The primary notion of nihilism, existential nihilism or the belief that life is meaningless, can be an outcome of an individual’s own crisis of identity, especially if that identity is grounded in an organization, group, or another individual. This is the case with Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte, the second film in what is considered his trilogy of solitude, which also includes L’Avventura (1960) and L’Eclisse (1962). La Notte is the only one of those films not released as part of the Criterion Collection, which is unfortunate, considering the current version of the DVD contains no extras or essays within the case art. La Notte is the tightest of the three films and contains the closest to a traditional narrative of all three. The tone of La Notte harbors the same bleakness as the rest of the trilogy as it explores the issues of identity and meaning within an existing relationship.

Lidia outside the hospital

La Notte‘s story centers around Marcello Mastroianni’s character of Giovanni, a successful writer who has recently published a new book. His wife, Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), provides mere window dressing for Giovanni in the beginning of the film. When they visit a dying friend named Tommaso in the hospital, Lidia remains aloof in the hospital room, refusing to sit and join her husband and Tommaso in a celebratory drink of champagne. Lidia’s distance in the hospital room seems to indicate that Giovanni was the closer friend to Tommaso, but when Lidia leaves the room on short notice and is outside the hospital, her feelings overcome her. This shifts the film toward her as the main character.

Lidia breaking free becomes the central action of the film, just as Anna disappearing in L’Avventura became the turning point in that film. In the case of La Notte, Lidia struggles to find herself instead of someone else, which is made more difficult because she is defined by her husband and his success as a writer. Lidia has no identity of her own.

Lidia’s story … is the story of a woman’s realization of how totally irrelevant her role is in her man’s life and of her dilemma as to what to do.” Cottino-Jones, p. 122

Lidia trapped in the car

When Giovanni tries to leave the hospital, his salacious encounter with a female patient occupies him until their embrace is broken up by nurses. The young woman in the hospital is physically caged because of her overt sexual desire, which enticed Giovanni into following her. When caught, however, the nurses restrain and strike the woman while Giovanni rushes safely out of the room. Giovanni joins his wife outside the hospital but fails to attend to, or even acknowledge, her emotional needs. This contrast of Giovanni’s character serves to further highlight Lidia’s situation.

While in the car, Lidia remains silent, not addressing the looks Giovanni gives her. When they encounter a traffic jam, Giovanni finally addresses her but Lidia’s answers are terse. Giovanni confesses to his encounter with the woman in the hospital, but Lidia shows no surprise. That Lidia guessed he went into her room on his own volition suggests Lidia is no stranger to his behavior. She tells Giovanni, “Perhaps she’s the lucky one.” Giovanni, perplexed, asks why. Lidia replies, “She’s uncontrollable.” This is the first outright statement from Lidia about her predicament.

Lidia is the background for Giovanni

The car scene physically reinforces Lidia’s feeling of being trapped. Giovanni, in control of the car as it careens down the road, seems stunned by her reaction to his encounter with the woman, but Lidia is already plotting her escape from the cages that contain her. When they finally arrive at the book party for Giovanni, Lidia leaves her husband’s side and walks among the guests. She quickly ditches the party, however, and heads out into the open streets of Milan, on her own terms.

Lidia escaping from a cage

Once Lidia escapes into the city, her walk and mood seem lighter as she lets herself meander.  When she takes a cab to a different section of the city, however, her lightness begins to recede. She encounters some young men fighting. She intervenes, telling them to stop. They do and turn their attention to her. As she runs away, one runs after her but stops at a fence, a man trapped within his own cage of meaningless violence.

At this point in the film, while Lidia explores her independence, the male characters are displayed trapped in their own cages, such as the young man who pursued Lidia. This idea of the male cage is best summed up in the book Antonioni, the Poet of Images: “Present, too, in La Notte is the imagery of enclosure that is so prominent in Il Grido, but here already evolving into the imagery of imprisonment—caged feelings and suppressed realities—that will dominate Eclipse, hinting in that film of the violence lurking and looming under the deceptively placid surface of the world, with its solid appearances and stolid certainties.” (Arrowsmith, p. 52) [Emphasis mine]

Young man in his own cage

While Lidia roams, Giovanni is trapped in his domestic cage as he waits for her to return, first in his book-lined study and later on his balcony where bars separate his space from his neighbor’s. During his conversation with the woman next door, a bird tweets and flutters in a cage on the woman’s balcony, reinforcing the similar condition of the humans nearby. Giovanni holds onto the bars, as if a prisoner in his own home. The balcony’s darkness is split only by a thin sliver of the fading light of day, faint hope for a grim situation.

Giovanni in his own cage

Lidia finally calls Giovanni to pick her up in a section of town where they lived earlier in their relationship. Once he arrives, she tries to invoke some interest from him but he remains aloof. They discuss the possibility of going to a party in the evening. When Lidia says she wants to go, Giovanni seems surprised, but when push comes to shove, neither are excited by the prospect. Back in their apartment as they prepare for their night out, Lidia gets out of the tub to ask Giovanni for a towel. As she stands naked, Giovanni remains unmoved by her nakedness, handing her towel as if it were just another duty.

The couple decides to hit a nightclub first, in part to hedge against their decision to go to the party and to attempt to loosen up. At the nightclub, a black woman dances and performs acrobatic feats with a filled wine glass. This performance only seems to deepen Lidia’s understanding of her own situation, providing her with a breakthrough moment, causing her to smile. Giovanni asks what she is thinking, but Lidia refuses to tell him. It’s a lucid moment for Lidia that could be mistaken as her getting over the feelings she has been experiencing thus far.

Lidia and Valentina

After driving through open gates, they walk toward the house where the party is being held. Once at the open front door, no one is around. Giovanni wonders aloud if they are all dead, to which Lidia says, “Let’s hope so.” They find the party in the back of the house, gathered around a race horse and rider. Once the group breaks apart, Lidia and Giovanni begin mingling, each on their own terms. Lidia consciously avoids people who would cage her, settling for her own company if that of others tends toward entrapment. She briefly joins Giovanni with the rich couple who are hosting the party. Lidia boldly inserts several comments about Giovanni into the discussion that reveal her new outlook on life. Giovanni, however, does not welcome this change.

As Lidia wanders around, she spots Valentina (Monica Vitti) at the bottom of the stairs. The two exchange glances: Lidia from up high, Valentina from down low. This arrangement sets up their uneven interaction, which eventually finds middle ground even as it gets more complicated, thanks to Giovanni. When he first spots Valentina, she is behind glass and alone, what appears to be the ideal situation for Giovanni: a caged, single woman. But unlike his encounter in the hospital, Valentina does not throw herself at him.

Giovanni spots Valentina

Valentina’s father, the rich businessman hosting the party, does, however, throw himself at Giovanni, offering him a well-paid position at his company. Giovanni is reluctant to take the position because it represents a potential cage for Giovanni. The scene physically feels like a cage as the businessman’s office is covered in photos of his factories, lots of pipes that feel like bars in a cage. The businessman stresses how the position would provide stability, which is not what Giovanni is looking for. The only thing that prevents him from an outright refusal of the offer is the possibility of becoming closer to Valentina.

Another cage: Valentina is walking by it

While Giovanni plays cat and mouse with Valentina, Lidia calls the hospital and finds out that Tommaso has died. She retreats into herself for a while, deeply saddened. When she sees Giovanni kissing Valentina, she is reminded of her cage and looks for an escape. A sudden downpour provides a release for Lidia, and as she is about to dive into the swimming pool, a man who has been eyeing her the whole night whisks her away in his car. Compared to the earlier scene in which Lidia was trapped in the car with Giovanni, the silent scene of Lidia and her captor driving slowly in the rain reveals a different side of Lidia. The lack of audible dialogue reinforces the idea of Lidia’s freedom in the moment. When they finally stop and get out of the car, Lidia tells the man she is not interested. She knows it would only be swapping one cage for another. She remains true to her self, not to Giovanni.

This forces Lidia back into her cage

When the power goes out back at the party, Giovanni searches for Valentina, the darkness providing cover for a tryst. Just as they are about to kiss, the lights come back. Soon after, Lidia returns, soaked. Valentina, still with Giovanni, offers to help her dry off. Lidia is unsure of Valentina’s intentions and asks her directly. Valentina jokingly assures Lidia that she only wants to help Lidia get herself dry. With the air cleared, the women bond and Lidia opens up to Valentina, leading to the following dialogue right as Giovanni enters the room.

Lidia: “You don’t know what it is to feel the weight of years, in vain… I just feel like dying. An end to this agony, something new…”
Valentina: “It may be nothing.”
Lidia: “Yes, it may be nothing.”

Jeanne Moreau, Marcello Mastroianni, and Monica Vitti

Upon hearing Lidia’s despair, Giovanni, knowing that his night is over, tells her that they are leaving. Each says their bit to Valentina, while she admits to not understanding them at all. Dawn breaks outside, seemingly providing a new day for everyone.

As Giovanni and Lidia walk along the golf course at dawn, Lidia decides to reveal her true feelings to Giovanni. She realizes that Tommaso loved her for who she was and wanted to help her grow, but she was attracted to Giovanni and followed her biological instincts instead of her reasoning.

Leaving Valentina

At this point, she knows she has nothing to lose. As they sit on the edge of a sand trap, she reads aloud a love letter Giovanni wrote to her many years ago, one that Giovanni doesn’t remember or recognize. His inability to recall these intimate feelings he wrote to Lidia sums up her case against him. But Giovanni doesn’t want to admit defeat. He needs to have someone inside his cage, and since he has failed with other women throughout the film, Lidia is the only one who remains. Giovanni envelopes Lidia, against her protestations. Lidia remains trapped in Giovanni’s cage.

In La Notte, Lidia represents the purposeless. When she breaks free in the film, she wanders without a goal or end in sight, letting life take her where it may. When it only takes her to her own past, it reinforces her present situation. What was it that led to this state for Lidia? She passed up Tommaso to be with Giovanni. Her choice, based on following her feelings, ended with her being all alone, just like Tommaso dying in his hospital bed. He is able to die, aided through his suffering with morphine. Lidia must bear her suffering. For Lidia, life has lost all meaning now that she clearly sees her relationship with Giovanni is merely a convenience.

La Notte gets at the heart of human purpose. Lidia has let someone else define her purpose and when that vanishes, she loses the will to continue living. In the first half, the film shows the cages people create for themselves, at times quite literally. When Lidia realizes that she doesn’t love Giovanni anymore, it destroys her reason for living, but she must remain in the cage created by and for her.

Caught in a sand trap, forever

Tarkovsky on the embrace between Lidia and Giovanni at the end of the film: “like the embrace of two people who are drowning.” Brunette, p. 72

La Notte, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

  • Marcello Mastroianni as Giovanni
  • Jeanne Moreau as Lidia
  • Monica Vitti as Valentina
  • Bernhard Wicki as Tommaso

References:
Women, Desire, and Power in Italian Cinema, Marga Cottino-Jones, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010
Antonioni: The Poet of Images, William Arrowsmith, Oxford University Press, 1995
The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni, Peter Brunette, Cambridge University Press, 1998

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