Total Eclipse of the Heart

L’EclisseIn the next few days I expect — or at least I hope — we’ll see a lot of thoughtful remembrances of the life and work of the great Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, who died on Monday at the age of ninety-four. Here’s the Times obituary and critic Stephen Holden’s insightful appraisal, plus an article at Slate that tackles this great loss from the doubly unfortunate angle of having also lost Ingmar Bergman the same day. What a tragic day for film.

These and other articles will give you a much more well-rounded idea of Antonioni’s career and impact than I ever could. Still, I want to add one thing: his 1962 masterwork “L’Eclisse” is among my favorite movies of all time. Few more elegant, exquisitely crafted or beautifully populated essays on alienation have ever been committed to film.

Two’s Company

As the last entry in Antonioni’s groundbreaking trilogy about personal isolation against a modern landscape (“L’Avventura ” and “La Notte” immediately preceded it) “L’Eclisse” is, for me, the most perfectly realized expression of the director’s ideas. Like those films, this exploration of postwar Italy’s alienating evolution dispenses with most pretensions of a plot, opting instead to expend much of its energies lingering over the the gorgeous, troubled face of the incomparable Monica Vitti. There are far, far worse ways of spending your time at the cinema.

Above: Surface to air. Monica Vitti and Alain Delon gloriously fail to connect.

Here, though, Vitti is ingeniously paired with the French film idol Alain Delon. With his blank and mercenary handsomeness, Delon is an ideal counterpart for Vitti’s searching, aristocratic elegance. The two while away the movie’s hundred and twenty-five minutes with vague, clumsy attempts at creating the barest of meaningful connections with one another. It’s a sometimes funny and often sad dance of circumspection and muted intentions.

Still, “L’Eclisse” is more than just a document of two beautiful people who can᾿t get it on, even as delicately rendered as that pained courtship is. The movie’s closing moments hover disconsolately over several of the outdoor locations visited by its main characters in earlier acts. Except now, in the closing moments of their almost epically pointless journey, the locales are spookily devoid of people, almost abruptly abandoned. A heavy music plays over the images, and unexpectedly turns the whole endeavor into a kind of horror story about disconnected souls. Very little happens in these final frames, and yet they’re amongst the scariest moments of film I’ve ever seen.

  1. I was also saddened by the loss of Bergman, one of my favorite filmmakers. Had not heard about Antonioni until reading your post, though. I’ve only ever seen “Blowup,” but now I feel the need to check out more. I’ll put “L’Eclisse” at the top of the list. Thanks for the recommend.


  2. Antonioni and Bergman lived full lives and had long careers for which we should be grateful. Ironically, each had a very stark vision of human existence, one that is very out of fashion today, to our detriment.

    I love all of Antonioni’s black and white films. La Notte was my least favorite but has, after additional viewing, grown on me. The mushroom cloud outside the protagonist’s apartment is sheer genius. L’Eclisse was the end of Antonioni’s B&W career and you can see why, after making it, he switched to color.

    If you haven’t seen Antonioni’s earlier film Il Grido, I highly recommend it.

    A word on Bergman: Shame is maybe the darkest film I’ve ever seen, not in a cheap way mind you but in the way that cuts you to the quick. Some films you forget five minutes after you’ve seen them; others haunt you for the rest of your life.

    Persona, from the same period, is also wonderful and its opening sequence is perhaps the best bit of experimental filmmaking ever created.

  3. David: I saw “Il Grido” and you’re right, it’s really terrific. It’s so interesting as a bridge between neo-realism and Antonioni’s own modernist cinema. Something did change when he went to color, for sure, but “Red Desert” and “The Passenger” are no less indelible than his black and white trilogy, in my opinion.

    As an aside, it’s actually regrettably inconvenient to see the full spectrum of his work on DVD. This really useful round-up from the Times will be enormously helpful to anyone trying to see them all.

  4. Khoi: I love all of Antonioni (except maybe Identification of a Woman). Il Grido hardly ever gets mentioned when his work is discussed, so I felt obliged to plug it. I saw a print of Red Desert some years ago and it remains one of my most memorable film experiences. In the transition to color, Antonioni certainly didn’t take any half steps.

    Thanks for the link. I’d love to see Antonioni’s docs. Also, I didn’t realize that Zabriskie Point and Identification of a Woman were unavailable. I saw both, the first on VHS years ago and the other from a local indie rental place that had a copy (I wonder if they still do).

    The Passenger is a strange case: The recent dvd release is very different from the vhs copy I remember watching years ago, and I can’t help but be curious about the history behind it.

    Anyway, its sad how much material is still unavailable on DVD. Rossellini’s catalog, for example, is almost non-existent. I’ve been watching Hal Ashby recently and his early 80’s films are also unavailable. He made so few that I’d like to see them, even if they are inferior to his work from the 70’s (a long list goes there). And the list goes on….

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