Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Michelangelo Antonioni's L'eclisse (1962) is now showing April 18 - May 17, 2020 in the United Kingdom.
It starts with a breakup, the dissolution of a relationship between two bourgeois Italians taking place in a stifling atmosphere of all-night contention. But by the end of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse, the ultimate breakdown, which likewise encompasses the cessation of yet another engagement, also strikes a more spacious, reverberating chord, portending the suspension of a fractured society and perhaps the world at large. Released in 1962, following L’avventura (1960) and La note (1961), the kindred features of what has been dubbed Antonioni’s “Trilogy of Alienation,” L’eclisse similarly hosts a congregation of emblematic individuals standing in for their class and culture, as well as embodying an entirely revelatory mode of philosophical and psychological bearing. Though seldom voiced in any explicit fashion—these are films defined by a pervasive struggle to communicate in an increasingly disaffecting world—the ties that bind the characters are precarious ones indeed, fringed connections relating to spiritual emptiness and the disbanding of personal affiliations.
Before its preliminary separation, though, L’eclisse launches with a jaunty pop song played over the initial report of its opening credits. Written by the film’s composer, Giovanni Fusco, and performed by Mina, the tune is abruptly undercut by Fusco’s discordant score, which then fades to near silence, a silence seeping over into the film’s first scene. The tone is summarily one of anguish and agitation. Inside Riccardo’s (Francisco Rabal) claustrophobic home, he and his diverging lover, Vittoria (Monica Vitti), are rounding out what has apparently been an evening of conflict, evinced, if nothing else, by an ash tray overflowing with crumpled cigarettes. It’s an intimately and intensely uncomfortable portrait of an affair in ruin, the quelling apprehension informed by a fan blowing through the suffocating warmth and by the placement of objects protruding every corner of the frame. Body parts throughout L’eclisse are obscured and cut off, concealed by architectural arrangements, reflected in mirrors, mediated and fragmented. Riccardo and Vittoria pace, silently stare, and restlessly fidget; his efforts at reconciliation are routinely in vain. Eventually evading the disharmony, Vittoria leaves and walks into the sterile, empty landscape of Rome’s residential EUR district. There she is suddenly confronted by a jarring desolation, by streets that have not yet woken up, by an eerily quiet urban vacuum.
As much as this shift in scenery may correspond to the isolation so frequently highlighted by Antonioni, in his literal use of location and as a central thematic motif, the sensation is soon contrasted again by the next key setting of L’eclisse: the Italian stock exchange. Here, the scene is one of bustling energy, as a throng of individuals are engrossed in the hectic, raucous process of capitalistic conquest. Feeding and feeding off the chaos is Piero (Alain Delon), an eager young trader soon to be Vittoria’s new love. The aural reticence between she and Riccardo has been supplanted by the clamor of the market, though the impression of stunted communication and labored sensitivity remains ubiquitous. A parallel detachment is further underscored by the unscrupulous and undeniably aggressive ways of the exchange: a moment of silence observed to honor a recently deceased colleague is disingenuous and fraught with tension, the halt in activity seen merely in terms of lost profits. “One minute here costs billions,” Piero tells Vittoria.
Written by Antonioni, with Ottiero Ottieri, Tonino Guerra, and Elio Bartolini, the latter two having collaborated several times previously with the director, L’eclisse circumvents a foundational plot with clear causal connectivity, though the half-hearted union of Vittoria and Piero is its basic narrative concentration. While characterized by the non-committal ambivalence regularly seen in Antonioni’s work, there is nevertheless in their rapport an understated eroticism, best suggested when Piero’s gaze meets Vittoria’s exposed flesh, glimpsed through an opening in her unbuttoned blouse. Their private relations flash a definite passion and a palpable sexual desire, but their physical interactions are awkward and hesitant, and their attempts at expressed affection are even more inhibited. Vittoria calls Piero one evening but she doesn’t respond when he answers, and she wonders aloud why they must ask each other so many questions, arguing two people shouldn’t know too much about the other in order to fall in love. Or, she adds, should they even fall in love at all? Vittoria and Piero can’t seem to overcome an embedded mutual indifference—they are a paradoxically perfectly suited and wholly incompatible couple.
Vitti had appeared in the two preceding films of Antonioni’s trilogy, and would star, to tremendous effect, in his 1964 follow-up, Red Desert, which in many ways aligns itself with these three features while amplifying the graphic resonance of their shared refrains. Although Antonioni’s actors were rarely regarded with the same roundly acknowledge brilliance as his mise en scène and meditative tenor, Vitti in L’eclisse (as well as Red Desert) delivers an exceptionally evocative performance. Despite her apparent apathy, Vittoria is observant and introspective. She is skeptical of Piero’s unfeeling profession and is tactfully appalled when he is more concerned with the condition of his stolen car than with the corpse pulled from the wreckage. She can be at once a somnolent vessel for disenchantment and yet can also convey sincere sadness, as when she is shunned by her financially preoccupied mother. She laughs and plays with a dexterous dog and the next instant is irrationally unnerved by the sound and perception of poles clanging in the wind; in this—critically so for Antonioni—Vittoria is also shown to be highly sensitive to her environment.
Working with cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo, who had shot most of his prior films, Antonioni advances a progressively experimental style with L’eclisse, embracing not only a further departure from conventional storytelling but a fascinating development of formal design. His compositions, abstract and vividly disjointed, are also remarkably complex, yielding a continual capacity for illustrative interpretation. To this end, Jonathan Rosenbaum has rightfully evoked the cinema of Jacques Tati when discussing L’eclisse, noting the ways in which Antonioni’s “compositional style,” like Tati’s, uses “the edges of the frame and [plays] off different sections of the crowded image in relation to one another.” His use of setting can be both an overt place for social critique (as in the stock exchange) and a sketch of individual revelation (Piero, the quintessence of modernity, periodically resides in his parent’s apartment, a home adorned with the antiques of a time gone by). In the case of Vittoria’s neighbor, however, it is a setting only seen in photographs that elicits diverse responses. A white colonialist raised in Kenya, Marta (Mirella Ricciardi) has returned to Italy with a range of images and artifacts from the region, as well as an unabashed racism. Although Vittoria gets swept up in the exotic fascination, to the point she dons “blackface” and mimics an African dance, her reaction has less to do with bigotry (even if it remains insensitive, to say the least), and has more to do with a “grass is greener” liberation. In her fleeting assessment of this antiquated land, Vittoria sees only a retreat from her contemporary banality, an escape to where “things just unfold on their own.” Africa, in this superficial reading, stands for simplicity and underlines her longing for escape.
Still, Vittoria’s real-world dedication to change is lacking at best. After she and Piero agree to meet one afternoon, neither shows to their place of rendezvous, for reasons left conspicuously indeterminate by Antonioni. Instead, in a staggering sequence lasting nearly seven minutes, L’eclisse concludes with a coda canvassing forsaken city streets. Bolstered by Fusco’s chilling score, the twilight denouement breaks down what had thus far been established in terms of episodic expectancy, which was already tenuous to begin with. It’s what Seymour Chatman has described as “a kind of disestablishing shot,” a provocatively ambiguous assembly of spatial elements, an estranged montage of buildings, natural elements, municipal debris, and individuals deceptively perceived and assumed to be the film’s primary players. L’eclisse has been likened to both a science fiction and, less persuasively, a horror film, and certainly, its finely tuned Cold War anxiety is rampant and compelling, from the mushroom cloud tower distinguished early in the picture to a briefly seen newspaper headline warning of nuclear war and the unsettling disquiet of this dreadfully indefinite finale.
Just as Red Desert doesn’t feature anything close to a desert, to say nothing of a red one, there isn’t an actual eclipse in L’eclisse (Antonioni did film one, which went unused in the final film). There is, though, the haunting and overwhelming impression of exhaustion and vanquishing corrosion: setting has taken the place of people; internal withdrawal has usurped meaningful emotion; images and sounds have overridden narrative. Such unease may have been particularly in vogue during the post-war fluctuations of the 1960s, after which point, according to Rosenbaum, Antonioni went “mainly… out of fashion.” And it’s true, as Rosenbaum continues, that the sixties were “an era of artistic innovation when making ambitious films about the zeitgeist was still considered both possible and desirable.” But what a film like L’eclisse communicates to this day is a prevailing, if evolved, existential angst, and it’s from this particular Antonioni masterwork that a profoundly impressive futility emerges. Ever beautiful, even as the world breaks away and falls apart, the resonant void is manifest in a way that is sedate, cryptic, disturbing, and expressively stirring.