Handbag Bowls

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In LA NOTTE, Antonioni’s existential urban ennui driftalong dream of directionless decadence and the isolation of togetherness, Monica Vitti, making an “extraordinary appearance” (though as the director’s wife, it’s not so much extraordinary as inevitable), invents a fun new game, sliding her handbag across a checkerboard floor, the object being to land on the last square. It’s not quite the only fun anyone has in the movie, but it feels like it, perhaps because Antonioni has invented the best excuse for cleavage shots in screen history.

As another disaffected, casual, despairing party guest, Vitti still manages to be more alive and productive than the principles (tellingly, the most vivacious guy is the friend who’s dying), with her tape-recorded observations, made purely for self-expression, but even she ends up drained by the vampiric energy-void of Mastroianni and Moreau. Also, she represents such vivacity and allure that Mastroianni, drawn zombie-moth like towards her, never seems to lose sympathy despite the fact that he’s trying, in a listless way, to cheat on his miserable wife. I was on his side.

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The excellent bit with the stuffed cat.

But I was on Moreau’s side too — she’s much more appealing than him. It seems surprising to see Moreau cast as nothing but a wife, and a passionless one too. It helps that she smiles quite a bit — but a gentle smile, none of her usual edge. JULES ET JIM located that smile as belonging to an ancient statue: the smile of the sphinx. I have no idea how thoughtful the real Marcello was — I have my doubts — but he makes a just-credible intellectual here. But it’s Moreau who more strongly  suggests hidden depths.

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Her flaneur sequences, wandering a Milan that’s gradually being corroded into another international Tativille, were the bits that hooked me, evoking as they do the mysterious intensity of L’ECLISSE’s final, protagonist-free street corner hang-out zone (analysed here).

Hard to imagine how the film’s celebration/suicidal despair at the clean angles of modern architecture would have played when all this was actually new. Despite an opening shot that pointedly contrasts old and new structures, LA NOTTE doesn’t generally offer a Tati-style dialectic on differing ages of design, it essentially takes up discrete vantage points amid those glossy, glassy planes and bides its time. And it’s bravely devoid of a sense of humour, even if Marcello does sprout a set of glittering deely-boppers for an instant.

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The final party, endless party, all jazz and dark angles, strikes me as more successful than anything in LA DOLCE VITA — it doesn’t seem to have dated, and in eschewing the cartoonist’s eye for tabloid-friendly excess, it captures public aloneness, isolation in a crowd, melancholy pleasures amid revelry, solitary pensiveness and also portrays a party I’d actually kind of like to go to, even if I would just find a quiet corner and read.

UK Blu: LA NOTTE [THE NIGHT] (Masters of Cinema) (Blu-ray)

UK DVD: La Notte [Masters of Cinema] [1961] [DVD]

US Blu: La Notte (Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

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6 Responses to “Handbag Bowls”

  1. They’re very different parties. Antonioni’s is of upper class swells. Fellini’s the flotsam and jetsam of the Via Veneto. Plus there’s Fellini’s ending which evokes the Montesi scandal in a very cheeky way.

  2. In principle I would feel more at home among the flotsam and jetsam. But they’re so rowdy! Listless ennui is more like my idea of a good time.

  3. To think, Losey saw this and thought , “What wonderful ennui! Wouldn’t she be great in a campy, slapsticky spy parody?”

  4. Certainly, this film would resonate with the director of, say, Eva. And certainly, saddled with a Bond spoof unsuited to his finer instincts, Losey would look for some way to make the project pleasing.

    Richard Lester said something like, “‘Zany’ is the last word you would ever apply to Losey.”

    And Antonioni, I think, had to suppress Vitti’s humour. I think Modesty Blaise and the more riotous films she made are more like the real her.

  5. Oh, you are very reasonable and, from what I remember of the Losey bio I read, very right.

    It’s just funny to imagine some exec going:

    “A zany Monica Vitti spy spoof, from the guy who made EVA and KING AND COUNTRY! Do I need to draw you a map?”

  6. Ha!

    The Mephistopheles figure seems to have been Losey’s agent, father of the guy who produces the Harry Potter films. He was somehow convinced that his client’s true place in life was directing Burton-Taylor epics.

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