At the time Michelangelo Antonioni's L' Eclisse was released, other filmmakers from all around the world were experimenting with the possibilities of film. At a time when other European filmmakers were taking cinematic chances, like Godard with Breathless, Luis Bunuel with Viridiana, Alain Resnais with Last Year in Marienbad and Ingmar Bergman with Persona, Antonioni's film L' Eclisse seemed to take things to an even greater level. Within its plot structure and story telling, L' Eclisse begins in some ways at the end of one story and at the beginning of another. Most of Antonioni’s films focus on women and Antonioni is known more as a ‘woman’s’ director in which his characters are usually soulless, lost, empty unhappy people who use the word ‘love’ as more like an attempt to pass the time in their pointless existence. L' Eclisse is the climax of a trilogy that explores the emotional alienation between a man and a woman and the contemporary world of modernization. His first film L' Avventura in 1960 was followed by La Notte in 1961; and then with L' Eclisse in 1962. L' Eclisse was the most radical of the three films, which not only explored themes of the rise of the cold war and the threat of world nuclear annihilation, but it included one of the boldest and most experimental endings in all of cinematic history. Some U.S. exhibitors were in fact so troubled by the ending that they lopped off the entire seven minutes, perhaps the most powerful sequence all in Antonioni's work.
The first shot of the film is an abstract shot of a lamp and books in the foreground and a man named Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) sitting down in the background while a woman named Vittoria (Monica Vitti) is playing with miniature agriculture like shapes with a fan blowing wind in the room. It's around dawn and there is complete silence between these two as the women who is a young literary translator named Vittoria says, "well, Riccardo. Everything we talked about last night." Vittoria is trying to break off her relationship with Riccardo as she looks out his apartment window and sees a large EUR water tower. Riccardo sits in a chair with a blank mindless expression and Vittoria suddenly gets frightened about the idea of her being alone again and Riccardo gets up and tries to persuade her to stay and he tells her he will do anything she says. Vittoria tells him, "when we first met I was 20 years old. I was happy then."
Riccardo goes into the bathroom and starts shaving with an electric shaver and Vittoria wants to say something but decides against it as she tries to leave with him demanding her to wait. "We've avoided saying certain things. Why bring them up now?" she asks him. Riccardo tells her, "They're some things you'd never tell me. You're not cruel. Be good and tell me one last thing. Don't you love me anymore, or you don't want to marry me?" Vittoria says that she doesn't know and she doesn't know when she stopped loving him. Riccardo accidentally breaks an ashtray because he knows this is finally the end between the two of them. He asks if he can call her in a few days but she tells him not to as she leaves his apartment leaving him all alone with himself.
As she walks the deserted early morning streets past the EUR water tower which resembles a mushroom cloud, suddenly Riccardo catches up in his car and walks with her through a wooded area to her apartment building at 307 Viale dell'Umanesimo. She says to him that it was a terrible night for the both of them and that she is sorry as she says her final goodbyes as she walks into her apartment.
Sometime later, Vittoria visits her mother at the Rome Stock Exchange. Observers and investors look on nervously as the traders rush about gesturing wildly and making their trades. A young stockbroker, Piero (Alain Delon), overhears an inside tip, rushes to purchase the stocks, and then sells them at a large profit. Piero introduces himself to Vittoria; he is her mother's stock broker.
All activity comes to a halt as an announcement is made saying, "I have to inform you of some sad news. Our colleague, Mr. Domenico, died of a heart attack today. Our emotions at this moment prevent us from finding suitable words to describe our friend. I ask that we show our respect by a few moments of silence." Everyone quiets down and stands in silence as you hear the sound of phones ringing faint in the background. Piero whispers over to Vittoria and says, "It's like a moment of silence for athletes." Vittoria asks if Piero knew the guy who died and he says, "sure, but you know one minute here costs billions."
Following the moment of silence, the room erupts in frenzied activity again. Outside the Stock Exchange Building, Vittoria and her mother walk to a nearby open market. Vittoria tries to tell her about her failed relationship with Riccardo, but her mother is preoccupied with the profits she just earned and her food shopping.
That evening in her apartment, Vittoria takes a piece of art that looks like a piece of fossilized plant or flower and puts it on her book shelf. She then starts to hammer a nail into her apartment waking Vittoria's neighbor Anita up who comes to visit and as they discuss the breakup. Vittoria says, "I'm so tired and depressed. Disgusted and confused." Another neighbor, Marta calls and invites them both to her apartment nearby to keep her company because she cannot sleep.
When the two arrive Marta talks about the farm she and her husband have in Kenya Africa, and how beautiful it is there. Marta also shows Vittoria several of her paintings, firearms and photos that she collected in Kenya and describes to the women the African colonies way of life. When Vittoria looks at several of the photos, Marta says to her, "Kenya is one of the most beautiful countries in Africa. Nicer than the Congo, Rhodesia, Somalia, South Africa."
The next scene shows Vittoria having a little fun as she dresses up as an African dancer with dark makeup, and then dances around the apartment. Marta, however, is not amused and asks Vittoria to stop her dancing spectacle. Marta is somewhat offended by Vittoria's mocking of the African culture and says, "That's enough. Let's stop playing negroes."
The three of them relax and lay around and the conversation becomes ugly as the colonialist Marta talks about the 'monkeys' who are arming themselves and threatening the minority whites explaining her anti colonial views saying, "The six million Negroes want to throw out the 60,000 whites. We're lucky they're still in trees and have barely lost their tails and they've already thrown us out. I'll just say one thing. There are about ten leaders who've studied at Oxford. The others are all monkeys...six million monkeys."
Suddenly Marta's dog Zeus and several other of her dogs gets free of the house, and the women take off after him. While catching her dogs Marta tells Vittoria that she loves her husband but there is a wall between them. Marta likes it in Italy but she's not with her African people. Vittoria jokes and says, "you mean the monkeys? Maybe you think less about happiness down there. Things just unfold on their own. But here everything's so difficult. Even love."
There is a beautiful quite moment where after Vittoria is playing with Marta's dog Zeus she gets distracted and is fascinated by a line of flagpoles and the sound of fencing in the wind.
That evening back at Vittoria's apartment Riccardo comes by and tries to get in and make amends with Vittoria but she chooses to ignore him. There is an interesting scene where Vittoria calls a man named Franco who isn't really explained if it's a friend of hers or not and when she tries to want to open up to him she is disgusted that he is trying to make a play for her and she hangs up the phone.
The next day, Vittoria and Anita fly to Verona in a small airplane. On the way, Vittoria is fascinated by the clouds. At the airport, she watches the airplanes taking off and landing with childlike wonder. "It's so nice here," she tells Anita.
There is an interesting scene where Vittoria passes by two African men sitting outside a restaurant; which is an interesting contrast of Vittoria the night before imitating the caricature of an African.
Meanwhile back at the Rome Stock Exchange, Piero is busy making trades. The documentary like footage shows the day-to-day operation of how the market works which shows phone calls and placing bets. Vittoria's mother eventually arrives and for good luck Vittoria's mother takes some salt from her purse and pours it on the floor. When the stock market crashes and Vittoria's mother looses all of her money she is furious throwing notebooks at her brokers feeling they have cheated her. Vittoria finally arrives squeezing through the maddening crowd to find her mother.
When finding her Vittoria tries to talk her mother into leaving but her mother will not because she needs to get money to cover her losses. She then tells her daughter if she would have patiently waited and married Riccardo, Vittoria could be set and not have to worry about money for the rest of her life.
Vittoria then asks Piero if her mother's financial situation is fixable and he tells her that with money anything is fixable. He tells Vittoria that her mother lost about 10 million lire but billions were lost all over Italy. Piero then points to a man and tells her, "look at that poor guy. He lost 50 million." Vittoria fascinated by this man follows the man through the crowded streets to a small café, where she observes him drawing flowers on a small piece of paper and drinking mineral water before moving on.
She meets up with Piero and tells him that the man who just lost 50 million drew a picture of flowers. She then asks Piero several questions on the stock market and where all those millions that were just lost in the market go. Piero tells her that it's not that simple and when she is about to leave he asks where she is heading. She tells him, "Where else? To see my mother. She's not the type to draw flowers."
Piero follows her out and he decides to go along with her to comfort her mother. They drive to her mother's apartment in Alfa Romeo Giulietta in Piero's fancy sports car.
When inside, Vittoria shows him framed family pictures and she doesn't understand her mother's gambling obsession and she wonders if her mother even cares for her dead father anymore. Vittoria then leads Piero into her old bedroom and while lying down in her bed, Piero lays down next to her and tries to kiss her but Vittoria avoids his pass.
Finally Vittoria's mother arrives home, and when seeing Piero she asks if there is any way she can make some advance payment on how much she owes him.
Later that day Piero drives back to his office on Via Po near Via Salaria, where he must break the bad news to his angry investors, as he later makes a phone call to a call girl to set up an appointment to meet.
After work outside his office, Piero meets with the call girl he previously arranged to meet, but is disappointed that she recently changed her hair color from blonde to brunette.
Deciding not to go with her, Piero drives to Vittoria's apartment and stands outside her window. He hears her typing and after a drunk walks by her window and notices Vittoria, Piero comes over. "What are you writing?" He asks her. Vittoria says that she's translating some Spanish. He then says to her, "how do you say, 'I want to come up' in Spanish?" Vittoria playfully smiles and says, "you say, 'you can't.' Tough language, isn't it?"
Suddenly Piero notices the drunk taking off in his sports car and Vittoria quickly calls the police.
The next morning, Piero and Vittoria arrive at the crash site where the drunk drove the car into a lake. Vittoria watches as they pull the car with the body of the drunk man from the water. As they walk away, Vittoria is surprised that Piero is concerned about the dents and the motor, rather than the dead man. He says, "and the motor, and the time, and the money."
The two walk past two elderly people listening to a piano player and they enjoy a playful walk through the park. When they reach her building, Vittoria unties a balloon from a carriage and calling to her new friend Marta tells her to shoot the balloon, which she does as it ascends into the sky.
When they reach her building, Piero kisses her, but she seems uneasy and before she leaves, she drops a piece of wood into a barrel of water.
That evening, Vittoria tries to call Piero, but his phone is busy but when she finally reaches him, she does not speak, with Piero angrily thinking it's a prank call.
The next day, while waiting outside near her house, Vittoria looks in the barrel of water and sees the piece of wood she dropped in there is still there. She then watches a horse carriage ride across as Piero appears in the shot walking across the street.
With them meeting up you realize that she was eventually able to call and talk to Piero and set up a time and place to meet, but the film purposely does not feel the need to show it. Piero tells Vittoria that he bought a new BMW to replace his Alfa Romeo. She asks to go to his place.
They walk past a nurse wheeling a young girl in a baby carriage. Piero takes her to his parents' apartment at the center of Rome, which is filled with beautiful works of art and sculpture which greatly fascinates Vittoria.
She looks out a window asking Piero several questions about his family life and then asks him, "why do we ask so many questions?" As they talk, she seems nervous and unwilling to open up to him saying, "Two people shouldn't know each other too well if they want to fall in love. But then maybe they shouldn't fall in love at all." Piero asks her if he knows any of her past relationships and she says that he doesn't because they never play the market and go to the exchange. She tells him, "I still can't figure out if it's an office, a market place, or a boxing ring." He tells her that she should come more often because it can become a passion. "A passion for what, Piero?" she asks him."
They eventually get more comfortable and start to converse playfully, kiss each other through a glass window, and then kiss passionately. After Piero accidentally tears her dress, she goes into a bedroom that seemed to be Piero's room when he was a young man and she sees a model boat and a magic pen that shows a nude woman. When walking into the master bedroom she seems about to disrobe but decides to reconsider when she sees old family pictures.
At the window she looks down to the street where she sees two nuns walking, some people talking at a café, and a lone soldier standing on a corner waiting. Piero comes to the bedroom from the other end and embraces her, kissing her neck as she gets caught up in the pleasure of the moment and they make love. The shot quickly changes to the two lovers laying on a hill looking at the sky outside of a cathedral.
Piero says how he feels that he is in a foreign country and Vittoria says that is how she feels around him. He then asks her about marrying him and she says how she doesn't miss marriage. He asks her how she can miss marriage if she has never been married. He gets frustrated with her short and unsure answers and says, "Then I really don't understand you. I wonder if your ex-fiancee did." Vittoria says, "That's not what I meant. As long as we were in love, we understood each other. There was nothing to understand."
He then asks her if they would get along together and when she says, "I don't know," Piero gets up and angrily tells her that's all she know how to say. "Then why come with me then?" he asks her. "And don't tell me you don't know!" Vittoria tells him, "I wish I didn't love you or that I loved you much more."
The tone quickly changes when the shot shows the two lovers in Piero's office as Vittoria and Piero kiss and embrace playfully on the coach, even wrestling on the floor like children. When an alarm goes off, they prepare to part as they embrace and he says to her, "we will see each other tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow." She finishes by saying, "And the day after that, and the next...and tonight." He tells her, "8:00...the usual place." Vittoria then leaves and slowly walks down the stairs with a sad and heavy expression on her face as she walks down the street.
In one of the most sensational and abstract conclusions in the history of film the final scene shows the very spot where Vittoria and Piero promised to meet up to continue their love affair. This last shot feels like a sort of anticipation of the two lovers meeting up and yet instead Antonioni has them not meet up because they lost the will to commit. The audience expects something dramatic to happen in this final conclusion but nothing does and yet the film continues to go on to show the audience other things.
The camera instead shows a series of images which include a nun with the baby walking down the street, the barrel of the water with the piece of wood that Vittoria dropped inside, several shots of modern housing developments and half constructed agricultural buildings, horse carriages, ants on the birch of a tree, the wind blowing the trees, a bus driving off, a sprinkler going off, and lines on the cross walk.
In the history of cinema, there have been several notable collaborations between a director and an actress over a series of films. Think of D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish back in the silent era, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich in the early 1930s, Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina at the time of the French New Wave. Without going into theories of the “male gaze,” it may be said that in these cases the woman is a figure of beauty, an object of contemplation for the man behind the camera. This doesn’t mean that she is merely an object, a passive recipient of the camera’s attention. Gish was a great actress, and though neither Dietrich nor Karina can claim as much, all three are, not least for their beauty, commanding screen presences, figures of special power. They have a hold on the beholder, whether director or spectator.
The collaboration between Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti is of a rather different kind. Not that Vitti isn’t beautiful, but her presence is less commanding than that of Gish, Dietrich, or Karina, her beauty more tentative, which is in keeping with the unsettled, questioning beauty of Antonioni’s visual style. And in her films with him, Vitti is as much beholding as beheld. Unlike those other actresses, she is identified with the director as the beholder behind the camera, whose gaze she doubles. Other male directors have adopted the point of view of a female character, but none has made a woman his surrogate in the way that Antonioni has Monica Vitti.
“I especially love women,” he has said. “Perhaps because I understand them better? I was born amongst women, and raised in the midst of female cousins, aunts, relatives. I know women very well. Through the psychology of women, everything becomes more poignant. They express themselves better and more precisely. They are a filter that allows us to see more clearly and to distinguish things.” His tendency to filter our perceptions through the perspective of women was already manifest in such accomplished early works as La signora senza camelie (1953) and Le amiche (1955). But it reaches a culmination in his films with Monica Vitti, which display a peculiar intimacy between director and actress (similar in some ways to that between Godard and Karina and no doubt in both cases having something to do with the fact that director and actress were intimate in real life).
L’avventura (1960) was Antonioni and Vitti’s first film together. She was a little-known actress; he had directed some remarkable films, but this was the one that made him famous. And it made her famous along with him. Their names became inseparable as their collaboration continued in La notte (1961), L’eclisse (1962), and Red Desert (1964). Greatly admired by some, quite disliked by others, Antonioni gained renown as the maker of films short on action and long on the spaces between. But even if nothing much is happening, those empty spaces, those intervals of an uncertain modernity, are fraught with intimations of something that happened or is about to happen, narrative paths that may be taken. And though Vitti inhabits those spaces tentatively, quizzically, in the way of someone who feels like a stranger in her own land, she brings a lively presence to that landscape of absence and a sense of narrative expectancy, a search for connection in the midst of alienation. Troubled inquiries into the shifting appearances of our reality, Antonioni’s films are modernist mystery stories, and Vitti’s characters are something like detective figures.
Antonioni’s camera is itself a kind of detective. His method of looking at things “consists in working backward,” as he has explained, “from a series of images to a state of affairs,” whereas most filmmakers start with a state of affairs, a story that determines their choice of images. But Antonioni is a detective faced with a mystery too large and implicative to admit of a solution. Even at the end of L’eclisse, when the awaiting camera registers, around the suburban corner where the protagonist couple are supposed to meet, the uneventful daily passage from afternoon to evening, daylight to twilight, twilight to darkness, a clipped series of images holds a conclusion in unsettling abeyance.
This distinctive interrogative gaze of Antonioni’s camera is paralleled by the gaze of Vitti’s characters—Claudia in L’avventura, Vittoria in L’eclisse, Giuliana in Red Desert. Take the two stock-market sequences in L’eclisse. In the first one, Vittoria, after having been up all night in a draining quarrel with the lover she has decided to leave, arrives at the market, the Borsa in the center of Rome, looking for her mother, wishing to talk to her about the love affair that has just ended. But her mother is too preoccupied with the financial to talk about the personal, and Vittoria observes the hectic activity of the market as an uncomprehending outsider, taken aback yet curious about the strange spectacle, the energy unleashed in the pursuit of money. That’s exactly the observing position of Antonioni’s camera. In its second, longer visit to the market, the camera goes there with an insider, Piero (Alain Delon), the stockbroker with whom Vittoria starts a new love affair, but all the same its point of view remains that of an outsider, immersed in the turbulent proceedings without knowing quite what to make of them. Vittoria herself turns up only after the market has crashed, yet somehow her outsider’s perspective, the point of view of a stranger she shares with Antonioni’s camera, is something we feel through the entire sequence, even in her absence.
Monica Vitti may be described as an actress of the gaze, both the gaze she turns on the world and the gaze the world turns on her. Every performer, of course, is there to be looked at, on display before the audience. But just as Antonioni’s films enact a special way of looking, so Vitti’s special quality as a performer arises from the way she looks at things and the way she is looked at and aware of being looked at, from the interplay between her as the subject and as the object of the gaze. In both positions, she is visibly a little self-conscious, as if she always felt on her the eye of a beholder and responded in kind with her own beholding. Just as Antonioni is, more than a director of dramatic scenes, a director of attention, so Vitti is a performer of attention, which she pays to her surroundings and receives from Antonioni’s camera with much the same inquiring, responsive intentness.
Watch her, for example, as she watches a Borsa trader who, after losing a lot of money, goes to a café, takes a tranquilizer, and draws flowers. Or as she pauses, while walking with Piero, to gaze at a good-looking young man passing by: like Antonioni’s camera, she is open to distraction as a way of paying attention to the world around her. Or when she arrives early at the corner where she is to meet Piero and has time for a private preamble to the meeting, for bringing the place, the passersby, the unfinished building mirroring her own sense of suspension, into commerce with her consciousness. Or when, in the most peaceful sequence in L’eclisse, she takes a plane ride to the Verona airport, another public place she invests with her subjectivity and somehow makes private. She feels at ease for no particular reason during her visit to that nondescript provincial airport, where a man drinking beer at the bar looks at her and she looks at the people and the place, the airplanes on the ground and in the sky, with a reflective contentment that just manages to hold off anxiety. Nothing happens in such scenes except an experience of awareness, awareness of the world and of the self in transaction with the world, and that’s Vitti’s specialty as a performer.
Ingmar Bergman once told an interviewer that he considered Antonioni—as well as Carl Dreyer—an amateur and Monica Vitti a talented but technically insecure performer. The truth is that Bergman is a master of conventional film technique, the way a good professional does it, by the rules; and that Antonioni—like Dreyer—is the kind of artist who goes his own way in disregard of the rules and achieves an unconventional mastery. The conventional camera is a storyteller that knows the story and picks out for us at each moment just what we need to see; Antonioni’s camera continually explores the alternative, the stray aspect, the revising angle, the newly revealing movement. And its inquiry into appearances, its searching rather than knowing apprehension of things, finds its acting counterpart in the similarly searching Monica Vitti. Her engaging diffident verve consorts with the uncertain beauty, the arresting tentativeness, the detached intensity of Antonioni’s images. What Bergman calls her insecurity—a fair enough term for her characteristic tinge of self-consciousness—Vitti makes into a style of performance, one that couldn’t be better suited to her partnership with Antonioni.
It’s lamentable that Michelangelo Antonioni, one of the most fashionable vanguard European filmmakers during the sixties, has mainly been out of fashion ever since. Part of this may be due to the sixties themselves—an era of artistic innovation when making ambitious films about the zeitgeist was still considered both possible and desirable—and all they’ve come to represent in ensuing decades. It seems that the curiosity and metaphysical doubts about the world, which resemble at times agnosticism about reality itself, are more easily tolerated when the glamour of that world is more readily apparent.
This was a time when intellectual activity about the zeitgeist could be debated, if not always welcomed, with Godard and Antonioni the two most commanding figureheads. L’eclisse (1962) appeared the year after Chronicle of a Summer, Last Year at Marienbad, and Paris Belongs to Us, the same year as The Exterminating Angel and Vivre sa vie, and the year before Contempt and Muriel—a period, in short, when large statements and narrative innovations often came together.
L’eclisse also came as the climax of a loose trilogy about Eros, art, business, and emotional alienation in the contemporary world that consolidated Antonioni’s international reputation, preceded by L’avventura (1960) and La notte (1961). And in some ways it upped the ante of his provocative modernism by being the most radical of the three in both its defiance of narrative conventions and its chilling poetry of absence and desire. L’avventura’s central mystery—the disappearance of a major character, Anna (Lea Massari), on a volcanic island during a luxury cruise—is never solved, and its narrative focus shifts partway through to Anna’s best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti)—anticipating the shock tactics of Psycho a year later, whereby Vera Miles “replaces” Janet Leigh. La notte, adhering to a stretch of almost twenty-four hours, has a more conventional shape, though most of its middle consists of a seemingly directionless narrative drift. L’eclisse—beginning with the termination of one love affair and ending with the apparent scuttling of another—appears at times to consist of nothing but narrative drift, and the fact that none of the film’s characters, including the two leads (Vitti and Alain Delon), appear during the final sequence only adds to the impertinence. Some U.S. exhibitors were in fact so troubled by this ending that they lopped off the entire seven minutes—perhaps the most powerful sequence in Antonioni’s work.
This chilling climax brings to a head Antonioni’s preoccupation with objects and places overtaking and supplanting people that already figures in such sequences as the visit to the volcanic island in L’avventura and the helicopter buzzing outside the hospital window near the beginning of La notte—as well as earlier in L’eclisse, after the couple’s morning breakup, when various objects in the room, and a tower seen outside through the window, momentarily seem to displace them. In all three cases, one is suspended in what initially feels like narrative digression but may in fact be a dispersal of the narrative in an unforeseen direction, away from the characters and into the setting. (In the opening shot, this movement is reversed when a pan reveals that one of the objects on a table is in fact a man’s elbow.)
Paradoxically, though Antonioni is rarely viewed as a director of actors, I would argue that L’eclisse features the most expressive and exuberant performances of Vitti and Delon in any movie, and the achievements of this highly structured masterpiece would be unthinkable without them. This even applies to the last sequence, constructed around both their absence and a recapitulation of motifs associated with them. Their intense physical chemistry already starts to feel remote once the objects around their favorite meeting place are deprived of their company—a development that virtually recapitulates the transition from a twist to anxiety-ridden modernist music behind the film’s opening credits.
The eroticism of this couple indeed announces a thematic reversal in Antonioni’s work that has continued up to the present, a shift away from viewing Eros as a kind of contemporary sickness and toward a less-reserved appreciation of it. The earlier position is powerfully illustrated in the previous two films—in the tryst of Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) with a prostitute near the end of L’avventura and the brief encounter of Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) with a nymphomaniac near the beginning of La notte, among other places—and was stressed by Antonioni in a famous statement made at the Cannes premiere of L’avventura:
Why do you think eroticism is so prevalent today in our literature, our theatrical shows, and elsewhere? It is a symptom of the emotional sickness of our time. But this preoccupation with the erotic would not become obsessive if Eros were healthy—that is, if it were kept within human proportions. But Eros is sick; man is uneasy, something is bothering him. And whenever something bothers him, man reacts, but he reacts badly, only on erotic impulse, and he is unhappy.
Sexist pronouns and all, this prognosis is tied to the issue of art and business coexisting in the modern world, with the specter of selling out a near-constant in the trilogy’s first two films. Sandro is a former architect who becomes rich by forsaking his art in order to make cost estimates for other architects’ buildings. Giovanni, a successful but bored novelist, is offered a job by a wealthy industrialist whose party he attends with his wife, Lydia (Jeanne Moreau). Sandro lusts in turn after Anna, Claudia, and a hooker, while Giovanni responds to a nymphomaniac hospital patient, to the teenage daughter of the industrialist (Vitti again), and, eventually, to Lydia, who no longer loves him.
But in L’eclisse, Antonioni started regarding Eros more positively, without the same overlay of guilt, and capitalism a little less monolithically as a vehicle for compromise or corruption. These changes become the first intimations of what appears to be a new attitude. Apart from a few throwbacks to treatments of Eros as illness—most notably in Red Desert, his next feature, where Vitti plays the most neurotic of all his characters—the celebration of eroticism has continued all the way up to Antonioni’s episode in the recent Eros, while his view of business, in spite of remaining critical (especially in Zabriskie Point), would also become a little more appreciative, as in his wonder at the vitality of the stock market in L’eclisse and the beauty of certain industrial landscapes in Red Desert.
In L’eclisse, Vittoria (Vitti), a translator in a Roman suburb, after breaking off with a writer, Riccardo (Francisco Rabal), becomes involved with Piero (Delon), a stockbroker in Rome employed by her mother. And if anyone in this quartet is seen as neurotic, it’s Riccardo and the mother, not the other two. Piero may be driven, but neither his work at the stock exchange nor his restless love life is viewed as an illness; in fact, Antonioni choreographs them both like vibrant (albeit somewhat spastic) dances. And he choreographs the drift of the more sluggish Vittoria as well, such as when a repeated camera angle makes her “rhyme” with one of Piero’s former girlfriends. She may be fickle about whom she gets involved with and unclear about her fluctuating impulses, but he clearly empathizes; her refrain, “I don’t know,” is virtually his own watchword. It yields a multiplication of perspectives that suggests a narrative equivalent to Cubism. Significantly, if he’d had his way with this story and not been overruled by his producer, it would have yielded two features rather than one, exploring the same events from the separate viewpoints of Piero and Vittoria. (In that case, one wonders what would have happened to the ending.)
Antonioni’s appreciation of both Vitti and Delon must have affected his altered view of Eros in L’eclisse, and perhaps his interest in these actors as spectacle—Vitti’s unbridled mugging and Delon’s dancelike movements—has something to do with the relative diffuseness of his narrative. On the other hand, though he pays only nominal attention to Vittoria’s work as a translator—a lapse for which he was widely criticized—her everyday existence is much more carefully established than that of L’avventura’s Claudia, who comes from a less moneyed background and has no visible means of self-support. (Critics didn’t seem to mind the latter gap, perhaps because the more alluring milieu of the idle rich discouraged such questions.) When it comes to Vittoria’s idle drift, he seems happy to follow her on her most wayward passing impulses without viewing them as either decadent or desperate (in contrast to some of the forays of Claudia and Sandro), such as when she impersonates an African woman in the flat of a colonialist neighbor from Kenya or boards a plane flown by another neighbor’s husband for a moment of almost ecstatic peace.
Antonioni’s first films were documentaries, and it’s worth noting that he employed mainly real stockbrokers in the stock-exchange sequences of L’eclisse, getting Delon to model his gestures on one of them. Part of what makes these scenes so breathtaking is his compositional style in using the edges of the frame and playing off different sections of the crowded image in relation to one another—much as Jacques Tati would do in the restaurant sequence of Playtime five years later (as Manny Farber wrote, “L’eclisse has a parody, very exciting, of people using their arms and hands in a stock-exchange scene; most of the time these actors working on telephones, sandwiches, penciling, seem to be trying to fling their hands away”).
Only a large screen can do full justice to the virtuosity of Antonioni’s mise en scène; a sense of monumentality is basic to his conception throughout, whether the focal point happens to be a rotating electric fan at dawn, a car with a corpse being hauled from a river, an illuminated streetlamp at dusk, a couple necking on a sofa, or a crowd of screaming speculators. And, again as in Playtime, even our misrecognition can play a role in overall dynamics: characters with fleeting resemblances to Piero and Vittoria pass through the intersection where their meeting fails to take place, teasing us with possibilities. What Roland Barthes has called Antonioni’s vigilance of desire has become our own, though it remains unsatisfied.
It’s almost as if Antonioni has extracted the essence of everyday street life that serves as a background throughout the picture, and once we’re presented with this essence in its undiluted form, it suddenly threatens and oppresses us. The implication is that behind every story there’s a place and an absence, a mystery and a profound uncertainty, waiting like a vampire at every moment to emerge and take over, to stop the story dead in its tracks. And if we combine this place and absence, this mystery and uncertainty into a single, irreducible entity, what we have is the modern world itself—the place where all of us live, and which most stories are designed to protect us from
What makes Antonioni's L' Eclisse so interesting is its structuralism and its creative use of narrative within the storyline. In the beginning of the film you are seeing the last few moments of a deteriorating relationship. (Since Riccardo is played by actor Francisco Rabal, I always picture their ending relationship in L' Eclisse, the doomed relationship that was established between the two of them in Antonioni's first film of his trilogy, L' Avventura.) When Vittoria describes how horrible the night before was for the both of them and she finally says her goodbyes to Riccardo; you realize that a storyline has just ended. And yet Antonioni informs the audience that we will never really know what the story was between Vittoria and Riccardo and that it really isn't necessarily. The film then slowly develops the beginning of a new relationship between Vittoria and Piero and when the film finally concludes Antonioni doesn't really end their story either.
Antonioni likes to leave plotlines and multiple story threads dangling and not tie them up. In his masterpiece L' Avventura we never find out the answer on the disappearance of a major character, and instead the character disappears within the narrative and the story shifts over to her best friend's affair with the missing women's lover. In Blow-up a photographer believes he has been a witness to a murder and when bringing others to the scene of the crime the body is no longer there; and the mystery of the murder is never solved. In L' Eclisse Antonioni starts the film in the middle of one story ending and ends the film in the middle of one story beginning and I believe his intentions are to show the audience that any character at any time and any place has a story to tell of their own, all the more interesting and intriguing; and for which we will never know about.
Antonioni was considered a 'women's director' and besides Blow-up most of his films focused on the confused emotions of the female psyche. "I especially love women", he said. "Perhaps because I understand them better?" Like other great collaborators in the history of cinema which include D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina and Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullman; the collaboration between Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti was a extraordinary team. Like her characters in L' Avventura, La Notte and Red Desert, Monica Vitti always seems to play a women who doesn't feel like she quite fits into the story her character inhabits. Her characters never are sure what they want and aren't even sure on the feelings they feel. Even in the beginning of the film when her first lover asks if she loves him she gives him the answer, "I don't know." She later gives the same unclear answers to her next lover Piero, which greatly frustrates him. She is a women in a world that feels lost and unclear about her fluctuating impulses and if she was clear on what she was looking for and what she wanted the ending of the film could have turned out very differently. Interestingly enough it seems the things that make Vittoria happy are the simple things, like the smooth ride on a plane, the sound of the wind blowing against the flagpoles, and a controversial scene of her playfully impersonating an African women in the flat of her neighbors. (Who ironically enough was offended by her performance and the next minute is spouting racial obscenities about the African's to her and her friend.)
Michelangelo Antonioni is a very unique Italian director and his most famous works are his three films L’ Avventura in 1960, La Notte in 1961 and L' Eclipse in 1962 which are considered a trilogy because of its similar themes concerning the alienation of man in the modern world. He first color film Red Desert also dealt with similar themes and some even consider it the fourth film in the series in which stars Monica Vitti, who was his lover during that period. In 1966 he directed his other masterpiece Blow-up which is about a photographer believing some photographs he had taken might be a potential murder scene and the film brings up theme’s on the truth of a person’s memory. The Passenger in 1975 starring Jack Nicholson is about a man leading a different man’s life and identity.
One of the recurring themes in Antonioni’s films are characters who suffer from ennui and whose lives are empty and purposeless aside from the gratification of pleasure or the pursuit of material wealth. Film historian David Bordwell writes that in Antonioni films, “Vacations, parties and artistic pursuits are vain efforts to conceal the characters’ lack of purpose and emotion. Sexuality is reduced to casual seduction, enterprise to the pursuit of wealth at any cost.” Antonioni started out making documentaries which is interesting since the sequences that featured the stock-exhange all featured real employed stockbrokers. What makes these stock exchange scenes so breathtaking were the compositional style he used within the edges of the frame by using different sections of the crowds in relation to another whether some characters were in the foreground or the background of the shot which reminded me of Jacques Tati's film Playtime five years later. Antonioni has the audience become observers within his films and in many ways the character of Vittoria is a observor as well. For instance, the scene where she follows a man who just lost 50 million on the stock market crash into a café and even closely watches him draw a picture of flowers on a piece of paper. Or the scenes of Vittoria in her friends flat or Piero's mothers apartment where she is always observing the portraits and paintings within their households.
She also seems to love to touch the things that she observes by picking them up which in some ways could be her reaction whenever she feels uncomfortable within a situation or the surroundings that she finds herself in. Many subtle themes in the film is miscommunication and disconnection between a man and woman and in Antonioni's film L' Avventura it seems Monica Vitti's character and her lover both had a problem with being honest with themselves and others, not knowing what could bring them happiness. In L' Eclisse it seems that Vitti's character Vittoria is the only one who seems to not know how to communicate with others and seems to only alienate herself from them; because of her unsurety on what she wants. It seems for the most part the men in the story seem to know what they want and she is the main reason why her relationships self destruct and fail.
In one of the most interesting themes of L' Eclisse, Antonioni gives a post apocalyptic science fiction feel to the story. For instance when Vittoria is out on a walk in the early morning with her lover, Antonioni seems to give the sense that no one else is there with them in the world that he creates which gives a sort of atomic metaphor that hovers around the theme of the film; and the feel of the loneliness of Vittoria's character. There was much international tension when the film was released in 1962 and between the Soviet Union, the end of the colonial war in Algeria, and the rise of the Vietnam war, several parts of the film are symbolic on nuclear war and the threat of the worlds fear of annihilation; including the mushroom-shaped cloud of the EUR water tower and the shots of empty streets and half finished architectural buildings. Director Martin Scorsese, in his documentary about Italian films, My Voyage to Italy, describes how the film haunted and inspired him as a young moviegoer, noting it seemed to him a "step forward in storytelling" and "felt less like a story and more like a poem." He adds that the ending is "a frightening way to end a film... but at the time it also felt liberating. The final seven minutes of L' Eclipse suggested to us that the possibilities in cinema were absolutely limitless." Some U.S. exhibitors were in fact so troubled by this ending that they lopped off the entire seven minutes, perhaps the most powerful sequence all in Antonioni's work. In one of the most sensational and abstract conclusions in the history of film the final scene shows the very spot where Vittoria and Piero promised to meet up to continue their love affair. This last shot feels like a sort of anticipation of the two lovers meeting up and yet instead Antonioni has them not meet up because they lost the will to commit. The audience expects something dramatic to happen in this final conclusion but nothing does and yet the film continues to go on to show the audience other things. The camera shows the audience the same nun with the baby walking down the street, the barrel of the water with the piece of wood that Vittoria dropped inside, several shots of modern housing developments and half constructed agricultural buildings, horse carriages, ants on the birch of a tree, the wind blowing the trees, a bus driving off, a sprinkler going off, and lines on the cross walk. It also shows the emptiness of the streets with just a few characters, some waiting for the arrival of a bus with close-ups on a elderly man's facial features. When the bus stops a few people get off with one person reading a paper on the nuclear arms race and in one interesting shot one woman is seen from behind and for a minute the audience might think it to be Vittoria but when turning around they realize it is not. The film's plot structure is interesting because it is first Vittoria's film, then Piero's film, then Vittoria and Piero's film; and now the final sequence is the film without the both of them. The last shot is the barrel of water draining out and leaking onto the street drain. Most narratives close but the director does not close the narrative even after the characters within the story are no longer around to participate in the narrative. I believe Antonioni is questioning the audience on why we choose to focus on Piero and Vittorio and not any of these other characters on the streets, because their stories are probably as fascinating. What is Antonioni saying with this conclusion of the film? I believe he is saying that even though the main characters that we seemed to follow have abandoned the narrative, life goes on and people go on. Antonioni's also showing us that it's not always what is there and what happens on the screen but what isn't there and what isn't happening on the screen. And then comes the very final image of L' Eclisse, which is the bright light of a lamppost as it obliviates like the last few moments before a nuclear fallout.