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An Artist for the Age

Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘The Night.’

Michelangelo Antonioni’s new film The Night is so perfectly congruent with our concerns, so piercingly honest, that it is close to a personal experience. Such an acutely subjective reaction is not always the purpose of art, but it is his purpose and he achieved it.

The story is spare. In Milan live Giovanni and Lidia, a novelist and his wife, childless, in their thirties, married some years, affectionate with each other but no longer in love. The film covers about 18 hours in their lives: a visit to a dying friend in a hospital; a publication-day party for Giovanni’s new book (which he fear may be his last); a long lonely walk by Lidia through the city; their visit to a night club where they see an erotic balancing act; an all-night party at a millionaire’s villa where each of them meets someone who- temporarily, at least--attracts him. At dawn they cross the huge lawn together, the tired dance-band still playing. Behind some trees they sit. She reads to him a tender love-letter, addressed to her. He asks her who wrote it. “You did,” she replies. Stung with anguish for his lost self and love, he seizes her. At first she denies him, saying she doesn’t love him any more. He persists and she gradually acquiesces. The film ends with the couple making love on the grass. Whether they will be able to re-make their love is undecided.

The film has no plot. It is a series of events given their dynamics by the depth of character of the two people passing through them: a man and a woman, once in love, who still live with and like each other but who have floated apart out of finger-tip’s reach. Seen through their eyes, vibrated through their nervous systems, the incidents in the film--sometimes unremarkable in themselves--take on the proportions of a pilgrimage. This is because their relationship is not sexual ennui or a stage in marital intrigue; it is the result of their being perceptive people in a world inimical to confidence, therefore inimical to lasting love. With no sense of strain whatever, this pair step forward as protagonists of the age’s love tragedy: the lack of a whole, oriented self to give in love.

I must make it clear that this is not just one more European film about “the moral collapse of our time”-the label that every lurid French or Italian film carries to justify its luridness. The Night is certainly concerned with the theme of Yeats’ Second Coming; the best do lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. (See the millionaire host.) The film exists in an ambience that is post-Hitler, post-Stalin, post-Bomb, in a society caught between the far-reaching but iron-lined avenues of Marxism and, on the other hand, a creeping corpulence fed extensively by military preparations to deter that Marxism.

But Antonioni is no glib, self-scratching Jeremiah. He is not merely past outmoded hope, he is past despair. He looks at this new environment as his home and, having decided not to die, lives. His characters are in their habitat and know it; they face the task of imagining a viable future. As for their marriage, we see them discovering the geography of the island on which they have been cast, recognizing that other lovers are at best excursions that will only take them to other islands, that in the fact of mutual compassion there is justification for compassion, that they can stay together because they are somewhat consecrated by knowledge of each other’s weaknesses and by the time they have passed together. The film finishes without rosiness but with the cleanliness of scouring candor, a sense that the worst is known.

“I know what to write,” says Giovanni, “but I don’t know how to write it.” Like every artist in history, he sees more than he is capable of expressing, but, unlike them, he has no relevant framework within which to strive. He no longer knows how to speak or the point in speaking. “A writer is an anachronism,” he says, “doing something that can’t be done yet by machines.” The horrible moment for him comes when his industrialist-host offers to take him out of his anachronism with a job as corporation historian and publicity director; an offer made with all the lubricity of the materialist ego that knows how to re-enforce itself with the quasi-idealistic. The horror of the offer is that Giovanni realizes its aptness. The job would at least fill a gap in him, even though he knows it would be one long, plump suicide. But the real purification by this horror comes near the end when he tells Lidia of the offer and she says, “Why not?” When she who knows him and has admired him can say that, it is rock-bottom for him. Her bland acceptance is the shock that may re-awaken him and connect him with a revised world.

As for Lidia, the death of their friend Tommaso is the end of her last link with selfless love. Tommaso, who was never physically her lover, worshipped her, and almost convinced her (she says) that she was intelligent. Giovanni spoke to her only of himself “and I loved it”; but now all that is left of Giovanni for her is an ego that doubts itself. The loss of Tommaso’s love--the only one without ego--is like losing parents a second time. She is reconciled to loneliness, even to her husband’s quest for illusions of refreshment in other women, both because she is no longer jealous and because she wishes him well. But at the end, if she is not convinced that he is again capable of his former love, she at least knows that he realizes this and is ashamed of it, instead of accepting it; and in that shame is a possible seed.

Marcello Mastroianni, as Giovanni, brings to full flower the wide range of talents he has always shown. It is a performance of utter comprehension and delicacy that begins by being true and then goes on to harrow us. Jeanne Moreau, who plays Lidia, has seemed to me until now a film actress in the least complimentary sense, a woman whose performances were for the most part albums of varyingly interesting photographs. Under Antonioni’s hand, what was semblance has become vitalized. “The director,” he says, “must know how to demand,” and he has certainly demanded well of her. She moves through this film like a sad suite of airs. Her face, elegiac and passionate, seems to brood over this film, even when she is absent.

Monica Vitti, brunette in this film, has a less complex role as the millionaire’s daughter, but gives it waywardness without coyness and sex with sensibility. Bernhard Wicki (the director of The Bridge) endows his brief appearance as Tommaso with the clarity of the dying and the pride of a man who has faced his limitations--all this so sharply that the later news of his death makes us feel a loss.

As for Antonioni himself: I have now seen The Night three times and I speak carefully when I say that I think he is making a new art-form. In this film, even more strikingly than in his L’Avventura, he is forging a new language apposite to a changed world. For a society theistically based and teleologically organized, the concepts of drama that derived substantially from Aristotle have sufficed for centuries. The film was born to that inheritance and, out of it, still produces fine works (although with a perceptibly increasing tinge of nostalgia). Antonioni has seen the dwindling force of this inheritance and is finding means to supplement it. He is achieving what many contemporary artists in his and other fields are seeking and not often with his success: renewal of his art rather than repetition.

Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann, and their kin are exponents of dissatisfaction rather than re-creation. The anti-novelists, in their frustration with the limits of the conventional novel, ask readers to share their professional problems rather than to be affected as readers. Brecht jostled the traditional drama healthily, but his theater is didactic, aimed towards a different godhead--a temporal one that now seems sterile to many. The so-called Theater of the Absurd faces reality rigorously and poetically, but a theater of images and no characters is limited to disembodied effects--and each author seems to have one reiterated effect. Who needs to see another play by Beckett or Ionesco or Pinter? In films, too, the avant-garde--Cocteau and many others--have tried to find new methods; but they, too, have so concentrated on the attempt that they have neglected to communicate much content. A more conventional artist, Ingmar Bergman feels present spiritual hungers as keenly as anyone, but his films so far, for all their superb qualities, exemplify Mulligan’s line to Dedalus: “You have the cursed Jesuit strain in you, only it’s injected the wrong way.”

Antonioni, however, seems to be making the miracle: finding a way to speak to us about ourselves today without crankily throwing away all that went before and without being bound by it. He is re-shaping the idea of the content of film drama, discarding ancient and less ancient concepts, re-directing traditional audience expectations towards immersion in character rather than conflict of character. He is reshaping time itself in his films, taking it out of its customary synoptic form, wringing intensity out of its distention, daring to ask us to “live through” experiences with less distillation, deriving his drama from the very texture of such experiences and their juxtaposition, rather than from formal clash and climax and resolution. Fundamentally, he gives us characters whose drama consists in facing life minute after minute rather than in moving through organized plots with articulated obstacles; who have no well-marked cosmos to use as a tennis-player uses a court; who live and die without the implication of a divine eye that sees their virtues (whether men do or not) and cherishes them.

John Grierson once said that when a director dies, he becomes a photographer; but Antonioni gets emotional utility--in a film about people--out of surfaces and compositions. He uses photography for enrichment, not for salon gasps: for example, the scene where Lidia goes for a ride in the rain with a man and the downpour seems to put the car in danger of dissolution.

The sequence that best represents Antonioni’s style is the one in which Lidia slips away from the publisher’s party and wanders through the streets. Conditioned as we are, we expect something; we think she is off to meet a lover, or to kill herself, or to get involved in an accident. But nothing happens; and everything happens. She strolls past a bus conductor eating a sandwich and is fascinated by his existence and his appetite in the same universe with her; she passes two men laughing uproariously at a joke and she smiles, too, although she has not heard it, anxious to join them, to be one of the human race; she encounters a crying child and kneels briefly and unsuccessfully to comfort it; she tears a Hake of rust off a corroding wall; she sees two young men punching each other ferociously, watches horrified, then screams for them to stop. (The victor thinks she must be attracted to him and starts to pursue her, and so Antonioni touches another old tribal nerve.) Then in the suburbs she watches some boys shooting off rockets.

She finds she is in a neighborhood where she and Giovanni used to come years before. She telephones him and he drives out to pick her up.

By drama-school definition, it is not a cumulative dramatic sequence. It is a miniature recapitulation, deftly done, of the possibilities of life: a child and an old woman, a man eating and a man punching, sunlight on a fountain and a greasy lewd stall-keeper. Antonioni holds it all together with something like the surface tension of liquids and, by not commenting, comments. It is essentially as-drastic a revolution as abstract expressionist painting or Beckett’s litany-like dialogue, but Antonioni has not estranged us in order to speak to us about loneliness; he has not sacrificed the link of recognition to make new images; he has not had to use absurdity to convey the absurd.

Of every directorial technique he is an easy master. I specify only two. His use of sound: the low-pitched conversation in the hospital is interrupted by the passage of a helicopter like a pause in music so that the hushed key will not become tedious. His symbolism (which is unobtrusive): the mushroom cloud of smoke that envelops the boy who fires the rocket, and the fact that Giovanni meets Lidia after her walk in front of a long-abandoned church.

For me, Antonioni has made in The Night and in L’Avventun the most subtly truthful theatrical works about the relation of the sexes since Joyce’s Exiles. But he has done more. In The Night he has used a vitiated marriage as a metaphor of the crisis of faith in our age, the faith within which profoundest love and pettiest whim have always been contained. He has used his camera as a hound of non-heaven ranging through the streets of Milan to find the beauty in necessity, the assurance in knowing that one can live without assurances. This film leaves us less deceived; thus with the truth in us less encumbered.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.