For the first 45 minutes La Notte appears to be a beautiful but cold study of sophisticated ennui. At any rate this is a good excuse to photograph Jeanne Moreau (Lidia) and Marcello Mastroianni (Giovanni) against the angular modern cityscapes of Milan, or more austerely still against bright blank backgrounds. If the aim of cinematography were to produce a series of beautiful images, then it could hardly be done better than this. Any still from these scenes would glow on the wall of the Photographers’ Gallery. But it is supposed to be a narrative art as well. To the extent that La Notte is a dramatic rather than a photographic work, its drama is one of existentialist angst, with Antonioni on the psychological trail of two individuals who find themselves alienated from their lives and each other in a world which needs them to give it meaning. The mood is not improved by a distinct sense of menace, particularly in the scenes where Moreau wanders the city alone, in search of the lost soul of her marriage.
But as the night approaches, the film shifts – geographically, visually, and dramatically. We move to a luxurious mansion outside the city, from low-key scenes of individuals and couples, restrained in movement and sparing in words, to the flux of a party. And soon the malaise of the protagonists is grounded, as the travails of their relationship come to the surface. Gianni Di Venanzo’s precise, swooping photography of the ensemble scenes through which Mastroianni wanders immediately calls to mind their famous collaboration on 8í‚Â½. But this is a more sombre counterpart, in which Antonioni offers affectless beauty and slow, steady development instead of Fellini’s chaotic charm and irony. And Lidia perhaps more than Giovanni is the emotional fulcrum of La Notte. She faces the deaths of two relationships: with her husband and with her terminally ill admirer, the one who is and the one who might have been.
So if you’re looking for a date movie, approach with caution. It’s not (quite) as depressing as I make it sound, though, and there are plenty of delights, not just photographic. Admirers of Monica Vitti will find her particularly good value as the sophisticated daughter of Giovanni’s would-be patron. The film is vividly evocative of affluent Italy just before the 1960s wave of Anglophone popular culture swept away the soignée elegance of the European elite for something looser and brasher. And Antonioni’s skill in shaping a visual expression of the emotional drama of a single day is all the more impressive for being so stealthy.