The following is an essay on the three films in Michelangelo Antonioni’s alienation trilogy, la notte, l’avventura and l’eclipse and might be better appreciated alongside a viewing of at least one of them.
For even though we know that the ancient codes of morality are decrepit and no longer tenable, we persist, with a sense of perversity that I would only ironically define as pathetic, in remaining loyal to them.
In his opening statement
at the 1960Cannes Film Festival
, Antonioni clearly defined one the major underlying themes of the alienation
trilogy. The trilogy consisting of l’eclipse
, la notte
, shows a series of strange and paradoxical relationships
, both unhealthy and incomprehensible
. Very little occurs in terms of dramatic plot in these films, but that is because they are concerned with the state of the relationship in the 1960’s. Antonioni presents an existential
portrait of couplehood
. On an emotional level the films are crowded with meaning and significance
, so much so that hundreds of essays and discussions have ensued over them.
In the alienation trilogy, as in many of his previous and later films, Antonioni was concerned with “capturing moments of psychological crisis rather than with telling a story.” In the three films mentioned above especially, he concentrates on man’s inability to come to terms with himself and the fallacies of modern day relationships. Most of the films’ narrative takes place in the comparison of the internal (emotional) struggle to the external. The psychological and emotional crises that occur between two people are intangible and dedramatized and are seemingly without a comprehensible plot. As Antonioni explains it, “The characters in the film (l’avventura) live an emotional adventure—it involves the death and birth of love.” It is only in analyzing each of these film’s emotional content that we can come to any concrete conclusions.
Although each of the films concentrates on different aspects and types of relationships there are many similarities. Antonioni’s portrayal of men and women in each of the films is fairly continuous. The female characters are generally faithful to their partners, whereas the male characters tend towards infidelity. Also the burden of maintaining the relationship, rather than being a mutual effort, seems to fall more heavily on the women. Finally, the role that sex plays in a relationship is very different from the male and female perspectives. Even though these aspects differentiate the genders, both male and female protagonists face many similar problems. Both are equally alienated from one another, as well as from reaching, or being able or willing to reach, any truths about themselves. The channels of communication are occluded at both ends, and each partner suffers from an inability or want to understand the other.
The female protagonists in the alienation trilogy are generally the more responsible. Even when given the opportunity, and indeed the motive, to cheat on their partners, they remain faithful. Lidia in la notte witnesses her husband with another women and to spite her husband for this and, as we come to understand, a series of infidelities, allows herself to be whisked away by the debonair Roberto. For the first and only time in the movie we see her laughing and relaxed, but when Roberto stops the car and makes advances at her, she backs away and says “I can’t. I’m sorry.” Unlike her husband, Giovanni, she does not choose this escape route and remains faithful to her marriage. The very next scene opens with Valentina saying “I’m not one to ruin a household.” Valentina is likewise tied to the same rules of conduct. She initially enjoys her flirtations with Giovanni, but when she realizes that he is married, she becomes more reserved. Although she is disappointed, she tells him to return to his wife and spend the rest of the night with her, in this way adhering to the “ancient codes of morality” about which Antonioni speaks in his Cannes statement. Women are less willing to compromise these rules and are more perceptive about the possible consequences of their actions.
In l’avventura there is similar situation. After the disappearance of Anna, Sandro has no qualms about immediately starting a relationship with his disappeared girlfriend’s best friend. Claudia, like Valentina, initially remains faithful to her friend and is less willing to compromise her memory. She finds it more difficult to overcome her guilt and unlike Sandro, needs more time to come to terms with Anna’s disappearance. It is only after a length of time has passed that she is able to take her place and become the next woman in Sandro’s life. The only female character that engages in relations outside of her current relationship is Giulia in l’avventura, but her reasons are different than Sandro’s or Giovanni’s. Throughout the film, we see that Giulia’s marriage is far from an ideal one. She seeks out the affections of a young painter and openly pursues him. When she begins her liaison with Goffredo, she instructs Claudia to tell her husband where she is: “And tell Corrado, too, that I’m here..if he wants me.. You can also tell him that my tiny little heart is beating like mad, and that at this moment, it’s the only thing that interests me.” It is clear that her intentions in this affair are not self-fulfillment or escape, but revenge. She hopes that in her infidelity her husband might once again take notice of her.
The male protagonists are more inclined towards extra-marital relations for self serving reasons. Women are almost objectified and utilized as a method of escape from the self. The male protagonist, whether married or not, is more prone to move from partner to partner. Piero, in l’eclipse, Giovanni in la notte and Sandro in l’avventura, each move from one relationship to the next almost effortlessly. They are less sensitive to the emotional entanglements and guilt that comes with this rapid procession of women. They also throw themselves more fully into relationships than the female protagonist, with whom they become involved. It appears as though relationships are more of a necessity for the male characters than for the female ones, but it is the women that become more seriously involved. At the end of l’eclipse we see Vittoria and Piero separately after their final meeting. They are both aware that they will not see one another again, but Piero does not seem as affected. He returns to his desk and sits “as though in a fog—his eyes are closed and faint smile upon his lips,” as if Vittoria was simply another conquest.
In la notte we see a man who is easily falls in love with many women. Although we only see Giovanni with the woman in the hospital and Valentina, his wife makes it clear at the opening of the film that she is already aware of his infidelous heart and we quickly recognize his flirtatious nature when we see him at the party. He does not realize how he has hurt his wife until the end of the film when he says, “I never really gave you anything. I was never aware of it, even.” It is an interesting to observe that while Lidia is unable to break her marriage vows even once, already realizing the full implications of this act, it takes Giovanni many such transgressions to come to the same conclusion.
In l’avventura, we see a similar situation. Although Sandro and Claudia are not married, they have already validified their feelings for one another as mutual. Sandro however continues his pursuit of other women even though he has made a commitment. He has no reason to, apparently already in a fulfilling partnership. It is only after he is caught with Gloria Perkins that he realizes the full implications of what he done and how he has failed Claudia and himself. He is confronted by a shattered Claudia, who perhaps understands better than he does, the reason behind his actions. She pities him as he sobs, locked in confusion and guilt. The male characters are more derailed than the female ones. They seek solace in a multitude of women rather than unity with an individual. Or is perhaps a monogamous commitment against inherent male nature?
The relationships in the alienation trilogy also contain another interesting similar element: a third person. In l’avventura, Sandro and Claudia’s relationship is encumbered by the missing Anna. Valentina, certainly like many women before her, is an intruding element in the marriage of Lidia and Giovanni. And although not directly involved, Riccardo indirectly affects the relations between Piero and Vittoria. Although it would seem that a relationship mainly hinges on two people, in the trilogy, Antonioni proves that this is not necessarily true. In l’eclipse, we see Vittoria involved in two relationships, both which end similarly. Vittoria does not know why she is or is not in love with her partner, it is simply a state that she happens to find herself in. It is also possible that her relationship with Riccardo has made her somewhat reserved with Piero because she is unwilling or afraid to become as deeply involved. Riccardo is clearly still fully and madly in love with Vittoria and this is something which she is unable to comprehend. She even appears to be afraid of him and perhaps, his emotional depth.
In la notte it is obvious that the marriage of Lidia and Giovanni is not limited to the two of them. Lidia is not surprised nor moved to jealousy when her husband tells her about his erotic encounter with the woman in the hospital. Indeed, she accepts it as an ordinary piece of news and says sarcastically, “I suppose this is the first time you betrayed me?” Giovanni, rather than admitting to what his wife is already fully aware of continues to play the fool, willing to admit nothing. We become more aware of Giovanni’s non-chalant attitude towards his marriage in the his later scenes with his wife and with Valentina. When he is with his wife, he almost completely ignores her and her presence seems a nuisance to him, until he is faced with losing her. He has no qualms about getting involved with Valentina, the young daughter of his soon to be millionaire patron. She becomes the so called “third-wheel”, but Lidia does not react in the expected way. She even admits to Valentina that she feels no jealousy towards her as we would expect. She is so far removed from her husband and so accustomed to women like Valentina in her husband’s life, that she is not longer affected. She is cold and like every other character is filled with an emotional void. She too is confronted with the “ancient codes of morality” that Giovanni has already abandoned. The question that remains for all of the characters, the viewer and the critic, is where is the new definition of morality to come from? The characters in la notte, l’avventura and l’eclipse do not reach any conclusions and only demonstrate the dissatisfaction and confusion that springs from the observance of the old rules.
In general, the female protagonists in the alienation trilogy are more perceptive and aware. Lidia has already come to terms with the disillusion of her marriage long before Giovanni. She no longer loves him and throughout the film Giovanni demonstrates how far removed he is from his wife. At the conclusion of the film, Lidia reads a beautiful passage describing the love a man feels for his sleeping wife. Lidia carries it around with her, but her husband does not even remember having written it let alone the emotions that the passage describes. The truth is finally reveled to Giovanni, but unlike Lidia he is unable to accept it, he fights the truth and he attacks his wife, desperately trying to regain her love.
The violence of Giovanni’s act recalls the violence of Sandro’s remark to Anna in l’avventura, before she disappears on Lisa Biance, ‘And didn’t you feel me the night before?’ and also in Il desorto rosso, Corrado’s inability to up to caress the intensity of feelings of Giuliana who can touch things with her hair, her eyes, with all the surfaces of her body, where he can only tear, push, strip, take, anxiously seeking to posses something which necessarily eludes him.
The male protagonists are more prone towards violent action. They are less aware of the delicate and intricate balances that abound in a relationship, whereas the women in Antonioni’s films are more sensitive and honest. Also the male protagonists stick out from their surroundings more than their female counterparts. Whereas the women are more apt to touch and feel objects, and caress their surroundings, the men generally appear unconfortable, unobservant and out of place.
Another aspect that differs between the genders is the utilization of sex for different reasons. The male characters seek an escape from the world though sex, whereas for women the act entails more emotional significance. In l’avventura, Sandro uses sex as an escape route from his frustration and more importantly from himself. After the scene in which he maliciously ruins the sketch of a young student of architecture, he returns to the hotel and forces himself on Claudia. He tries to take his resentment out on her through the act of making love. He is frustrated with himself for loosing sight of his own architectural interests and in selling out for the sake of security and wealth. Rather than attempting to come to terms with his own failure he attempts to annihilate his anguish in the arms of Claudia. In the same way, Giovanni tries to reverse and ignore his failure in his marriage by forcing himself on Lidia. For both men, as well as for Piero who several times makes advances at Vittoria, the sexual arena is one in which they feel they still have complete control.
In each of these three main relationships, and the ones between the minor characters, it is clear that both men and women are equally alienated from one another. The channels of communication are blocked from both ends and tainted by dishonesty. It seems as though all of the characters become involved with one another not necessarily to satisfy each others emotional needs, but to escape solitude. In l’eclipse, the relationship of Piero and Vittoria is almost absurd. They have little in common and their relationship seems wholly based on sexual attraction. Their gravitation towards one another has no emotional basis and the time they spend with each other is futile. The relationship dissipates as quickly as it started, and Antonioni ends the film with a seven minute collage of images that appear empty, desolate and meaningless. These images are only linked to one another in respect to the couple and their memories. Since they are no longer together, these images loose their only unifying link. Similarly, Vittoria and Piero loose something in the desolution of their relationship. The world no longer has as much meaning and both are left with a certain emotional void. Rather than finding in one another something to fill that void, they have instead made it all the more insurmountable.
From Vittoria’s perspective, the relationship is another effort at self fulfillment. l’eclipse opens with her breakup with Riccardo. She tells him that she no longer loves him and can not recall when or why she stopped loving him. The character of Vittoria best personifies the internal maladies that all the characters in this trilogy suffer from. The most prominent is a feeling of absence; an absence of emotion and of feeling. Vittoria often says “I don’t know,” whether in response to serious or unimportant questions. Unlike many of the other characters she is able to admit the emptiness that afflicts her and although she cannot understand it, she does not hide from it.
The characters in l’avventura are affected by the same indifference.
The discord between lovers, the impossibility of communicating or even of staying together, which Anna and Sandro as well as Sandro and Claudia have to contend with, does not stem from a specific misunderstanding: it is the consequence of a more general malaise whose reflection they find both around them and inside themselves
The characters are distanced from one another because they are likewise unable to come to a clear understanding of their own needs and wants. This lack of understanding leads to resentment and breeds further discontent. Pavese wrote, “He who cannot save himself, cannot be saved by anyone,” and this is certainly true of the all the characters in the alienation trilogy.
Antonioni’s alienation trilogy abounds with dissatisfied, lost and confused characters. They attempt to escape the void that fills them through involvement with other equally confounded characters. Antonioni’s main focus in these three films is not so much the individual as the individual in relation to another individual. All the protagonists are weak, lacking in direction and initiative. What hope can any of them have to finding salvation in one another if each person is as inadequately satisfied with themselves and life as the next? And where is the definition of a new code of morality to spring from? Antonioni does not give any answers. The people in his films are as confused at the end of his films as they are throughout.
For Antonioni, the partnership of two people is not meant to exist as an escape “the adventure does not lead to liberation; each moment of the film (l’avventura) is above all a meditation on the need for understanding” There is a very apparent lack of understanding between people in all the films of the alienation trilogy. This stems partly from the general malaise of society at the time, as well as the individual’s emotional emptiness and dissatisfaction. As Simon O. Lesser dishearteningly puts it:
It (the erotic life of modern man) is doomed from the start: doomed because sexual fulfillment is often unsatisfactory and guilt-ridden; doomed because sex is used, wrongly, as solace for frustrations and defeat, as an anodyne for the soul-sickness which afflicts us because of our own compromises. Eternal restlessness and frustration are the inescapable conditions of our erotic life.
Antonioni points out many of the problems that he felt hindered the relationship and the individual in the 1960’s. However, the themes of the trilogy as still applicable to modern day society. With the maturation of “generation X” into the marriageable age, the questions and fallacies presented by la notte, l’avventura and l’eclipse, are as valid today as they were thirty years ago. It does not seem that the current generations are any more satisfied or fulfilled then the ones in Antonioni’s time. And hence these films and their underlying messages and social commentary are perhaps timeless.
Sources: Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance
l’avventura, Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier
From screenplay for l’eclipse, by Michalangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini and Ottiero Ottieri
l’avventura: Antonioni Closer Look, Simon O. Lesser, from the Yale Review.