Judge Gordon Sullivan is as cold as Italian ice.
Our review of L'Eclisse: Criterion Collection, published June 6th, 2005, is also available.
The concluding chapter of Michelangelo Antonioni's informal trilogy.
Fifty years on, it's hard to credit just how earth-shatteringly seismic the shift in international film was in the 1960s, especially its first half. People love to talk about the Beatles and Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show as massive moments in popular culture—and they are, don't get me wrong—but moments just as important were happening in the film world. The French New Wave was just cresting, with Jean-Luc Godard releasing a feature or more a year, Truffaut less prolific but still essential, and the rest of the usual suspects working hard. Bergman was still releasing amazing films, as was Kurosawa. Over in Italy, Federico Fellini gave us La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits between 1960 and 1965. Also in Italy, Michelangelo Antonioni released his informal trilogy of modern malaise, starting with 1960's L'avventura, followed by La Notte, and completed with 1962's L'Eclisse. Criterion did their usually excellent job when the film was released on DVD with spine number 278, but they've done an equally excellent job upgrading things with the Blu-ray included in his dual-format release.
Facts of the Case
In Antonioni's wandering narrative, Vittoria (Monica Vitti, The Red Desert) grows weary of her affair with Riccardo (Francisco Rabal, Viridiana) and instead initiates a doomed affair with stockbroker Piero (Alain Delon, Le Cercle Rouge).
There' a fairly standard story of Antonioni's films, one which I alluded to above. The three films of his loose trilogy are all about existential despair, especially the kind of malaise brought on by having too much money and not enough to do. They express the alienation of the modern world, the emptiness that all the post-World War II building and economic recovery can't quite mask. Not only that, but his characters are lost in landscapes that are never either entirely nature or entirely man-made. The Mediterranean seems like just another place to party in L'Avventura, while the architecture of Rome could be just another mountain in L'Eclisse. Antonioni's point seems to be that if even the most beautiful people in the most beautiful places aren't able to find love then what hope do the rest of us have? Perhaps the Beatles and Elvis on television are remembered better than these films because they're more upbeat.
I don't want to deny the standard story of Antonioni's films—there's a definite truth to the feelings of alienation and disaffection running through the lives of Antonioni's characters, and they are definitely expressed in an attention to location and mood that largely ignores narrative progress. And yet, actually sitting down to watch L'Eclisse consists in so much more. Yes, the hallmarks everyone expects from Antonioni are there in the bored, disaffected, dubiously faithful Romans going about their day-to-day life. But in addition to that material, there's something in watching the film that these short-hand descriptions can't capture.
The most obvious thing is the tremendous black and white cinematography. There's an old adage that sound films invented silence in the movies, and it therefore follows that color films "invented" the black and white. Antonioni's next feature (The Red Desert) would tackle color, but his first trilogy is all about contrast, making black and white the perfect medium. Though the film's nominal stars are Monica Vitti and Alain Delon, Rome deserves at least "supporting" status. Though Antonioni's work isn't usually classified with the Italian Neorealists (for good reason), his early training in documentary shows through in the way he photographs the city and its inhabitants (including the real-life stock brokers who surround Delon at his work). Though Rome is the ultimate supporting star, Antonioni also continues his obsession with the objects that fill the lives of his characters. The technique reminds me a bit of Bret Easton Ellis' litany of designer brands in American Psycho. Both Ellis and Antonioni showcase both the talismanic power of consumer goods and their ultimate emptiness.
The other aspect of L'Eclisse the standard story doesn't capture is Antonioni's casting. Both Alain Delon and Monica Vitti are at the height of their powers here. What fascinates me on a second viewing is the way that gender plays out between the two. Italian culture is typically portrayed with a bunch of macho guys who are really under the thumb of their overbearing mothers/wives. In L'Eclisse, though, Delon and Vitti switch around many of our gender-based expectations. Delon is one of the most beautiful men in cinema, with his perfect hair and high cheekbones. Though he pursues Vitti in standard masculine ways, his passion for her borders on the kind of romance we expect from women. By contrast, Vitti—though similarly beautiful and feminine—has the coldness and detachment from romance that we expect from the male existential heroes of the early 1960s.
Then there's this excellent L'Eclisse (Blu-ray) release. This is one of Criterion's dual-format releases, so we get the Blu-ray and its attendant extras mirrored on two DVDs inside a Blu-ray sized case along with the usual Criterion booklet (this time with an essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, one by scholar Gilberto Perez, an excerpt from Antonioni on Antonioni, and an excerpted essay from a collection of his screenplays). The Blu-ray sports a 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer from a near-pristine source. There is the occasional bit of damage—mostly specks—but other than these minor difficulties the transfer is gorgeous. Blacks are rich and deep, with contrast remaining steady. Detail is strong enough to both support a film-like grain structure and reveal a few of those bits of damage more clearly. Overall it's a great transfer, second only to seeing a pristine restored print in a theater. The film's audio is available in an LPCM 1.0 mono track in the original Italian that does a fine job with the dialogue. Dynamic range and clarity are hindered a bit by the 50 year old technology, but overall it's a fine track.
Extras start with a commentary by scholar Richard Peña, who discusses some of the symbolism of Antonioni's film while also providing some of the historical backdrop. Next up is a 51 minute documentary on Antonioni, The Eye that Changed Cinema. It's rich with archival interviews and clips that do an excellent job showcasing Antonioni's development as a filmmaker. Finally, we get a featurette called "The Elements of Landscape" featuring critic Adriano Aprà and Antonioni's friend Carlo di Carlo. The pair discusses Antonioni's films in terms of the personal and the historical, offering a fine commentary on his work.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
L'Eclisse is not an easy film, offering none of the superficial pleasures of narrative to entice viewers. Instead, we have to sit with Antonioni's images and characters, often not knowing what's going on or why we're looking at something. The experience can be a rich one for those who are prepared, but this is not a film to venture into lightly.
L'Eclisse is another classic from Michelangelo Antonioni that Criterion has given their excellent care and attention. This Blu-ray significantly upgrades the presentation of the film, and includes the extras from the previous DVD release. Fans of Antonioni's work or with an interest in '60s international art house cinema owe it to themselves to pick up this release.
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