Analysis of ‘La Notte’

La Notte (‘The Night’) is a 1961 Italian film by Michelangelo Antonioni, written by him, Ennio Flaiano, and Tonino Guerra. It stars Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, and Monica Vitti. Filmed on location in Milan, it is about the disintegrating relationship of a man and his wife, as both of them are tempted into having extramarital affairs.

The second film of a trilogy (the first being L’Avventura, and the third being L’Eclisse), La Notte continues Antonioni’s abandoning of traditional plots in favour of visual composition. The film was acclaimed for its exploration of modernist themes of alienation; it received the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, a first for an Italian film, and it also won the David di Donatello award for Best Director in 1961. It’s one of Stanley Kubrick‘s ten favourite films.

Here is a link to quotes, in English translation, from the film.

When the opening credits are showing, we see a shot of a building up close, one much taller than the other buildings of the city either in the background or in the reflection of the skyscraper’s windows. The camera is slowly moving downwards.

Since La Notte is about a married couple growing alienated from each other, and we know that the essence of alienation is an inability to communicate with and understand other people, then this descending camera shot of a skyscraper suggests the Tower of Babel, meant to reach up to heaven. But God (Elohim) says, “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:7). And indeed, after the credits are finished showing, we see the beginning stages of the breakdown in communication between writer Giovanni Pontano (Mastroianni) and his frustrated wife, Lidia (Moreau).

Subtle associations in moments in the film with key moments in the primeval Biblical narrative can be found afterwards, too, though largely in reverse order to that of the early chapters of Genesis. I’ll return to these other associations soon enough.

Giovanni and Lidia enter a hospital where their good friend, fellow writer Tommaso Garani (played by Bernhard Wicki), is a seriously ill, dying patient in need of morphine to ease his pain. In this pitiful state, Tommaso personifies the Pontanos’ ailing marriage.

Before the couple go into his room, they’re accosted by a pretty but emotionally unstable young woman who complains of the telephone in her room not working (symbolic of already failing communication). She will later make sexual advances on Giovanni after Lidia has left the hospital in tears over the wretched state Tommaso is in. There is a clear link between seeing their dying friend and this young woman, for temptations to adultery are among the things that are slowly tearing this marriage apart.

The theme of stifled communication is developed in Giovanni’s repeated self-deprecatory remarks about his fading abilities as a writer. The ability to use language is crucial to a writer, of course, but also key to having healthy relationships, especially in a marriage. Language is a central part of Lacan‘s Symbolic Order, brought into being through the prohibition of Oedipal indulgence via the Nom, or Non! du père, and bringing the child out of his narcissistic, dyadic relationship with mother and into the world of society, culture, and shared customs. Giovanni’s indulgence with pretty girls like this wild woman in the hospital, and later with Valentina Gherardini (Vitti), is a regression to a self-centred, childish state, a retreat from society (coupled with his fading ability to write, to use language) that will wreak havoc with his marriage.

The funny thing with Lidia, as far as Giovanni’s temptations with both women are concerned, is that she isn’t jealous. She’s just disgusted with him. It’s a clear sign that the love has died in their marriage. This is why we see her walking off from him, going off alone so many times.

First, she has to go off alone at the hospital, after empathizing with the pain of Tommaso, the personification of her marriage to Giovanni. Then, at the promotion of his new book, La Stagione (“The Season”), she walks off again. Finally, at the Gherardinis’ party, she’s often alone.

She’s sometimes tempted by other men, directly or indirectly, as Giovanni is by young women. During her walk-off from his book promotion, after which he goes home surprised to find her not there (and turns off a recording of an English lesson, the translation of English vocabulary into Italian; his turning off of the recording is symbolically another indication of the ending of language, and therefore, of communication), she encounters some people and things that can at least symbolize, or be associated with, thoughts of her being with other men.

At one point, Giovanni lies down and naps for a bit. Lidia walks along a sidewalk with short stone posts that are phallic in shape; she touches one or two of them, and passes by an old woman who would seem to be a reflection on her own aging…and fear of further aging.

Later, having been driven around in a cab (her riding with a male driver other than her husband suggestive of an adultery fantasy), she encounters a gang of boys, two of whom get into a fistfight. Though she naturally abhors the sight of violence, and promptly stops the fight, one suspects that she–being a woman raised in a traditional society–would find two virile young men fighting to be erotically stimulating, at least on an unconscious level.

After that, she sees rockets being fired into the sky. The sight strongly suggests ejaculating phalli. Such images of virility, something that seems conspicuously lacking in mild-mannered Giovanni, suggests the root of her problems with him: he seems impotent (an at least psychological inadequacy, if not a physical one), and only able to get it up with young women. In fact, even with the wild woman in the hospital, he doesn’t seem to be aroused.

Early during her walk, she comes to the run-down buildings of some poor people and finds a child crying. Though she, as a bourgeois, is not of the poor child’s class, she nonetheless sympathizes; and her wish to comfort the child suggests her frustration at never getting to be a mother. Indeed, we know of no sons or daughters from the Pontanos.

Giovanni wakes from his nap in an agitated state, suggesting he’s just dreamt what she experienced alone outside. It’s another example, as I’ve noted in Blowup and The Passenger, of Antonioni verging on, though not quite lapsing into, the surreal, the borderline between reality and dream, or fantasy. In any case, Giovanni’s worst nightmare is being realized: she’s falling out of love with him and having adulterous thoughts of her own.

She telephones him and has him pick her up in a place where they used to live, a reminiscence of a happier time when they were still in love. In response to his worries, she says it’s “nothing”…as in Much Ado About…When he arrives, he notes a train track now covered in vegetation; he remembers when the train was once used. Back in the time when they’d lived there, their love was going places, like that train. Now, their love goes nowhere…like that train.

When they get home, she takes a bath. The scene is interesting in that it was originally censored for giving us one or two brief flashes of Moreau’s breasts. (Other scenes in the film, such as the wild woman’s seduction of Giovanni, including her undressing after their kiss, as well as his and Lidia’s rolling around in the dirt kissing at the end, and one of two ladies walking together saying ‘whore’–or ‘tart,’ depending on the translation–at the Gherardinis’ party, were also censored.) Giovanni shows no sexual interest in his naked wife, adding to her frustrations.

Night is approaching, their marriage’s ‘dark night of the soul,’ so to speak, and Lidia doesn’t want to sit around at home. They’ll go to the Gherardinis’ party, but first to a night club. She shows herself off to him in a new black dress, but he shows minimal interest, disappointing her once again.

At the night club, they watch a striptease/equilibrist perform while balancing a wine glass. The juxtaposition of Giovanni and Lidia watching a woman being undressed (by her husband?) with her balancing of a glass half-filled with wine, which she later drinks, vaguely suggests Genesis 9:20-22, when Noah got drunk and naked in his tent, and Ham saw him. Ham thus is cursed.

The shame in the scene in the film, though, is in how the erotic dancing does nothing to inspire passion in Giovanni, a passion that he could direct at Lidia. As he says to her, “I no longer have inspirations, only recollections.” She is thus once again frustrated. Their marriage is cursed.

They arrive at the Gherardinis’ party, where the lady of the house (played by costume designer Gitt Magrini, who incidentally also played Jeanne’s mother in Last Tango in Paris) greets them.

Her husband is a curious sort: he would seem to be a socialist’s fantasy of what a boss ought to be like. Mr. Gherardini (played by Vincenzo Corbella) speaks of not being interested in making profits, but rather producing things to be remembered. He imagines that Giovanni writes out of necessity. He also offers Giovanni a job, to write the history of Gherardini’s company. Giovanni probably won’t accept the job offer: after all, as a bourgeois with a servant in his home, Giovanni would seem out of place working for a ‘socialist.’

Still, he might consider taking the job after all…if he can get closer to the Gherardinis’ pretty daughter, Valentina. Giovanni Pontano’s philandering with young women suggests that his surname is a pun on puttana, or more aptly, ‘puttano,’ a male whore.

He begins his pursuit of Valentina by playing a game she’s devised, that of sliding her compact across a floor of checkered tiles with the aim of it landing on one specified tile, to win points. By participating in this game, Giovanni is demonstrating what a ‘playa‘ he is.

He is so careless and foolish that just after the end of their game, he kisses her…and Lidia sees him do it! This is shortly after she’s learned, from having telephoned the hospital, that Tommaso has just died. She isn’t jealous of her husband with Valentina because she knows her marriage is dead.

Soon after, it starts to rain. This heavy rain can be compared to the forty days and forty nights of rain of the Great Flood. Now, the placement of the rain in the time sequence of the film is one of the few instances that don’t coordinate with the reversed time sequence I mentioned above about the major events of the early chapters of Genesis. Still, the Biblical parallels are enough to make my point about Giovanni’s and Lidia’s marriage: it’s going backward, not progressing.

The cause of the wickedness of the world leading up to the Great Flood, as described in Genesis 6:1-4, was the sons of God mating with the daughters of men, a forbidden mixture of the human and divine worlds that brought chaos to God’s ordered creation. The ‘sons of God’ of La Notte are Giovanni and Roberto (played by Giorgio Negro), who show a sexual interest in, respectively, Valentina and Lidia, the ‘daughters of men’; and the former pair pursues the latter pair before, during, and after the rain, which doesn’t quite correspond with the reverse order of the analogous events in the Bible. Still, I say the correspondences are close enough.

At first, many of the guests at the party use the rain to elevate their hilarity and fun–a number of people jump in the swimming pool, reinforcing the association with the Flood; ultimately, however, the rain causes certain crucial guests to split up and go their own ways, a breaking up of the universal socializing and communicating that is the essence of the Symbolic. Giovanni and Valentina become a dyad, and so do Lidia and Roberto.

These two dyads, metaphorical mirrors looking into each others’ eyes and reflecting each others’ egoism, are experiencing what Lacan called the Imaginary. The desire one member of each dyad has for the other is a wish to be at one with the ideal-I that is experienced in the reflected faces of their metaphorical mirrors. The one desires to be the desire of the other, or to be recognized by the other. Giovanni wants the youth and vitality of Valentina, since he’s losing his own virility with age. Lidia hopes to be a sexy, desirable woman for Roberto, since she cannot be such a woman for her husband.

So both husband and wife have regressed from engagement with the Other (society in general, mingling with many people instead of just focusing on one) to engagement with the other (just one other person, making a dyad with him or her, a transference of the mother/son or father/daughter, Oedipal pairing). These narcissistic duos, reflecting each other like mirrors, are a regression from the adult world of the Symbolic to the infantile Imaginary, and thus constitute a breaking down of communication.

Now, it isn’t so easy to regress into the secondary narcissism of the revisited Imaginary without the danger of lapsing into the terrifying chaos of the Real, which is what the Deluge-like rainfall symbolizes. Narcissism is a defence against psychological fragmentation, a falling-apart of the self and a psychotic break with reality.

Lidia is in Roberto’s car during the heavy rainfall; they are in ‘Noah’s ark,’ so to speak. We see them through the car windows, chatting with and smiling at each other, enjoying one another’s company; but we don’t hear a word they’re saying. Inside the car is the narcissistic dyad of the Imaginary; outside the car, out in the rain–like the forty days and forty nights of rain that killed everyone on Earth–is the traumatic, undifferentiated horror of the Real, what cannot be symbolized with language.

This scene in the film reminds me of what Slavoj Zižek once said about the inside and outside of a car as it relates symbolically to the Real. In Looking Awry, he commented on a passage in Robert Heinlein‘s Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag. A couple are in a car driving home, but are told under no circumstances, no matter what they see, to open the windows of their car. They witness, during their drive, a child hit by a car, and naturally feel the urge to roll down a window, just a bit, to tell a patrolman about the accident. Instead of seeing all that they’ve seen through the closed windows, though, they see through the opening “Nothing but a grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life.” (Zižek, page 14)

So what is this “grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life,” Zižek asks, “if not the Lacanian real, the pulsing of the presymbolic substance in its abhorrent vitality? But what is crucial for us here is the place from which this real erupts: the very borderline separating the outside from the inside, materialized in this case by the windowpane…To those sitting inside a car, outside reality appears slightly distant, the other side of a barrier or screen materialized by the glass. We perceive external reality, the world outside the car, as ‘another reality,’ another mode of reality, not immediately continuous with the reality inside the car. The proof of this discontinuity is the uneasy feeling that overwhelms us when we suddenly roll down the windowpane and allow external reality to strike us with the proximity of its material presence…But when we are safely inside the car, behind the closed windows, the external objects are, so to speak, transposed into another mode. They appear to be fundamentally ‘unreal,’ as if their reality has been suspended, put in parenthesis–in short, they appear as a kind of cinematic reality projected onto the screen of the windowpane. It is precisely this phenomenological experience of the barrier separating inside from outside, this feeling that the outside is ultimately ‘fictional,’ that produces the horrifying effect of the final scene in Heinlein’s novel. It is as if, for a moment, the ‘projection’ of the outside reality had stopped working, as if, for a moment, we had been confronted with the formless grey, with the emptiness of the screen…” (Zižek, pages 14-15)

In La Notte, however, it isn’t seeing out from the inside, from the narcissistic veil of illusion out onto the harsh reality of outside, but the other way around. From the Real that is outside, one looks inside to see two people experiencing the illusion. It is just like Noah’s family and the pairs of animals, experiencing the comfort of the illusion of life, as opposed to the chaos and destruction of the Flood going on outside, killing everyone and every land animal, a return to the tohu-wa-bohu of primordial Chaos. Accordingly, Lidia can enjoy the feeling of being courted by Robert; but when they park the car and get out, and he continues his pursuit of her, she snaps out of it and realizes she cannot cheat on her husband. She has had a taste of the Real, standing out in the rain for a moment, and her narcissistic illusions have been shattered.

She cannot cheat on Giovanni, even though she knows he hasn’t been faithful to her; this is partly because of the patriarchal double standard that indulges a husband’s affairs, but not a wife’s. Also, she cannot cheat on him simply because she’s much more responsible and adult than he is. We’ve seen her smile and watch the jazz band play up close, admiring these attractive, talented men. She has gotten in the car with Roberto. But she never fully acts on her temptations as Giovanni does. She won’t even kiss Roberto.

When Giovanni and Valentina are alone in the house, she plays a tape recording she’s made of what seems affectedly poetic TV dialogue; she feels embarrassed about it, for she asks him to promise not to make fun of her for having recorded it. After playing it, he wants to hear it again, but when she rewinds it, she also erases it, considering the recording to be “drivel.” Once again, La Notte shows how the removal of language and communication vitiates relationships.

When Lidia and Roberto return, she and Giovanni have to confront each other’s temptations to adultery. Giovanni is offended at something Roberto says to him with challenging eyes, that in democracy we “take things as they come”; it would seem more reasonable to assume he’s more annoyed at Roberto being alone with his wife (i.e., free to take her as she comes) than at what he has said. As mentioned above, though, Lidia denies any feelings of jealousy over her husband’s interest in Valentina, even though he’s made no attempt to hide that interest.

Instead, she feels as if she wants to die, for she knows she doesn’t love Giovanni anymore. Like Tommaso, her marriage is dead. The Cain of her husband’s concupiscence has made her no longer able…or, Abel?…to love him anymore. Giovanni, his eyes wandering in the land of Nod, knowing those other than his wife, has murdered her love, just as Cain killed his brother.

The morning has come, and it’s time to leave the party. Giovanni and Lidia decide to walk through Mr. Gherardini’s golf course. She finally tells Giovanni about Tommaso’s death; he’s annoyed that she didn’t mention it earlier, but he was playing (i.e., the game with Valentina with her compact slid across the checkered tiles–trying to seduce her). With the mention of Tommaso’s death comes her final confrontation with Giovanni about the end of her love for him…and vice versa.

She reads him an impassioned love letter she’s had in her purse. Though he’s visibly moved by the letter’s contents, he has forgotten that he, in fact, wrote it long ago, back when he still truly loved her. His obliviousness to what he wrote proves his love, too, has died–how his ineptitude with language has ruined their relationship.

He won’t accept this painful truth, though, so he makes unwanted sexual advances on her. They’ve been sitting by a group of trees, him rolling on top of her in the dirt. This moment is comparable to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

His pitiful attempt at lovemaking reminds us of St. Augustine‘s interpretation of original sin, coming from concupiscence, or involuntary desire, which has been plaguing their marriage from the beginning. His uncontrolled arousal was directed at women other than Lidia; this same involuntary arousal was no longer directed at her, so when he tries to make love with her there, it’s fake, and she knows it (i.e., she knows he hasn’t got an erection–he’s impotent). He’d wished, in his love letter, for his love for her to be immortal, but not even his memory of the letter was immortal. Small wonder she, too, has looked outside their marriage for love.

His attempt at lovemaking is so fake that it should be obvious even to him that his love for her died long ago. He knows, as if from eating the…here, bitter…fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, that their love is dead. Only his narcissism would push him to hide his shame by pretending to feel desire for her, paradoxically related to the shame that made Adam and Eve want to hide their genital arousal by covering it with fig leaf aprons.

They roll in the dirt of his concupiscence, for Giovanni, like Adam, is dust, and like their marriage, to dust shall he return. From the Tower of Babel of the opening credits, to the…Edenic?…ending of the film, their marriage has gone backwards, not forwards.

This ‘Edenic’ ending is not a return to the lost paradise, for Giovanni and Lidia remain in their fallen state; they know their love is dead–they aren’t the naïve, unknowing naked pair before having eaten the forbidden fruit. Fully clothed, they’re like Adam and Eve only after God has clothed them in animal skins.

Now, it isn’t that sex per se is dirty, as Augustine conceived it; it’s that desire isn’t controlled–it’s misdirected. Sex itself didn’t bring about the Fall of Man; God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. Childless Giovanni and Lidia were never fruitful. Desire brought about the fall of, respectively, both the naked and the clothed couples of the Bible and La Notte. The Buddhists agree that it’s desire that is the root of human suffering, and the Pontanos’ misdirected desire has been causing their suffering throughout the dark night of their marriage.

Slavoj Zižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, OCTOBER Books, London, 1991

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