Tuesday, June 30, 2009

DVD Views: L'Eclisse (1962)

L’Eclisse (1962) ****
Directed By: Michelangelo Antonioni.
Written By: Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra.
Starring: Monica Vitti (Vittoria), Alain Delon (Piero), Francisco Rabal (Riccardo), Lilla Brignone (Vittoria’s mother).

I was going to start out this review by saying that they don’t make movies like L’Eclisse anymore, but the honest truth is that they never did make very many movies like L’Eclisse at any time. For a few years in the early 1960s, filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Bunuel, Alain Resnais and Federico Fellini among others seemed to be pushing each other in their explorations of the modern world, and its effects of humanity and sexuality. But most of these filmmakers – with the exception of Godard, who and let the cinema Gods forgive me for saying this, whose provocations have simply become more juvenile over the last 40 or 50 years – either matured into another style, or else said all they needed to say in their first few films on the subject. Watching L’Eclisse you can already see that maturation in Antonioni, whose film differs highly from his 1960 masterpiece L’Aventurra, although they share similar thematic elements.

L’Aventurra was about the idle rich, who waste their hollow, empty existence away going on fancy trips, staying in fancy hotels and fucking, because all they have is time and money, and nothing to do with either one. When one of their friends goes missing on a deserted island, her lover and best friend start to search for her – first on the island, then all over Italy. Their search is half hearted – they do not expect to find her, and they don’t much care either. They have started sleeping together themselves, because, well, what else is there for them to do? In that film, capitalism and Eros were diseases that affected the upper classes, who looked down on those beneath them. The male lead once had dreams of being a great architect, but that would require work and ambition, so now he punishes those who have either of those things. The movie ends without a resolution to its central mystery, because it doesn’t need one. The missing girl was never the point in the first place.

But L’Eclisse takes a gentler view of many of these things. Sure the lovers at the center of this movie are still rich – but at least they have jobs this time that they use to support themselves – she as a translator and he as a stockbroker. If capitalism is still a corrupt institution, Antonioni still finds a strange beauty and fascinating in the workings of the stock market, which is why he spends so much time there, watching fortunes made and lost in the blink of an eye. And if Eros is still an illness, at least the couple is not fucking simply to fill the void in their lives, but because there is a genuine erotic attraction between them. The performances by Monica Vitti and Alain Delon in the main roles seem more human, and real here than in any of Antonioni’s other films. They are not just symbols for the corruption of the world, but flesh and blood people with needs and desires. The modern world still may be hollow and empty, but at least it’s not quite so depressing.

But the film shares some things in common with its predecessor as well. Landscapes seem to be displacing the characters in the movie. The setting and the surroundings of the characters seem to be more for grounded here, dwarfing the characters. When by the end of the film, the two lovers fail to meet at their favorite spot, Antonioni doesn’t simply end the film here, but continues for seven minutes, showing us the places that they have been, and we feel their physical absence. The modern world has encroached on them, and in a sense has made them irrelevant.

Even if a film like L’Eclisse was possible today, it is hard to imagine a filmmaker capable of pulling a film like this off. While standards have loosened, making it possible to show more sexuality in film than ever before, filmmakers has become less ambitious in their exploration of it. The films by Catherine Briellent are a perfect example. She fills her films with nudity and sex – some simulated, some real – but she really does not take it all that seriously. In her films, sex is reduced to simple friction and fluids, devoid of any real meaning or insight into what it all means.

I realize now that as I end this review, I didn’t actually talk all that much about the film itself, or what it is like to watch it. That’s because the effect of a film like L’Eclisse is pretty much impossible to put into words that mean anything. I’m sure most modern audiences would complain that the film is either pretentious, or worse yet that “nothing happens” in it. It is certainly true that the entire “story” of the movie seems to be a narrative drift. And yet to say that nothing happens is to simply be guilty of not paying attention. Everything happens in L’Eclisse in scenes where seemingly nothing does. Antonioni’s control of the medium is complete – his gorgeous, deep focus black and white imagery has a hypnotic power to them if you can allow yourself to give into them. L’Eclisse is not a film for modern audiences because it requires that you pay attention, and think for yourselves. It does not spoon feed you everything you need to know about it, but trusts the audience to be intelligent to get understand.

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