in a lot of ways. As though Giovanni could make his marriage vital if only he could go back and be with a younger version of Lidia. What Giovanni doesn’t realise is that the salvation of his marriage is in his hands. Lidia spends the entire film waiting and hoping for him to hold her hand, to kiss her, to make some sort of move that tells her they are still romantically linked. Like a girl going on a friend-date with a boy she has a crush on, Lidia’s desires are never met by Giovanni.
There is some truly beautiful filmmaking at play in La Notte. When Giovanni first spots Valentina in the solarium, we see only their reflections in a window before the camera pans over to the actors themselves. Giovanni appears transparent, like a ghost, watching this woman who thinks she is alone. That is the primary disconnect between Lidia and Giovanni: he moves through the world as an apparition, while she is flesh and blood, desperately seeking. There are no solutions in La Notte, and that is what makes it feel so real and, at times, so hopeless. We want these two to be together for no other reason than that they are already married, and we want to believe love triumphs. Of course, love is not always enough as the duo drift longingly into a world without each other.