Tuesday 9 November 2021

On Criterion and other Blu-rays - Shelley Jiang responds to L'ECLISSE (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1962)


"You never stand still."

"Why should I?"

"Who has time to go out with call girls? I'm the call girl."

"I don't miss marriage."

"How could you miss it if you've never been married?" 

Alain Delon's Piero (above) seems to possess an innocence absent from Antonioni's other films. The way that he points to the pay phone without lifting his glance from the coins in his hand, flutters his fingers before picking a pastry, even the forthrightness with which he plans to claim insurance for and then up-sell his ruined but relatively undented car reveals an unfettered enthusiasm that seems prelapsarian in comparison to Vittoria's (Monica Vitti, below) heavy gaze. 

She's disappointed in Piero's materialism but is buoyed by his hyperactivity. There's an irony here that gets at the core of this film: despite Piero's materialism and apparent calculativeness, he's also inherently more at ease with a kind of cosmic irrationality, in the form of the market's unpredictability, the chaos of the stock exchange, the ability of enormous debt to materialise but promise no one returns. I couldn't take cynically the stockbrokers' praise for clients who bear their losses with poise and passivity -- Antonioni was surely only half-joking about an admiration for their composure in the face of disorder, an attitude that carries the peculiar light magic in a scene of a man drawing a flower on his receipt paper at a café table after losing 50 mill in the market crash. 

...one gloomy, the other spry....

One of the great master strokes of this film makes it also feel at times unwatchable: how the tessellation of Vittoria and Piero's characters (one gloomy, the other spry; one in dark suits, the other blonde and in light shirts and slips) only carves out a hollowness. On their dates in the area, Antonioni's compositions lets in the expansive totality of the space surrounding the characters, with figures constantly moving off of frame and in those reverse shots at 180 degrees that obliterate the pivoting arc characteristic of dialogue scenes. When Vittoria and Piero finally seem at ease with each other in a room, they gleefully imitate other couples they’ve seen, reflections of the world outside. In the most deft use of the 180 reverse shot, Antonioni shows the pair fooling around from office couch to balcony to carpet floor — the whole sequence of (mostly) close-ups seems like a very fluid continuity edit except each shot shows us Piero and Vittoria in the exact same framing instead of the corresponding reverse image. 

You barely notice this identity but there's a slight irksomeness from the way the characters seem to vanish as a very result of their fulfilment. The patterns of reduction suit Antonioni’s exploration of the paralysis of edifying human sentiments but the experience of this abstraction is of a constant and joyless bottoming out of action and story. 

Tarkovsky often cited Antonioni as an important influence because of how it changed his idea of 'action', i.e. that it's conditional and takes place even when nothing is happening, but it’s hard not to see other similarities. There's a shot near the end of Piero listless at his desk with the breeze running through his hair and the papers in his office that's so auspicious (and mesmerising), it carries a mysticism that could have been lifted out of a Tarkovsky film. 

The reassertion of the cosmic just as Piero begins to share Vittoria's anxious look reminds us of the irony of Piero’s original state of health. While consciousness of love/lust leaves Piero and Vittoria frozen in speculative paranoia, the accumulation of profit enables human connection in one of its most uninhibited and enlivened forms. 

The famous montage that concludes the film centres on the absence of Piero and Vittoria from their favourite meeting place, but the focus of the dissonant montage is really the profuse abundance of the material -- a reference to nuclear warfare in a shot of a newspaper headline recognises even the mass and potency of the invisible. What we, unexpectedly, feel when we begin to miss Vittoria and Piero is a kind of pathos in their spiritual ineptitude, in our spiritual ineptitude, in the face of the modern. This vulnerability would be far more mundane had Antonioni simply settled on the world as a void and beyond comprehension, as some have suggested he has in this ending. 

If it feels hard to get into this film, then I think the best way to enjoy it is to really watch for Antonioni's vectors, edits, and sequencing as abstracted a way of viewing this might seem. There's a feeling then of the absence always responding to the characters, like in that reverse shot on Vittoria looking out a window of Piero's apartment, and like in the ghost-like agency of the camerawork in Tarkovsky's Mirror.

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