Friday, March 5, 2010

L'Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)

In the first scene of the L’Eclisse, when Vittoria (Monica Vitti) leaves her lover Ricardo, Antonioni alternates between framings that compress the space between the two and deep focus shots that maximize distance. Spatial proximity is Antonioni’s primary tool, and part of Vittoria’s existential crisis is reflected in the visual battle waged between natural forms and artificial ones, and whether the natural will dissolve into the artificial. This opening scene, then, creates ambiguous visual relationships between not only Vittoria and Ricardo, but also the couple and their environment. The remainder of the film will explore these relationships between human beings, and human beings and their environment in an increasingly modernized world.

The most initially striking element of Antonioni’s style is the ascetic approach to sound, wherein all is silent except for isolated noises manipulated to grate on the viewer by encroaching either on tranquility or sanctity. The roaring, ear-splitting sound of plane propellers puts short end to the momentary beauty of flight. A moment of silence held out of reverence for a recently departed associate at the stock market exchange is interrupted by ceaseless telephone ringing. Antonioni’s apprehension over how modern mechanics and architecture affects our daily lives seeps forth in every creaking door and blaring car horn.

In conjunction with isolated sounds is an assault on art and iconography, namely the reproductions of man and nature that would appear to equate them with objects. Photographs of Kenya, landscape paintings, wildlife wallpaper, and even a man’s crude sketches of flowers on a notepad establish this recurrent motif, and each time these reproductions appear can be argued to be an instance of grasping out at a natural world all too absent in the modern industrial ghost town of Rome. Vittoria searches the photograph of the Kenyan plains in vain for her friend’s farm, which is cut off by the restrictive framing, and the man who draws flowers in his notepad does so in miserable response to his losing 50 million lire in a stock market debacle. Vittoria is noticeably uneasy about making love in Piero's apartment, which is filled with busts and novelties that marginalize the human figure, all of which look grotesque in her eyes.

This argument that man and object are becoming interchangeable is fully communicated in two crucial lines of dialogue. The first is Vittoria’s statement that holding a man is like holding a pen or any other object, a statement that is made visually manifest when Piero (Alain Delon) finds himself, soon after Vittoria’s leaving him, among his desk pens, sitting erect in the foreground, every bit as prominent as he. The other arrives soon after Piero learns that his car, stolen the night before by a drunkard, had been driven into a lake. Expressing no sadness over the man’s death, whose mangled body he has seen draped across his wrecked automobile, he worries instead about the damage. Both the drunkard and the man tragically affected by the stock market are examples of strangers that Vittoria tries, in vain, to reach out to. Antonioni juxtaposes alongside his abstract statements about man’s collective dissipation in response to modernity more specific concerns over our inability to connect or empathize with other individuals.

L’Eclisse’s mise-en-scene is always full of blunt juxtapositions between dense, obstructive walls and pillars and the more lyrical beauty of the natural world. An early shot, which finds Vittoria in her apartment, positions her to the right of a massive wall, as she peers sadly out of a window at the trees blowing in the wind that populate the left half of the composition. As in the last shot of L’Avventura, the stone wall blocks out nature in its totality, replacing an immersive, picturesque image with a flat, imposing structure. Vittoria communicates to many people through windows and walls, and even the would-be intimate kisses she shares with Piero transpire on either side of glass doors, rendering the action an illusory mockery of the real act.

Vittoria’s and Piero’s relationship receives no closure, and their disappearance from the film may be said to be their immersion into the larger environment, that being a desolate area of the city inhabited by construction sites, streetlights, and apartment complexes. Antonioni calls attention the rigid trees pictorially transcribed onto these monumental structures, similar to how characters are often transcribed onto architectural fixtures or vice-versa. The finale of the film is one lengthy meditative montage surveying this eerie sector of the city. Axial cutting is used at two points for potent effects; the first gradually renders a portion of an apartment building abstract and lifeless, and the second begins with an extreme close-up of an old man’s face, every ridge and contour strikingly visible, and ends with his departure from the frame. The second to last shot presents a row of streetlights receding into the horizon. The one closest to the camera is positioned in such a way that the fluorescent light looms over the entire frame. The final shot reveals this to be the eclipse of the title, an eerie close-up of this artificial light that renders it as supreme light source, made all the more unsettling by the fact that I actually did mistake it for the moon upon first glance of the preceding shot.

In so many films, I tend to extract some sort of thesis the director is attempting to make and then move on after mentally applauding his skill. I see fascinatingly, but to no real provocative effect, that his visual style will tend to reflect his message. But in L’Eclisse, I was blindsided by Antonioni’s visual and auditory arguments, the formal elements of the film not merely reflections of a point already made clear in the narrative, but the entire substance of what he wishes to say. I feel that I did adopt Antonioni’s anxiety over the dehumanizing effects of modernity, and at some point it hit me that there is one moment at the beginning of the film when an electric fan caresses Vittoria’s hair, and that every subsequent shot of natural wind has it rattling metallic poles or blowing through wooden scaffolding. This observation, for whatever reason, sent a chill down my spine.

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