Ennui and eroticism make an oddly alluring combo in Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte.
The 1961 film, newly restored in 4K, opens with the disenchanted, well-to-do married pair Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) and Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) visiting their friend on his hospital deathbed; it ends with their desperate, loveless tryst, roughly 24 sleepless hours later.
This entwining of lust and death is not coincidental. Much as with the central couple in James Joyce’s The Dead, Giovanni, a best-selling author, can’t entice Lidia anymore with his intellectual prestige; instead, she longs for — and aches with regret at rejecting — the confessional, romantic love of their dying friend, with which Giovanni, despite all his virile charm, can’t compete. Even Giovanni’s philandering can’t shake Lidia’s numbness.
Yet though he’s a pathetic figure, he’s also a somewhat enviable one: a dashing fellow who, no matter how inert and wraith-like his aura, can still draw in scores of beautiful socialites. (It’s a testament to the director’s and star’s brilliance that, even at his most wan, Giovanni is always fascinating to look at).
Antonioni’s pacing is fluid and meandering. While Giovanni attends joyless, fawning book-signing events and soirees, and has near-trysts with a feral in-patient (the most sensual scene in the movie) and the party giver’s feline daughter (Monica Vitti), Lidia slinks off in boredom. She travels to their old neighborhood — an industrial zone, dangerous yet alive. Everywhere are men, brimming with youth and potency, but Lidia can only cast glances; she’s incapable of infidelity, content to hold her husband in quiet contempt.
Like Lidia, La Notte is externally placid yet bubbling with unrealized dread, sorrow, and sexuality. It’s a muted siren of a movie.
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Opens September 14, Film Forum
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 15, 2016