Last week, thanks to the Criterion Collection and Netflix, I finally watched a movie I'd wanted to see for some time, Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclisse (1962). The third film in his revolutionary early 1960s trilogy that began with the remarkable L'Avventura (1960) and La Notte (1961), L'Eclisse (The Eclipse) sparked commentary at the time of its premiere primarily for its ending, which--I won't reveal it, see it!--breaks the chief conventions of filmmaking up to the moment it was made (and few mainstream films would dare try such a thing now).
Truthfully, the rest of the film breaks rules left and right too. Its pace is glacial; it has no plot whatsoever and just meanders; it begins at what is really an endpoint and ends...well, I already went there; it basically has no single, guiding theme (there is the symbolic resonance of the title, and the larger theme of social alienation); its main characters aren't really likeable personalities (though they are extremely attractive); it has almost no soundtrack beyond dialogue, natural and ambient sounds; it lingers on moments that in other films would appear at the very least strange; and it contains a scene that some viewers might find offensive (because of its treatment of racism; it surprised me, but I have to admit I've seen far worse in other films I enjoy), and yet...I found the movie magnetic, riveting. I watched it two times in a row. Then I listened to Richard Peña's commentary, which I rarely do with DVDs. In fact, I think it is one of the most interesting movies I've seen in years, and I rank it almost equal L'Avventura, an astonishing work of art that is often considered with Blow Up (1966) to be one of Antonioni's masterpieces. I would place L'Eclisse right up there, perhaps at the very top, though I have not yet seen Red Desert (1964), which is also highly praised.
As I watched this film, I realized that I had to mature to be able to appreciate Antonioni's advanced and powerful art, which at its best both draws you utterly in as it defamiliarizes everything you're viewing. When I was younger Blow Up excited me, but I must confess, I really didn't get it. There were other directors whose oeuvre I was much fonder of (off the top of my head, Waters, Burnett, Buñuel, Bergman, Fassbinder, Welles, Cukor, Wilder, Roeg, Sembene, Scorsese, Godard, Truffaut, Lynch, Resnais, Altman, Lee, Schlesinger, Gunn, Russell, Wiseman, Fellini, Renoir, Herzog, Cassavetes, Kurosawa, Ray, etc.), a list which has increasingly expanded (Dash, Tarkovsky, Wong, Cissé, Tsai, Denis, Oshima, Ozon, Parajanov, Assayas, Hou, Akerman, Varda, Leigh, Moore, Jia, Maysles, Sokurov, Solondz, Miike, Ruiz, von Trier, Kitano, Hanneke, the Dardennes, Kiarostami, Jonze, etc.). But a blind spot long remained for Antonioni, in part because the other film of his that I saw, Zabriskie Point (1970), struck me as a pretentious take on late 1960s alienation, with unappealing actors. I thought, totally overrated.
But hadn't Susan Sontag praised him as an exemplar of the new art in "Against Interpretation," as one of the paradigmatic creative figures of that era? And weren't other critics of that period, and later, always listing Antonioni as one of the major post-war filmmakers, and certainly of the stature and vision of Italy's other great contributors to world cinema, Fellini, Visconti and de Sica, let alone Bertolucci, Wertmüller and Zeffirelli? I couldn't square all this praise with the two films I saw. And then, last summer, when L'Avventura was released on DVD, I rented it from TLA Video (in NYC)...and was blown away. This, I realized, what where all the hubbub originated. A film about a young woman who disappears, that then veers off into a completely different film altogether, languorous as chilled molasses, lyric, exquisitely shot, superbly acted, a galvanic testimony to an original vision, and a landmark, I realized, in cinema. It immediately made me reformulate my estimation of Godard, one of my then avatars, who, I saw, had imported elements of Antonioni's work into his own films of the period, though his high moral seriousness, social criticism, and formal experimentation, were much more obvious, less seamless than his Italian counterpart's. Next, I watched La Notte, the least of the trio, though still quite lovely. It extended the exploration of alienation, this time to a more contained domestic and temporal frame, but Antonioni's poetic impulses were still evident....
Then, I saw or read a short blurb praising L'Eclisse, which only recently was issued on DVD, and the burst of praise sufficed to raise it in my Netflix queue. So what I can say? It represents, I think, one of the best examples of what cinematic art is and can do. Antonioni's direction of Monica Vitti, for example, in this and other films deserved an Oscar; we see her profound dissatisfaction, often only through her eyes and gaze, her facial expressions, her gestures--dissatisfaction and alienation expressed, performed, without a word being uttered, an alienation and self-distancing from the new, burgeoning, bourgeois world around her, a middle-class, capitalist and increasingly consumerist world embodied by the scenes in Rome's streets and in its Stock Market, and by the almost alien landscape of the newish suburb of Eur, with its space-ship like tower looming through the window and dominating the vista. Vitti's character appears happiest--or perhaps, just happy--when she finds an anchor of some sort, dancing to the African drumbeats (though she later quietly and ironically undercuts the harshly racist comments of the Italian ex-settler neighbor), or when chasing her neighbor's black poodle through the crepuscular nightscape, or when she is soaring high above the city, as yet another neighbor's husband transports a plane across the country to Milan (I think it's Milan); and sure enough, oh irony, when she lands and strolls over to the tiny terminal, there are two Africans sitting outside, and Vitti's character, like the camera, takes a moment to study and observe them, before passing amid this more hospitable environment, brief as the experience is).
As I said earlier, the film has no plot, and in fact doesn't really move forward, but rather sideways; it comprises a series of events that cohere into a narrative. The frame creates, the style cements, and the themes, in the sense Ricoeur has described elsewhere, constitute a plot, though not in the traditional literary or filmic sense. This lack of progression, and the ruptures and temporal leaps, of course, mirror and embody the psychology and existential trajectories of the main characters; a semiosis of their narcissism and drift is everywhere apparent. Cinematographically, scene after scene arrests the viewer's eye and consciousness, but not simply because of the dazzling use of composition and mise en scène, framing, lighting, and so on, but also because of how Antonioni manages to portray time flowing through and in the images themselves, particularly in the senses of speed and duration, the latter of which becomes especially clear at the end, when we enter a moment that seems to portray the passage of time as purely as possible, and that also steps outside of (the movie's) time frame altogether. Deleuze wrote of the "time-image," or the image that shifts between actual and virtual time, between a present experience and memory itself, and this notion is certainly exemplified here. Moreover, in terms of time I couldn't recall how long the film was, thinking it was much longer (2.5 or more hours?) than it actually was (118 minutes).
Finally, there are the characters themselves. Francisco Rabal's Riccardo, the writer Vitti's Vittoria leaves at the beginning, offers little to the viewer, in part because we see him so briefly and because we feel Vittoria's estrangement from him. There is Piero, played by an eye-catching young Alain Delon; he wants to be a financial player, a person of significance and importance, as well as a real roué, but his limitations soon dawn on us, and we, like Vittoria, find ourselves drifting away. He is great to look at (and I'm not usually into his type), but his bourgieness, his shallowness and his insistence in getting into Vitti's panties don't make for a heroism, or a counter-protagonist. The other characters--Vitti's self-absorbed mother, who loses her hat in the stock crash; the racist ex-colonialist neighbor; the married neighbor and her husband; the wealthy, fat stock investor; the stern boss of Piero's firm; the silly drunk who steals Piero's car and...--not one of these characters, in fact, captures us. In fact, they seem designed to repel, or at least leave us cold. There is, in fact, despite the summer setting, a coldness about this world, an indelible anomie. And then there is Vitti's Vittoria herself, a walking vessel of angst and detachment, whom, we imagine, may never find satisfaction, at least not if she stays in Rome and its environs. A psychological and spiritual hunger to satisfy a version of Forster's dictum, "only connect," torments her, and yet it's clear to us that what she connects to, something deeper and more profound that the material comforts her society increasingly abounds in, lies outside this society, lies only within her and simultaneously outside any interior space. I almost wanted to buy her a one-way ticket to Rabat, or Rio....
Slowly but surely, Antonioni prepares us for the ending, for which, of course, there can be no real preparation. When that "FINE" appeared, with the first strains the minor-key music, I sat there a bit stunned, and knew I had to watch it again, just as I watched L'Avventura again. And I also knew I'd have to tell friends about this film. Both movies are paramount examples of what Sontag, in her 1996 essay "The Decay of Cinema," labeled "cinema as art." With L'Eclisse, Antonioni created his second masterpiece, and perhaps his greatest film ever. It is a work that demands a great deal of its viewer, but it rewards every time you return to it, because you perceive and thus receive, something new. Sadly, films of this caliber are rarely made any more, particularly in the United States; its beauty, style and profundity eclipse most (all?) of what is turned (or churned) out by Hollywood and even indie movie studios and directors (including auteurs) today.