It's her answer for everything. Ask her what she wants out of life, and a blank look moves across her face and she whispers: I don't know. Confront her on why she is leaving you, breaking off a relationship that, until a few hours ago, seemed aligned and complete. You'll get the same, sad reply: I don't know. Question the rational behind her cold, distant manner, face seemingly frozen in a wistful resolve of enveloping ennui, and she'll try to work up the energy to sigh: I don't know. And when she's smiling, when it seems like the contentment that she's longed for has finally found a home in her heart, inquire as to whether this is the happiness she always sought, and you'll be stunned by the statement: I don't know.
Three little words that mean so much. They infer both ignorance and disregard, a lack of knowledge or a lack of caring. Most people use this innocent phrase with purity and honesty. They do not or cannot possess the answer or the idea that you are requesting of them. But for others, the expression is a sham, a means of avoiding an issue by feigning forgetfulness. If you really think about it, you'd be amazed at the number of times you yourself have thrown up this slogan-like shield to protect yourself from the prospect of taking a stand, accepting responsibility or confronting a fact. For as long as there have been people, and a language used to communicate, 'I don't know', and its craven cousins, "I'm not sure", and "don't ask me" have lied and cheated their way through millions of lives. The sad thing is however, that no matter how much pain or confusion they cause, we humans appear destined to rely on them over and over again.
For the angst ridden and alienated Vittoria, existence is nothing but a series of unanswerable riddles, queries that she doesn't understand, or is unwilling to confront head on. Instead, she longs for escape – to a place that is peaceful, to an insular world of her own conditions and construction. She couldn't find it with Riccardo, the fiancé she is leaving after several years of togetherness. And she doesn't find it with friends or family, each being tied up or lost in their own universe of individual ideals. Perhaps Piero, a charismatic stock trader holds the key to her emotional redemption. In the final facet of his informal trilogy on the absence of meaning in the modern world, Michelangelo Antonioni's L'eclisse (translation: The Eclipse) questions the quest for understanding and interpersonal connections as it discusses the soulless, almost science fiction like situation of the contemporary social order. It also tries to help Vittoria answer her initial question. One gets the feeling, however, that she won't like the response.
L'eclisse is a movie about escape. It argues for the notion of both personal and social sanctuary, a way out of the hustle and bustle of the day-to-day grind of life to seek a kind of solace and inner peace. It uses a non-linear structure, a great deal of aesthetic artifice, and a heaping helping of post-modern alienation to makes its multi-layered, frequently muddled point. While writer/director Michelangelo Antonioni is widely regarded as one of the greatest cinematic ARTISTS of all time, L'eclisse is strangely stifled in the creativity department. This is not to say that the movie is mundane, or even formulaic. Not at all. But what the filmmaker tries to force on the audience is so austere, so steeped in a kind of silent speculative fiction foundation that we too end up feeling estranged from the film itself. The characters, as well as the situations, just don't move us to caring or identification. And while a lack of place in the grand scheme of things is one of the most universal of personal musings, Antonioni doesn't want us to share in Vittoria or Piero's unease. Instead, he's making the motion picture equivalent of a mirror and asking if we see ourselves in the people he's presenting.
On occasion, the answer is a resounding "No". What movies like L'eclisse excelled in, during their time, was giving a face and a physicality to the very real feelings of cultural disconnect that people were experiencing as a result of a global sociological renaissance. At the turn of the century, there was an industrial revolution. The middle portion of the timeline was scared and shifted by the Second World War. But some 10 to 15 years later, with Europe and the rest of the planet on the mend, life suddenly stopped being so tactile. Instead, a sweeping sensation of evaporating fear, followed quickly by the newest threat of nuclear annihilation, created a kind of sub-classification of citizen. Call them spiritually shell shocked, or intellectually out of step, but soon many unaccustomed to a lack of literal hope turned inward and introverted. Such self-examination usually leads to self-awareness and self-actualization. But for some, this disarming dissatisfaction was so great that it literally paralyzed their ill-prepared psyche. As psychoanalysis became cocktail party patter, people became increasingly aware of the number of neighbors relying on "mother's little helper" to get them through the day. And everyone, it seemed, wanted in on the Freudian fun.
What Antonioni tries to do in L'eclisse, and for the most part achieves, is to show us the kind of torment and pain a person in such a position actually goes through. At first, Vittoria doesn't seem worth the effort. As she leaves Riccardo, she acts as if she really would rather stay. Something keeps holding her back, and we are left to decipher just what the reasons could be. Maybe it's the comfort of knowing there is someone around to catch you when you fall. Perhaps it's the fear of what being single actually means. It could be a classic combination of affection fading and dissipating like the aroma of perfume on an old love letter. We never truly understand what is torturing her, but actress Monica Vitti does a mesmerizing job at being miserable. She is all false starts and poorly planned pullbacks, more than happy to let her day trading mother walk all over her for just a single moment of kindness or consideration.
Throughout the course of L'eclisse, Antonioni gives Vitti several chances to prove just how pathetic she is. A man looses nearly 20 million lire (that's $80K to you and me) on the market, and yet he barely seems phased. Knowing how much such a loss affects her mother, Vittoria follows him in the aftermath of such a shock to the system. What he does, and her reaction to it, are all part of the director's design. It's meant to prove that everyone is better at coping than our heroine.
Vittoria is also a character draped in a desire to getaway. Like the old adage about either embracing or escaping your problems, she longs to find a secret place to conceal herself in. She finds several throughout the course of the movie: during a plane ride through the clouds above Rome; in a small cafe in the middle of the airport's vast, open fields; in the ethnicity altering face and dance of a Kenyan (Vittoria puts on a pantomime with friend Anita, complete with black face and bwana bump and grind); in a small barrel of waste water near a construction site. In each on of these arenas, Vittoria disappears, letting her gauntlet like guard down and actually experiencing and connecting to life.
But none of these sanctuaries are safe. The real world finds a way of breaking into each and every one. The plane lands, the trip to the airport ends, an acquaintance uses racial slurs against the faux Africans, and rust eventually causes the barrel to leak and empty. As symbols of this contradictory conceit, Antonioni and L'eclisse are both very potent. Indeed, when not trying to hide behind a false bravado of mysterious mise-en-scene, the film and its facets work wonderfully.
The same could be said for the main settings in the film – each one a moody and mannered galaxy all its own. We spend a great deal of time in the stock exchange where Piero works, watching him move like a dancer/dervish as he tries to juggle his career and his internal obligations during the chaotic fluctuations of the trading floor. Within this domain, Piero is both god and gofer: arrogant and egotistical when he's riding high, somber and sedate when a sudden crash destroys many of his main clients. Delon, while hampered by Antonioni's notorious control over his male actors seems stymied for most of the film. Yet it is in this world where he comes alive, proving he's far from the stiff, stumbling paramour he plays at with Vittoria.
Additionally, the part of Rome where most of the movie is set – the Eur suburb – is also like something out of a failed graphic novel. From the mushroom shaped edifice in the distance to the sterile block buildings that resemble unfinished ideas, this is a metropolis as otherworldly wasteland, at times beautiful as well as devoid of vitality. It's an architect's frantic fever dream, a cityscape shaped out of lines and lunacy. It is here where Vittoria lives, remote and rigid. Only when she happens into the city proper does she hint at the fading fire inside her.
And still, it's difficult to say why L'eclisse is not more transcendent. Indeed, Antonioni has all the pieces in place for a masterwork of meaning and inspiration. He has a gorgeous cast – each actor looking like a perfect monochrome pinup of their celebrated shattered self – a cinematic eye overloading the celluloid canvas with one masterful shot after another, and a backdrop as breathtaking and bizarre as anyone could want. And occasionally, the director does make it all work flawlessly. When Delon's car is stolen by a drunken driver, and the vehicle along with its passenger are found submerged in a local canal, Antonio gives us a genius sequence of startling shifting intentions. Delon is both annoyed and amused that this is the ultimate fate of his beloved sports car. But the reasons for its theft and wrecking are more or less satisfactory (he was visiting Vittoria at the time).
For Vittoria, there is revulsion and resolve. You can read the inevitability across her face, a "there but for the grace of God" kind of acceptance that starts us on the path to praying for her soul. But when she's removed from the scene, and lost with Piero in the vast open spaces of her Roman wonderland, she's transformed. Happily playing in a sprinkler, or pouting for affection and attention, the entire dichotomy that the director wants for the film is present and quite commanding.
But there are other times when L'eclisse loses its way. Antonioni tries for the same sense of duality in the aforementioned tribal dance sequence. He sets up the situation – a lonely neighbor phones Vittoria and Anita, asking if they will spend some time with her while her husband is away. They agree, and the hostess tells some exaggerated stories about living in Africa with the wild animals and everpresent nature. As they explore, the girls pilfer a few robes and some jewelry, put on the pancake and do their deranged, ditzy step routine. At first, everything is silly and sublime. Vitti looks amazing in her bronzed blond persona, expressing a long stifled sexuality that we never see at any other point in the film.
The minute the native gets restless however, when the hostess starts to shout down the act as being far to reminiscent of the horrible "monkeys" back in Kenya, the harsh vibe of bigotry slams the door shut on any further desire to associate with the scene. Perhaps it's because, in our post-millennial PC haze, we want to avoid the disgusting power in overt prejudice. Maybe it's because it comes out of left field, from someone who should have a different ideal as a result of her experience and background. Whatever the case, it doesn't strengthen our support of the narrative. It shows that Antonioni is willing to complicate matters without a real logical reason behind such bold bamboozling.
A great deal of this movie is indeed about mixed messages, both personal and visual. From the old men and women who play the market like those nursing home residents on junkets to Mississippi riverboat casinos, to the lovelorn fiancé who gives up his pursuit of his ex-paramour like he's just finished a cigarette, L'eclisse is about as two-faced as a film can get. No one is upfront or direct, mainly because they aren't given dialogue or lines that explain their positions or their philosophies. Antonioni is more interested in tone and composition, reveling in his experimental realism to only occasionally come up for a clearing, cleansing breath of air. It seems strange to criticize a filmmaker for wanting to break conventions, to reinvent the language of movie making as he tries to tell a tale of love and lovers lost. But where Antonioni, and Godard for that matter, make their mistake is in believing that everything they do to screw up the storyline or the approach to character or narrative actually has a purpose. It was indeed mindbending and brave 35 years ago. But viewed within the confines of decades of such dissection and reassembly, the foundation no longer looks so formidable.
As a result, L'eclisse will irritate as many people as it inspires. It uses unobtrusive elements, like sprinkling small amounts of music over scenes, to add far too subtle shades of emphasis when we're not prepared to acknowledge that what we see actually has meaning in the first place. Arguably, the greatest sin to a mainstream mentality fostered by Antonioni is the open ended, opaque finale. After Delon and Vitti part, vowing undying daily devotion to each other, we have a few minutes where happiness changes to sadness, and then a kind of murky malaise. Then we leave the lovers - a sense of closure sorely lacking - and move on to a montage of places and props that were important to Piero and Vittoria over the course of the film. We stop along the building front where they used to meet, see the toadstool like structure standing off in the distance. We never again see our leads, just shot after shot like photos in a scrapbook of the film experience. Finally, we close in on a single streetlight, and the solarizing glow from the bulb seems to suggest both the eclipse outlined in the title, as well as a possible nuclear bomb blast (we witness a man reading a paper where the threat of an impending holocaust appears imminent).
Now, one can easily read the intentions of what Antonioni is trying to say throughout the sequence. The last look of the lovers seems to suggest that love is neither the answer, or the escape either is looking for. It is instead the hollow trap that's reflected in the empty streets and meaningless symbols that, at one time, suggested the couple's contentment. The growing influence of outside forces – the arrival and departure of buses, the same people moving along the same streets that we've seen before – imply a world continuing to turn even as the once passionate pair realize their destiny. The leaking water barrel becomes a symbol of their joy and their devotion, slowing oozing out of a rusty wound and draining off into the gutter to join the rest of the redolence in the social sewer. The sad part is, all of this has to be assumed and inferred. While other films in Antonioni's canon have taken a similar stance with their themes and imagery, L'eclisse seems to be purposefully vague and indirect. And since there is no denying this director's skill with a lens, it may just be part of his desire to have the audience meet him more than halfway.
But this doesn't make L'eclisse the most enjoyable of experiences. It is two hours of hard, hampered work, forcing you to rely on subconscious subtexts that you didn't know, or weren't prepared to use during your lifetime. You have to read into situations, and look behind the obvious facets to find the substance underneath – if there even is any. It has moments of beauty and clarity that will shift your soul into a position of pure pleasure, and it contains performances that perfectly capture the melancholy and the restlessness being hinted at with every new scenario. But it's also unrewarding and a little distant, the kind of movie that requires an investment of time and temperament that many moviegoers no longer possess. It is easy to see the masterpiece inside the murky, muddled morass Antonioni has created. That it doesn't make itself more noticeable more often is one of the film's few failings. L'eclisse is indeed a good film. It misses being great, however, by reasons we are never quite sure of. And when we ask ourselves the question as to why it's not more magnificent, we get only one answer: we honestly don't know.
For more information on the filmmaker himself, Disc 2 becomes a treasure trove of delights. Though there are only 2 featurettes on the DVD, they are both invaluable to understanding Antonioni and his occasionally maddening motives. A documentary made for Italian television, entitled "The Eye that Changed Cinema", is a brisk, far too brief walk through the motion picture maestro's massive creative canon. Spending a few moments on a chosen collection of his films (not everything is addressed), we learn about Antonioni's connection to the neo-realist's movement, his work in documentaries, and his manipulation of the environment – even down to painting the grass and the trees to achieve certain looks.
The director is seen in several sensational interviews where he makes his concepts and conceits abundantly clear. He wants it known that there is never a false step in his filmmaking, never a moment where he feels unsure of what he is doing, and that comes across very clearly in this amazing career overview. Equally compelling is a 24 minute Q&A with Italian film critic Adriano Aprà and longtime Antonioni friend Carlo di Carlo, entitled "Elements of Landscape". Here, we get a couple of chums championing their old friend, but they do so with a focus and an insight that is incredibly observant. Taken in tandem with the documentary and the commentary, L'eclisse becomes a primer on the basics of Antonioni's "existential" style, providing the content that helps make the often perplexing pleasure of this film far more palatable.
While it may have impressive things to say about alienation, loneliness and the loss of love, L'eclisse says it all in a way that will be difficult for many to sympathize with. But just like the character of Vittoria, the reasons for your failure to appreciate what Antonioni is trying to do will be as indecipherable as her inability to connect with others. She doesn't have an answer for why she feels this way. And we too, never fully grasp why L'eclisse is not a more substantial masterwork. While recommended, it is a dilemma one will grapple with long after the final shot has faded away.