Sunday, November 17, 2013

Making Out With Pan

There's this moment in Michelangelo Antonioni's LA NOTTE (recently out on Bluray) where a woman attending a lavish, la dolce vita fete gets carried away in the middle of a downpour and starts making out with a statue of Pan. [You're going to have to take my word for it (or, better yet, see the film; it's a good one) because I lack the technical sophistication to pull a frame from a Bluray.] I bring it up because it's a nice little moment. An obvious one, perhaps -- the wealthy debaucheress paying tribute to the god of wild abandon -- but still a hint at what Antonioni's up to in the film.

Actually, suggesting he's "up to" anything might be too fine a point to put on LA NOTTE. I don't mean to suggest it's a message film of any sort. It is, of course, the middle piece in what is regarded a trilogy - with L'AVVENTURA and L'ECLISSE playing the first and third part. The New York Times' Stephen Holden refers to it as a "trilogy on modernity and its discontents." Of course, there's not much beyond exegetical convenience (and Monica Vitti) binding the three films. Certainly, Antonioni's style and themes remain consistent throughout them but it's not like he finished L'ECLISSE  and said "okay, now for the fun stuff!" and made a bunch of CARRY ON... films after his ADVENTURE/NIGHT/ECLIPSE cycle. The alienating force of modernity (and those discontented with it) are all there in RED DESERT, BLOW-UP, ZABRISKIE POINT, and THE PASSENGER, too.

LA NOTTE follows a Milanese married couple (played by Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau) through a 24-hour period. He's an author in what one character describes as "the anteroom to fame", having just published a new novel that has all the Right People buzzing. She is his steadfast wife. Neither seems particularly happy with the marriage, but the film lacks any sort of VIRGINIA WOOLF knock-down, drag-out. Indeed, when Mastroianni confesses his brief indiscretion with a nymphomaniac in a sanitarium, Moreau is dismissive and too forgiving. She doesn't want to punish him, preferring to simmer in... well, not quite resentment so much as disappointment.

The nympho scene happens near the beginning of the film, just after the couple has visited a friend dying of cancer who, in his terminal lucidity, begins cataloging his life's regrets. These are not even necessarily germane to what follows but then every moment is kind of its own point in a movie like this; nothing is telegraphed or diverted through convenient ideological, message-bearing sluices into the cozy confines of the viewer's self-congratulation.

The couple is soon on their way to a book signing, snaggled up in urban gridlock (modernity!) like something out of a somber version of a Tati film. Upon arriving at the book signing, Moreau checks out and begins a slow wander through the streets of Milan. This is the film's best section, playing both to Moreau's strengths as an actress and Antonioni's most effortlessly stunning formal maneuvering. During her nearly silent trek, Moreau's face registers a broad spectrum of deep-set emotions -- recalling John Ford's legendary dictum that "the most interesting and exciting thing in the world (to film is) the human face." Moreau is the film's solid center and her walk brings us into her head -- a place we'll stay for the remainder of LA NOTTE. We later discover that she's taking a nostalgic trip to the couple's old neighborhood, perhaps in an effort to figure out what it was that brought her to marry Mastroianni in the first place (again, this is never overtly suggested; Antonioni allows plenty of room for your imagination to roam).

After Moreau's interlude, the rest of the film takes place at the aforementioned party. A captain of industry has specifically invited Mastroianni in the hopes of wooing him into some quasi-creative position within the firm ("every millionaire wants his own intellectual," Moreau remarks). Temptation abounds at the party; Mastroianni is taken by the tycoon's sultry daughter (Vitti) while Moreau is whisked away during the downpour by a tall dark handsome stranger.

Which brings me back to the woman and the statue; the symbol of cold-as-marble, joyless merry-making. Despite Holden's assertion, the quiet desperation or discontent or whatever that infuses the couple's world is as old as Pan himself. Again, I don't see Antonioni aiming for a particular capital-P Point here, but the most obviously universal one is the classic Faustian bargain: "what profit it a man to gain the world and lose his soul?" It's not explicit, but that's the point; you chip away at your integrity -- your marriage, your happiness -- one little shaving at a time.

"Ennui" is a word this type of film gets rubber-stamped with. But this isn't an exploration of boredom so much as some sincere pain. Moreau and Mastroianni play this pain through every scene; she tries to put a brave face on it, he mixes it with a sort of puppy's anxiety to please; the artist on the cusp of becoming an Artist. Again, Antonioni never rubs it in our face. As a character says to Mastroianni at one point, "observing things is enough, no need to write them down."

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