Michelangelo Antonioni became the highest-regarded art film director of the 1960s, making semi-abstract meditations on modern existence while other greats were repeating themselves or retreating into nostalgia. Antonioni's visually oriented pictures don't require viewers' guides just to understand their surfaces; for all the talk about open-ended plots and patience-straining silences, L'avventura is surprisingly entertaining.
L'eclisse has a more radical concept and does without even the pretense of a suspense story (as in the fascinating Blow-Up) to make it more accessible to the average genre-oriented audience. The camera simply observes a series of events in a young woman's life that show her responses -- or more accurately, her difficulty in finding responses -- to what seems a random and soul-less existence. It ends with a seven-minute visual investigation of a commonplace scene that will send anti-art people running for the exits. Stanley Kubrick must have seen L'eclisse when he dreamed up 2001: A Space Odyssey: This picture concludes in a puzzlingly ethereal auteurist mind-trip.
It's important to stress how well L'eclisse is put together. This is no empty exercise. Even when the leading character Vittoria is just marking time in her apartment or drifting from one scene to another hoping for something to shake her senses, a keen visual imagination is forever finding new ways to look at a scene. Space is used architecturally, and by that I don't just mean that compositions are well organized. The physical relationship between characters and their environment communicate intuitive suggestions - never imposed meanings. We're used to looking for standardized visual signposts and signifiers in films; in this supposedly 'artsy' movie Antonioni doesn't take anything for granted. Events and objects are exactly what they are. His choice of what to show when and how gives us a trail to follow, and even without the barest outline of a plot or even a hint that the movie is going any place in particular, we're hooked.
We want to watch because Antonioni and Tonino Guerra's virtually invisible script presents a theme without hammering it home. Vittoria and her first lover Riccardo have run dry of emotion or caring. She leaves him, walking off into the strange undeveloped neighborhood where they live. He follows out of habit, not asking her back, but not rejecting her. Nothing is important enough to really go out on a limb for.
At her first visit to the stock exchange Vittoria gives up connecting with her mother and just watches the action at the hub of materialism, as the happy brokers take advantage of an upswing in the market. She's unmoved. She visits with some friends and plays the role of an African princess after being inspired by some pictures in a book. Her friend, whose huband works in Africa, sours her interest by comparing the African natives to monkeys and children.
Later on Vittoria flies in an airplane. The vistas of clouds and sky momentarily exhilarate her. She goes back to the stock market, which is having a bad day. The investors blame anything they can for the drop in prices. Vittoria's mother takes a heavy loss, which she has decided is the fault of a socialist conspiracy. Her broker Piero eventually picks up on Vittoria and they start a casual flirtation. Except for a few exceptional moments, Vittoria and Piero's affair has sensation but lacks deeper passions. When they walk together they seem like zombies. He still looks at other women and her attention wanders to other men. Their hands intertwine and play games but only their bodies seem to really get along.
This is made explicit when a drunk steals Piero's convertible and crashes it into a canal. The authorities haul the car out, revealing the memorable image of the corpse's hand dangling over the car's door. It reminds us of when Vittoria and Piero's casual hands dangled over the furniture when they were courting. Piero has no emotional reaction to the loss of the man or the car - he'll just repair it and sell it.(spoiler)
For his conclusion Antonioni pulls a narrative trick that still astounds film theorists. Without so much as a by-your-leave, we just drop our two main characters and return to a neutral street corner where Paulo and Vittoria once spent some time. Construction of a building has apparently been halted mid-way, with the structure swathed in tarps. A rain barrel leaks water into the street. People we've seen on the periphery of previous scenes pass by. The absence of the main characters is not missed by anything in the environment, which goes on 'existing' without them. The screen fractures into a series of visual details, pieces of architecture and bric-a-brac glimpsed as if we were standing on the corner and searching for meaning in the randomness of it all. Night falls. The film ends.
The ending betrays the commercial agreement between filmmaker and audience, for Antonioni is trying to communicate on film what no other medium can portray -- a visual expression of his vision of the state of existence. His characters exist to pursue consumer comforts, and only Vittoria displaying even a pretense of a need for more. The material world that we've created doesn't seem to really need us any more, at least not as individuals. Nowhere in the film is there a sense of connectedness, purpose or emotional commitment. Yet the film itself is not a cold statement.
In Red Desert Antonioni reportedly complicates his world view with both stylized color and a mentally disordered heroine (Vitti again). Later on he'd turn to quasi-detective fiction for the more accessible Blow-Up, the movie that flattered ordinary film fans by allowing them to appreciate art along with the expresso set. Then Zabriskie Point came along to expose Antonioni's Achilles heel -- even he could be pretentious and self-parodic. That's what happens when you make a film with MGM's schlock marketers: "Zabriskie Point! How You Get There ... Depends on Where You're At!" (Inhale on a count of three.) The calm visual grace of L'eclisse remains the pure effort of a cinema artist at the height of his creativity.
Criterion's DVD of Antonioni's L'eclisse is a stunning enhanced transfer of a B&W show that rewards a close visual scrutiny of every shot, down to the choice of cutting points and the length of cuts. The monaural audio is clear, right from the catchy Italo twist vocal that opens the film.
The two-disc set produced by Kim Hendrickson assembles some impressive extras. The leading piece is a career docu on Antonioni for Italian television made entirely of behind-the-scenes footage and press opportunities, awards ceremonies, etc. His famous quote while presenting L'avventura about eros in the modern world is not here, but there is plenty of quality coverage between innocuous bits of film from Death Valley, etc. A second new interview docu carefully dissects L'eclisse as do the essays by Gilberto Perez and Jonathan Rosenbaum in the disc's accompanying fat pamphlet.
The essays and visual analysis of L'eclisse are astute but cannot touch the experience of watching the movie with an open mind ... it doesn't help to find out that Antonioni filmed a real solar eclipse but then did not use it and kept the title anyway. He also once planned two movies following the Vittoria and Piero characters separately, a concept that his producer wouldn't buy. The director imparts a spiritual mystery to his carefully chosen mundane images, that is difficult to capture with critical analysis.
The documentary is titled The Eye that Changed Cinema, but mainly explains how Antonioni was too individualistic to start trends or inspire any real stylistic imitators. Most of the art film directors of the 60s can be imitated or even lampooned, but the best of Antonioni does not lend itself to copycats.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,