La Notte (1961) is the first film from Michelangelo Antonioni I've seen more than once. Outside of L'Eclisse and The Passenger, I've seen all of what I presume most would call his "classics" -- L'Avventura, Il Grido, Red Desert and Blow-Up -- though I'm no Antonioni scholar as much as I am a fan. His works aren't immediately approachable and must be left to their own devices, to reveal their secrets at their own pace and under those circumstances La Notte delivers a smashing finale.
Explained simply, this is a story of a man and his wife (Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau) who appear to have fallen out of love with one another. Taking place over the course of less than 24 hours very little happens in this film in the way of "action" as so much of what is actually going on is taking place inside the heads of the film's two leads.
Mastroianni plays famed writer, Giovanni Pontano, Moreau his wife, Lidia. The couple first visit a friend (Bernhard Wicki) in the hospital where he's dying of cancer. It takes place so early in the narrative and is such a somber opening we don't immediately think of it as anything more than it is, but the metaphor comes clear.
The same scene features another narrative clue as a helicopter interrupts the hospital room conversation. It's a penetrating, alien noise, disturbing the peace, serving as a distraction to the harsh truths currently at hand, truths no one in the room wants to accept. Of course, so early in the film, the only truth we as an audience recognize is the inevitable death of a friend, but we'll later come to find this metaphor extends further than that, and an explanation for why so much attention is paid the helicopter comes glaringly clear once Giovanni sits down with the lovely Monica Vitti.
Day fades into night, Lidia has been wandering the streets of Milan alone for hours, ever since leaving Giovanni at a book signing, and we come to learn she's visiting locales reminiscent of the time she and Giovanni were newlyweds.
A stopped clock is seen on the street of a neighborhood that looks as if it's still in ruin after the war and the crumbling facade of a nearby building speaks further to the state of her relationship with her husband. She returns home and they don't speak of what's on their mind, or the distance between them, as much as they continue to play things out as if the lives they're leading are not their own.
They head to a nightclub, though neither wants to be there. They go to a party where they both are so clearly uninterested in the social circle they travel in. All of this is beautifully shot by Gianni Di Venanzo (8 1/2, Il Grido) and as professor Giulianna Bruno explores on this Criterion Blu-ray, the architecture in the film tells just as much a story as the characters themselves.
Some shots are so absolutely wonderful I only wish I had a way of capturing images direct from the Blu-ray to share with you. While I wish I could show you the shot of Mastroianni's reflection as he watches Vitti before joining her in a room, I will instead describe a scene as Moreau walks out of a building with a gate between she and the camera. It's alarmingly perfect. She walks so precisely as to keep the center of the gate down the middle of her back. I can only imagine the lengths Antonioni went to get this shot just right and how nervous Moreau may have been hoping to get it in as few takes as possible. It's a stunning level of precision, which only reassures they viewer that everything in this film is in it for a reason.
In addition to a 1961 article by Antonioni, the 16-page booklet includes an essay by New Yorker critic Richard Brody (which you can read here).
La Notte is a film that comes across as occasionally surreal, but a lot of that is owed to the master filmmaker behind the camera. As Brody writes, it "hides its profoundest meaning in plain sight" and, I'd argue, like life the audience slowly begins to see a pattern. Just as you may not initially know a friend is having trouble, sooner or later the signs begin to add up. La Notte is no different and by the film's end you'll surely assume what the future holds for Giovanni and Lidia, even though Antonioni is unwilling to give you the entire story.
SIDE NOTE: This was one of the films Stanley Kubrick listed in 1963 as one of his top ten favorites. See the list here.