La Notte (1961)
Written by Michelangelo Antonioni, Ennio Flaiano, and Tonino Guerra
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
You often hear a cacophony of right-wing voices decrying “modernity,” speaking to disaffected & disillusioned people about how this abstract concept is wearing away at their “simple” lives. What even is modernity? It can mean a myriad of things, but in each definition, it is always a rejection of the current forms & systems for a new design. When these pundits speak about modernity, they do so in the context of post-industrialization. For most people alive today, they or someone older in their family can recall a time of factories of a strong working class in America. Today, America doesn’t produce anything tangible. We’re dumping it all into crypto & NFTs or tearing a box of unopened Pokemon cards away from a child because this will be the investment that gets me out of the hole, right? We’re selling ourselves as a brand, streaming 24/7 because fame will be what gets me out of debt, right? We’re going above & beyond what the boss asked because if he sees me putting my soul through the office paper shredder, it will help me have enough money to not feel like dying every morning when I open my eyes to go through all of this again, right? The right-wingers are correct that modernity is a problem, but they certainly offer you zero solutions other than to give them what little money you have for things you don’t need. That is also modernity. Modernity may have done away with the old gods, but in its place, it just offers some plastic ones made in a sweatshop by children whose hands have been gnarled by their labor.
Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni) is a very important man. He’s a distinguished writer. He has a gorgeous wife, Lidia (Jeanne Moreau). He has a new book that’s just been published, La stagione (The Season). He fucks almost any woman he meets if he wants to, and they throw themselves at him. But he and Lidia exist in a world of abstractions, including their marriage. They visit a dying friend in the hospital and share glasses of champagne with him. The friend can’t help but show the discomfort this luxurious drink gives him; his gut just can’t take it anymore. Lidia is profoundly moved by seeing her friend in the last days of his life. Giovanni jumps into bed with a young, mentally unwell patient while his wife weeps outside. He eventually finds her and offers her no comfort.
They go to a party celebrating the release of Giovanni’s new book. There’s a wall of them, covers facing out, his name in repetition. He signs books, and Lidia wanders away. She walks through Milan and ends up in the old neighborhood where they lived as newlyweds. Lidia glimpses a brutal street fight and some youths launching model rockets into the sky. It feels more alive than anywhere else we’ve seen her go. Finally, Lidia finds a payphone and calls Giovanni to pick her up. He does and shows absolutely no sentiment at all when reminded about this being the place where they started their lives together.
The couple goes to a nightclub but isn’t having any fun. A beautiful Black woman performs an acrobatic dance. Giovanni applauds, but you can tell he really doesn’t care. He and Lidia talk and Giovanni remarks, “I no longer have inspirations, only recollections.” Lidia is tired of the club, but where to now? Oh, another party with more affluent people. “One must do something,” Lidia tells her husband as they fetch their coats and the car to head off into this bleak night.
At the party, we start to see Giovanni light up. These must be his people. They are rich, powerful industrialists & intellectuals. Now Lidia is the bored one. People exchange insincerities, telling each other how impressed they are with an air of rancor beneath the words. Giovanni meets Valentina (Monica Vitti), the host’s daughter. He sees a potential new conquest and begins chatting her up. Valentina has invented a game to pass the time, and Giovanni plays against her. A crowd forms. After the game, when they aren’t being watched, Giovanni kisses the young woman. He doesn’t know Lidia is watching from a balcony.
Lidia calls the hospital and finds out the friend they visited that morning died ten minutes ago. It shatters her. She doesn’t tell Giovanni but instead starts flirting with another guest, dancing and giving him looks that imply there will be more to their evening. She knows death is waiting for her, just like it was her friend. Why should she not live? Lidia eventually gets in this man’s car, driving off to a secluded spot, but pulls back. She can’t cross that line; she’s still someone’s partner, and she still believes that has to mean something.
Giovanni tracks down Valentina again. She’s no dummy. She knows he’s married, and Valentina is not interested in breaking up a marriage. Giovanni tries to garner her sympathy. No dice. When he meets back up with Lidia, his annoyance is palpable. Eventually, Lidia and Valentina meet, and the wife lets the other woman know she knows. Lidia says she doesn’t care what he does. She feels like dying, living is agony, and it doesn’t seem like it will ever stop. ‘Til death do us part. With this man? Doesn’t sound like too good of a deal.
The couple is reunited in the early morning dawn. They walk across a golf course. Giovanni tells her about a job offer the host gave him to head up his company’s PR department and write copy to be used internally to keep the employees working hard for their boss. Giovanni says he’s not going to take it. Lidia finally tells her husband about their friend’s death, reminding him that this friend was always so encouraging of her studies & passions before she got married. But she chose Giovanni in the end because she truly did love him. She does not anymore, and that’s why she wants to die. All Giovanni knows is Lidia and says, “Let’s try to hold onto something we’re sure of. I love you. I’m sure I’m still in love with you.” Lidia reveals that she carries a love letter from early in their courtship and reads it out loud to her husband. He proceeds to rape his wife. The camera pans away; the sky is gray, and it’s another day in this place.
What does it mean to love someone? Think about it today in the context of the contemporary American experience. What does love look like? There are many people genuinely in love. A lot of people use the word but don’t know the first thing about it. Were my parents ever in love? They are divorced now. I learned as an adult that when my father asked my mother to marry him, she said no. Then he said he would kill himself, and she said yes. Is that love? I wouldn’t be here if that marriage didn’t happen. Was I born out of love? I can’t say that I was. Yet, my heart is full of love, and I love the people in my life that are closest to me with an unyielding fire.
In La Notte, we never get to see when Giovanni & Lidia loved each other. It exists as one of those recollections. Their present is undoubtedly lacking in inspiration. Can you imagine their future? Because they cannot. The audience only has this passive, meandering present. People just exist without any drive beyond getting off & getting drunk. These people have all the time they could ever want to party & lounge around. The goals they pursue leave them unfulfilled, and part of them knows everything they do adds up to a whole lot of nothing. Life is scary for them, to embrace it, so they lay about.
Your screens are full of Giovannis & Lidias every goddamn day. Have you seen the news about the affair on Good Morning America? Juicy! What is Charlie D’Amelio up to now? Spicy? Did you catch Kanye West metaphorically blowing his brains out on a live stream? Boffo ratings! These rich, narcissistic idiots aren’t content being miserable in their private lives; they want you to wallow in the shit with them. O.J. Simpson murdered his ex-wife, and they made that into a personality trait for all of us to obsess over in one form or another for the rest of America’s existence. There’s always a scandal where two people should be either parting ways or going to someone for help in private. So why do we need to hear about it?
You know what? Lidia wasn’t wrong. The only thing she ever thought she loved was gone, and it didn’t look like it would happen to her again. She should want to end things. No, actually, Giovanni should wish to die. Lidia could still see life in the world as she wandered the streets of Milan. Giovanni was genuinely dead, his hand gripping his poor wife’s ankle and trying to drag her down. These sad husks. Given everything we’re told, we are meant to want and left with nothing, just each other in abject misery. Antonioni feels pity for them. He envies the peasant children he grew up playing with on his family’s estate. Those kids lived life. Antonioni’s peers did not. They became the Italian Fascists. We all know what happened to Mussolini and his kin, right? Fascism never has a happy ending for the victims or the perpetrators. The United States is not in the process of becoming fascist; it is already there and has been for a long time. They won’t wear swastikas anymore. The ones who do are just reactionary cosplayers. Today’s fascists wear the latest fashions. They are the only ones who can afford to anyway. And don’t they look so happy?