Judge Jesse Ataide swears nothing can eclipse the brilliance of this film.
Then, with not credible the anywhere
and when he's plucked such mysteries as men
-- Excerpts from e.e. cummings's "How Many Moments Must(Amazing Each)"
I stumbled across this cummings poem not long after I viewed Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclisse for a second time. While it was the mutual inclusion of the word "eclipse" that initially caught my attention, after some consideration I realized that there was much more going on that connected these two pieces of art than a simply happy coincidence of mutual word choice.
Both cummings and Antonioni are minimalist masters, artists who dared to experiment and defy conventions, redefining their respective art forms in the process. While cummings accomplished this through his unconventional use of punctuation, spelling, and syntax in his poetry, Antonioni was essentially doing the same thing by stripping away traditional plot structuring and employing unexpected visual juxtapositions in his groundbreaking films. Through their tireless experimentation, both of these artists literally created new languages in their respective art forms that proved to be overwhelmingly influential, but never quite duplicated.
The similarities don't end there. Both are products of the early 1960s (1961 was the year of the poem's publication, 1962 saw the release of L'Eclisse), and both deal indirectly with issues looming large in the international mind at this turbulent period in history—particularly the loss of individuality in the increasingly complicated modern world.
Facts of the Case
There's little point in giving a plot description of an Antonioni film, but L'Eclisse's sparse plot could be described as something along these lines: After an all-night argument, Vittoria (Monica Vitta, L'Avventura decides to break it off with Riccardo (Francisco Rabal), who also happens to be her employer. Emotionally conflicted, she visits the Roman stock exchange to talk to her self-absorbed mother, and ends up meeting the dashing stockbroker Piero (Alain Delon, Le Cercle Rouge) in the process. A complicated courtship that never quite materializes follows, culminating in the ultimate abstract expression of modern life.
For me, cinema isn't always entertainment. No one can claim that cinema is
To get anything out of one of Antonioni's post-L'Avventura films, one must check all expectations at the door, and allow oneself to be completely absorbed into a world marked by little action, long pauses, unspoken words and unexpressed emotions. From the very beginning critics and audiences have been divided on the merits of Antonioni's signature style (sometimes labeled "Antonioniennui"): The Cannes premiere of L'Avventura was greeted with vocal booing, hissing, and laughter. The next day, 37 writers, artists, and filmmakers wrote an open letter to Antonioni praising the film, which went on to win a Jury Prize at the festival.
Several years later, L'Eclisse pushed the envelope even further than his earlier, more famous film did, making it perhaps Antonioni's most enigmatic work. Reducing contemporary life and human interaction to its most abstract level, L'Eclisse is more cryptic and obscure than both L'Avventura and La Notte, the two films with which L'Eclisse is often grouped to form a loosely-connected trilogy (based on common themes that run through all three).
If L'Avventura is the literal search of a person in both the desolate expanses of the ocean and the lonely expanses of an uninhabited wilderness, L'Eclisse is a much less obvious search for meaning in everyday life. The radiant Monica Vitti stars in both films, and in both she plays the only character in her immediate social circle who appears to desire any kind of meaning in her life. Vittoria, her character in L'Eclisse, is intelligent, beautiful, and self-sufficient, but beneath the surface layer of chic boredom is a vulnerability and sense of helplessness that manifests itself in an uneasy "I don't know," an ambiguous phrase that she uses as a shield against the general indifference that threatens to engulf her. These three words strike a vague but discordant note in the film's environment, for even if the other characters (her spurned fiancé, her mother) are all listless and unhappy in the state of their lives, they seem intent to follow the narrow trajectories they have chosen until their eventual destruction. This makes Vittoria an outsider; a stranger in the world she inhabits.
Suddenly, salvation seems to appear in the form of Piero (Alain Delon), the energetic and virile young stockbroker with whom she has an affair. The antithesis of all of the things she is figuratively running from, he is capable, confident, and cocksure, and perhaps most importantly, seemingly content with his chosen profession and lifestyle. But all too quickly it is revealed that beneath the tremendous vitality lies the same state of languishing discontent and unhappiness that she finds within herself, bringing the relationship to an indecisive close that sparks the famous montage that concludes the film, leaving it on a pessimistic note that haunts as much as it baffles. It seems that hope is gone, and humanity is lost forever.
"In certain moments, life has different rhythms. At times it's
dynamic, at other times static. So why should we avoid the static moments to
concern ourselves only with the dynamic ones?"
What made Antonioni such a revolutionary film artist is not necessarily the content of his films, but rather the stylistic choices he made to communicate the abstract concepts and ideas he wrestles with.
For example, Antonioni is one of the few filmmakers who dares drop his audience [i]in media res[/i], or, in non-literary terms, smack in the center of the story. The worlds he creates in his films are singular series of events suspended in an individual moment in time, lacking any situational context and explanation outside of themselves. L'Eclisse begins at the break of dawn in the middle of a long argument between Vittoria and her fiancé. While it becomes clear after a few minutes that this is a scene involving a romantic break-up, there is no indication why this couple is deciding to call it quits. The past is something disconnected and irrelevant to the present—or at least that is the way the characters in this film view the state of their aimless lives.
Furthermore, Antonioni's films are very tangential, filled with seemingly unrelated episodes and events that takes the viewer down a journey much more akin to the novel form than to the tightly wrought plotlines typically associated with films. L'Eclisse is content to spend its time dwelling on individual moments, whether it be Vittoria chasing after a friend's dog late at night or the contemplative Vittoria stopping momentarily to listen to the sound a line of flagpoles makes as they sway in the wind. Individually, scenes likes these seem extremely incidental, even unnecessary. But this is an integral part of Antonioni's larger design, for when taken collectively, these singular sequences coalesce into a general feeling of isolation and disconnection that drives the film's scant action.
Taking this idea one step further, Antonioni depicts this sense of tightly contained loneliness and despair through imagery, symbols, and densely packed mise en scene. In L'Eclisse, Antonioni took mise en scene to almost uncharted heights, perhaps best demonstrated in the opening sequence in the apartment. Antonioni scrupulously plans the position of every piece of sculpture and vase, the exact direction in which the rotating fans throw shadows onto the wall, and the visual significance of the gaudy abstract art hanging on the walls. More important, however, is the way Vittoria and Riccardo interact in this rarified environment. It becomes increasingly obvious throughout the first scene that the human interaction is just as meticulously stylized as the rooms the characters inhabit, which essentially transforms the human characters into objects as obsessively arranged and moved about as any inanimate object or piece of furniture (a theme which continues throughout the entire film).
So finally, after all of this analysis, what exactly does "the eclipse" of the title refer to? In all honestly, there is no single interpretation of what exactly the film's title means. To this reviewer, L'Eclisse is a film about the individual being overshadowed by the pressures, responsibilities, and overwhelming complexity of the modern world. But interpretation is limitless, which has allowed the film to have continued potency and relevance decades after its creation.
If there was any film screaming out for a Criterion release, it was L'Eclisse. The VHS prints previously available were atrocious, eclipsing the austere beauty of the film's imagery and muddying the carefully selected monochrome color scheme beyond recognition. Criterion has outdone themselves with this release, surpassing even the luminous restoration they gave to L'Avventura several years ago. Aside from occasional flickering, the image is sparkling in its clarity, with minute details precisely rendered and the black and white photography captured in its full glory. The audio is likewise admirable, lacking in any distortion or distractions; optional English subtitles are provided. On the merits of the transfer alone, this is a worthy inclusion in any DVD collection.
Criterion also includes several extras that greatly enhances this package. The feature-length commentary by Richard Pena (director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center) is highly informative and illuminating, balancing the need for a commentator to provide both general information and scene-specific analysis of a film of this nature. On Disc Two, a 56-minute long documentary Michelangelo Antonioni: The Eye That Changed Cinema is a good crash-course for those inexperienced with Antonioni's films, and provides enough quality information to make it worthwhile for those who are already fans. Two interviews (one by Italian film critic Adriano Apra, the other by Antonioni's longtime friend Carlo di Carlo) also help give some context to the film, its creation and reception, and its ongoing legacy. And not to be ignored is the beautiful 32-page booklet, featuring numerous photos and stills from the film, as well as essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Gilberto Perez, and some of Antonioni's own comments on his work.
The visuals alone are more than enough reason to adore this film—especially now with the Criterion release, which is some of the best work they've done. Antonioni's black and white compositions are simply phenomenal, and I'm hard pressed to think of another screen couple who are so equally matched in their physical beauty as the statuesque Vitti and the restless Delon. It's not a film that offers a thrill a minute, but its richness and density makes it is one of the most intellectually rewarding films ever created.
The film, the transfer…it doesn't get much better than this.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Richard Pena
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