By ISABEL QUIGLY In L'Avventura he found it among far more obvious specimens of the idle rich: people on a summer cruise, who might be expected to show the fashionable symptoms of idleness. In La Notre he takes a different milieu: Giovanni, the film's main character, is a writer and not too idle a one, though he has his wife's money to cushion him; and the difference between his world as an intellectual (Italians don't put the word in quotation marks as we do) and that of the really rich, the playboy-industrial world, is constantly stressed. In a country where the rich are expected to be determinedly frivolous, where it isn't a joke for women to spend the day play- ing canasta, intellectuals are bound to gather up their skirts and become cliquish: to us they look woefully self-conscious.
Antonioni, though dangerously fashionable these days, puts people's backs up. L'Avventura was first shown in a small riot of yells, groans and general protest; La Notte, the first time I saw it, had people fairly writhing about in their seats and giggling whenever there was half a chance to let off steam. It is not like the out- burst that greeted La Dolce Vita: sheer out- rage at something obviously and intentionally shocking. Yet the sense of outrage is there, even if dimly acknowledged: people say they were so bored or so irritated when perhaps they feel outrage at the implications of Antonioni's ex- treme and uncompromising pessimism, and (rather nearer the surface) outrage at the style itself, the way it makes no concessions, never prods, relents, goes soft or even reassuringly dull. All the time we are being disconcerted, stylistically and psychologically. Antonioni's ob- session with the idea of spiritual isolation, allied to a characteristic form of Italian gloom so fundamental that nothing can ever modify it, is too uncompromising to be taken easily. He offers none of the familiar escapes, no outlet of sentiment or hope, and the impressively bare, cold and yet everlastingly inventive style is the perfect filter for his chilling and rigorous atti- tudes. By comparison Bergman looks whimsi- cal, his gloom lit by mitigating moments of lyricism, woods in spring and the rest of it. La Notte is as uncompromisingly urban, present, immediate and unlyrical as Milan, where it takes place. It is surrounded only by the arte- facts of modern life and the meticulous perfec- tion of an intellectual waste land.
In form La Notte is very much like a kind of Italian fiction in vogue at the moment. Novelists (all rather depressingly like Giovanni, in social attitudes and the furniture of their flats) take a section of society, usually like this one—intellec- tuals on the fringes of the worldly—and watch it in characteristic action and conversation for a few hours or days. But this does not make Antonioni literary, in the usual derogatory sense of the word. He is the most fundamentally plastic of artists: in spite of his lengthy dia- logue in La Notte (he is co-scriptwriter with Ennio Flaiano and Toni Guerra), everything he has to say is said in movement and visual con- trast and suggestion. His imagery loves the oblique and allusive, the circuitous and cumu- lative—the atmospheric light, building, street, split-second, sound or lack of it (mostly, lack of it).
What happens during the two hours of this film, which covers about eighteen or twenty hours in the lives of Giovanni and his wife Lidia? The pair begin at the deathbed of a friend, go on to a publisher's party to celebrate the publication of Giovanni's new book, from which Lidia escapes to spend the afternoon rambling about in apparently haphazard pur- suits. In the evening they visit a night-club. After that they go on to a millionaire industrialist's elaborate party, where Giovanni is offered a job by the millionaire and discovers that a beautiful girl he has been attracted to is the millionaire's daughter, and Lidia takes a car ride with a man she meets, but, finding herself unable to let him make love to her, returns. At dawn, the pair walk out of the garden and talk of their rela- tionship. The film ends with Giovanni trying to make love to Lidia on the grass.
All this, of course, is only a framework for the deeper action, the discovery of what is going on in those two whose love has slowly and almost imperceptibly been waning (if it ever really existed) for a long time. The dying friend is a man who loved Lidia with perfect unselfish- ness, while she loved only Giovanni, a supreme though unconscious egoist. Nothing is actually described or analysed, but relationships mount, the past is filled in, the future looms appallingly, we come to know; intimately and almost horrifi- cally, those two lost, isolated souls who arouse a sort of despairing pity but little sympathy or affection. The action is sustained at a balletic pitch of exactness, the control is perfect, the tension superb and the actors so much in the hands of Antonioni that they can hardly be judged as giving performances—they seem like an extension of his will and attitudes, though they behave quite casually, without histrionics.
In La Notte Antonioni has turned up another masterly piece of film-making in which people are scraped down to the bones of what they are, and so is the society they live in: a writer who has reached a state of literary impotence in a sterile environment, and a woman whose less sympathetic exterior and temperament seem to cover a better, more redeemable nature; child- less and rootless in a world of terrifying frivolity, in which adults play childishly with sex and power and success, and 'fail to love or live like human beings: lost within the beautiful bare white walls of their life, like those of the hos- pital which, their dying friend remarks, is so hatefully luxurious. Soon hospitals, he tells them, will be made to look like night-clubs, so that up to the very last moment the desperate life can go on. Antonioni has had the courage of his own bleakness: without squalor and with a kind of livid, almost lurid, brilliance, he shows us a world of despair.