Saturday, January 2, 2016

Michelangelo Antonioni | L‘Eclisse (Eclipse)

a tear is the fault of the dress
by Douglas Messerli
Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Elio Bartolini, and Ottiero Ottieri (writers), Michelangel Antonioni (director) L‘Eclisse (Eclipse) / 1962  

If watching Antonioni’s great films L’Avventura (see My Year 2007) and La Notte did not make it clear, then Eclipse of 1962 certainly reiterates that this director’s films are not at all about narrative fiction. Plot truly does not matter, and the events of his films might often be somewhat shuffled. His films, rather, are psychological expressions—so psychological that Antonioni might almost have been a surrealist, had he not chosen to use what appears as or pretends to be a realist world instead of employing dream-like surrealist images. Even Antonioni’s rooms in these three films are mirrors of the owner’s personalities rather than places to be actually inhabited.

Time and again, the characters move into spaces where the owners have gone missing. Landscapes generally are empty and barren as in L’Avventura, or are pockmarked with the detritus of civilization, half-developed fields littered with preposterous constructions such as the mushroom-shaped water tower early in Eclipse or the seemingly never-to-be-completed new building near her own street. The characters, in turn, move around these spaces as if they are, in fact, sleepwalkers.
      As the first long sequence of Eclipse, for example, Monica Vitti as Vittoria wanders backwards and forwards in and out of rooms while her lover Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) sits for long periods of time as if he were a statue. She smokes, drinks, and rearranges nearby objects, unable to properly express her intense emotions, while Riccardo serves as kind of Buddha, a figure mirrored by the nearby whirling fan, both frozen in the repetition of nothingness. No matter what has happened previously, we know the clash between the two is irreclaimable. He is a publisher, a man of books, she a creature unable to express her mind.
     The director’s camera, almost mimicking Vittoria’s fidgety movements, darts around the same space, fragmenting furniture and faces, at moments moving to her legs beneath a chair before zooming up to a mirror or peering out, as she herself has a few seconds before, from the corner of a window. It is almost as if everything is moving in a languorous ballet, choreographed to express the uncertainty and awkwardness of the human beings within. Indeed it is this quite careful manipulation of movement that brings many viewers to describe Antonioni’s filmmaking as “mannered.” And in some senses, they are correct in their evaluation, for the entire scene an expression “in the manner” of what we pretend are real experiences, but which, in truth, appear as something more out of Kabuki than our real everyday actions. Yet perhaps they reveal those everyday actions more faithfully than we might have ever imagined.
       Antonioni, however, is not attempting to express the everyday, and never pretends to be. His “characters,” as beautiful as they are, represent little more than stick figures, pushed and pulled through their daily actions by the rising industrialism, politics, greed, and, yes always, love without being able to solidly take hold of anything. They seldom make choices, and, even when they do, they are generally mistaken ones. For that reason none of them will find what we might call satisfaction.

      Leaving her long-time elder lover, Vittoria is like a straw in the wind, her willowy body and diaphanous hair insubstantiality tilting against the city backdrops, a sun ready to be blotted out the bold black-and-white world in which she lives.  She is obviously a figure of the wind, as her brief, exhilarating airplane trip through the clouds with her neighbor and her pilot husband reveal. Vittoria is clearly overwhelmed by the experience. 
    Yet there is also a kind of primitiveness about her, as her sudden determination to imitate a dancing Kenyan native in the apartment of her new acquaintance from Kenya reveals. But the same act also tells us that she has no comprehension of politics or even the dangerous implications of her spontaneous acts. Her friend Anita is quickly irritated by and embarrassed for her racist, “negro” mockery.
     Time and again, Vittoria shifts in her tracks at the very moment she might actually be moving toward a destination. Suddenly while trying to track down her new Kenyan friend’s escaped dog, she is distracted by the sounds of poles blowing in the wind. Leaving the stock exchange after an awful day in which her stock-playing mother has lost a great deal of money, Vittoria follows an even bigger loser, who appears to possibly be contemplating suicide, only to discover a napkin on which he has drawn several flowers. Vitti almost literally floats through the Rome of Antonioni’s Eclipse.

      Only one “thing,” after her breakup with Riccardo, seems to temporarily catch her attention or offer even a location where she might briefly settle: the beautiful face and fierce intensity of motion she perceives in the stock trader Piero (Alain Delon). With his dark hair and long, almost two feline eyebrows, Piero is exactly  the opposite of Vittoria. If she wanders, he moves with the direct intention of a man who knows what he wants and generally gets it. The scenes of him and his peers at the stock exchange represent humans as a pack of lions frenetically pacing back and forth between the phone cubicles, from where they get orders and glean information from other stock exchanges, and the bidding circle, where they shout out their stock purchases like desperately growling predators—which indeed they are! Money is an entry to the game played by those who hate and fear their fellow kind, a slightly paranoid reality expressed by Vittoria’s mother (Lilla Brignone) as well.
      The first moment this man of purposeless action spots Vittoria, it is inevitable, as so much is in Antonioni’s world of coincidence, that he will stalk her. The very same day, Piero throws over his call girl friend (a former blonde who has just changed into a brunette) and paces back and forth between Vittoria’s window, only to have his Alfa Romeo stolen by a stumbling drunk.

      His reaction to the discovery of the car, the body of the drunk within in, further emphasizes the differences between them. From a poorer family, Vittoria has no interest in finances, while he, the son of an obviously wealthy Roman family—who grew up in a house, we later discover, filled with great art and expensive furniture—excitedly uses others to make even more money and buy more possessions. He’ll sell the Alpha Romeo, he boasts, for a better and newer car. Even a stolen kiss between them ends with Vittoria’s torn dress. Her passive answer: “A tear is the dresses’ fault.”
      We recognize that nothing can come of their explosive relationship, which ends in Piero’s office, where he has temporarily removed all the phones from their cradles in order not to be disturbed. 
      As all lovers do, they promise to meet again that night, and the night after, until the end of time. But as Vittoria descends the stairs to leave, for a second turning to look back to what we know has become a pillar of salt, we can only doubt their promises.

       Antonioni ends his Kabuki show, once again, with—from a realist perspective— an apparently mannerist conceit; but through the dream perspective  of this nightmare vision of a world where humans increasingly feel dissociated, alienated, and displaced from each other and the world around them, he quite brilliantly conveys, his major, and perhaps only theme. Through a series of quick montages of various hours of the day from sunrise to sunset, the director takes us to all the spots where the couple has previously encountered one another. Strangers pass through the streets, going about their business, but neither Piero nor Vittoria show up. They too, like the unoccupied rooms and spaces they have throughout the film entered and wandered away from, no longer exist for one another. And even if they might ever come seeking each other out, there will surely be no one at home.

Los Angeles, January 2, 2011

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