I’ve assumed in the past that Antonioni’s films, like Bergman’s, typified the idea of a cerebral but sexy European art cinema in the 1960s. My feelings about Antonioni were much like my feelings about Bergman. I admired the performances of the actors, the mise en scène and cinematography, each of which I recognise as influenced by the directors but also by their collaborators. My problems tended to be with what they perceived as the purpose of their films. I found both directors more interesting when they steered closer to genre forms and less when they appeared enigmatic. Of course, they could be enigmatic and offer some form of social commentary or insight into human emotions and social/political discourse without focusing on genre, but I suppose I think there is some form of discipline that genre provokes. I’ve since seen Bergman’s early films and adjusted my position slightly. L’eclisse is the third film in what some critics see as a trilogy by Antonioni, following L’avventura (1960) and La notte (1961). I don’t think I’ve seen all of L’avventura and although I did see La notte in the early 1970s, I can remember little of it apart from the casting of Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, two of my favourite actors from the 1960s onwards. MUBI earlier offered me The Lady Without Camellias(La signora senza camelie, Italy 1953) which I wrote about at some length including an exploration of Antonioni’s early career. I rather liked that film so I decided to give L’eclisse a go. It’s on MUBI in UK for the next three weeks.
I do find watching films on streaming difficult as I’m too easily distracted by what else is happening in our ‘locked down’ house. On this occasion, however, I found that watching the film in four parts actually paid off. There is little narrative ‘drive’ but a great deal happening with the performances, the mise en scène and the camerawork – and occasionally the music. It’s a long film (125 minutes) and watching it in roughly 30 minute bursts helped me focus. The setting is Rome, mainly two important specific Roman locations – a new housing development for the wealthy named EUR and the borsa or stock exchange. EUR has an informative page on Wikipedia which explains that it was the district to the South-West of Rome designed to be the site of Mussolini’s planned World’s Fair of 1942 that would have celebrated 20 years of Fascist culture. In the event, the area under state and local authority control was eventually completed in time for the Rome Olympics of 1960 and has subsequently become a business, sporting and government office district as well as an architectural attraction in which competing classical and modernist styles present a kind of dialogue. The central character Vittoria (Monica Vitti) is a young translator with an apartment in an EUR block and at the beginning of the narrative she is in the process of breaking up her relationship with Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) who also lives in the spacious EUR district. The break-up is a protracted scene in the early morning. Later Vittoria will visit the borsa to see her mother, an investor. Vittoria also meets Piero (Alain Delon), a young stockbroker (a ‘whizz kid’ as my friend the money dealer might describe him) who has her mother as a client. The rest of the narrative deals with the question of whether Vittoria and Piero can get together – and stay together – for any length of time.
L’eclisse is famous as an example of the difficulty of communication in ‘modern’ bourgeois society. That’s ‘modern’ for 1961 when the film was made. I was 13 when the film was first released and at that age not really aware of what ‘modernity’ meant. But I was aware of the world and what struck me most in the opening sequence in which Vittoria and Riccardo don’t communicate about their split is something I obviously dredged from memory. I was entranced by Monica Vitti and in particular her clothes. A shift dress with a boat neckline, bare legs and open-toed slingback shoes with a low slim heel – why do I know these terms? (I’m almost oblivious to fashion now.) I must be remembering the girls I knew a few years later in 1963-4 when such styles were percolating through to the north of England. But it’s not so much the dress but the way that Ms Vitti moves within it. That was the point of the shift rather than the ‘sheath’ dress, I think. It allowed a woman to walk elegantly and fluidly with her hips swaying within the dress. I don’t find Ms Vitti ‘beautiful’ but her face is attractive and interesting and she exudes erotic power in this film even though there is little physical in her relationships except when Delon later kisses her neck. Francisco Rabal is a powerful Spanish actor cast in a role which constrains him here and the filming captures that frustration.
The contrast between the open spaces of EUR and the crowded stock exchange is perfectly captured by cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo. At this time he was working for Fellini and Rosi as well as Antonioni but he died in 1966 aged only 45 when Italian cinema lost a very talented filmmaker. There are so many scenes in the film that I could happily watch again and again partly for the mise en scène and what seems to be both a commentary on what’s happening between Vittoria and Piero and a more general commentary on a moment in Italian society, partly for the fluid camerawork and partly for the performances. Just one example – when Piero’s attempt to kiss Vittoria passionately ends with her dress ripping at the shoulder (the same shoulder her mother is touching in the shot above), Vittoria heads off into the other rooms in Piero’s parents’ home. She goes into what was presumably Piero’s room as a boy and finds his novelty striptease pen. She goes into his parents’ room and opens the window to look out as two small portraits of grandparents(?) seem to watch her. She looks down to the street below and sees two nuns, tiny figures coming down the street. The camera switches to exterior shots of buildings from different angles and then a reverse long shot to capture Vittoria looking out of the window. back inside the room, Vittoria looks out and down to see two men in an outdoor restaurant, a soldier on a street corner and then varuious people coming out of a building that might be a civic building – perhaps they have been registering a birth or a marriage or a death? Vittoria is an observer of ‘ordinary life’ in Rome.
Will Vittoria and Piero ever consummate their affair? At one point she tells him she loves him not all or far too much. It sounds like a line from a song (and I haven’t really thought about the music in the film yet) but it might be perceptive on her part. Alain Delon is very beautiful, arguably more beautiful than Monica Vitti, but he is younger than her and in this film more adolescent. 1961-2 saw him at an early peak in his career at only 26. After his first major hit as the Tom Ripley character in René Clair’s Plein soleil (Purple Noon) in 1960 he’d worked for Visconti on Rocco and his Brothers (1961) and would do so again in 1963 as Tancredi in The Leopard. Although he had some Italian heritage and presumably spoke some Italian he seems to have been dubbed in this film (which I think was the norm for many actors in Italian cinema). Piero here seems to represent the materialistic young upper class man in Rome and in a way I think he is just a toy for Vittoria but perhaps that’s just me? There are so many aspects to this film. I haven’t even mentioned the racist woman who is a settler in Kenya and Vittoria’s use of blackface. Is she being satirical? The brief sequence featuring a plane trip to Verona seems to mark this period of Roman filmmaking, reminding me of Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960). There are many commentaries on the film and it has received the full Criterion treatment including an essay by John Rosenbaum.
The film famously ends with a seven minute sequence in which Vittoria and Piero don’t feature. Baffled distributors in the US are said to have cut this sequence because they couldn’t see what it adds. It’s almost like a self-contained poetic documentary. It shows scenes of EUR and how ‘ordinary people’ interact with the environment, ending with the street lighting that illuminates the corner where Vittoria and Piero meet. Many of the shots feature characters we have seen before or objects that have featured like the nurse and her charge and the sprinkler. The ‘new’ element is a distinct sense of disturbance and foreboding (especially during this coronavirus lockdown). The disturbance is achieved partly by the camera slowly tracking, partly by the soundtrack of musical notes, chords and ‘runs’ and sound effects and partly by the reminder (via a newspaper held by a bus passenger) that this is the time of ‘The Arms Race’ and Khrushchev engaged in a ‘game’ with the Pentagon. The Cuban Missile Crisis was 6 months away when the film premièred in Milan . In addition there are still frames, large close-ups of trees, and pavements and ‘natural’ sounds (wind, water). There is a possible joke – is that Vittoria, oh, no it’s not. I find this sequence fascinating and it is almost like an avant-garde short – but meticulously shot and edited with the resources avant-garde filmmakers can only dream about. It’s a fitting end to a film I began with some trepidation but found in the end that I enjoyed it a great deal.