Home Video Hovel: L’eclisse, by Scott Nye
To whatever extent it matters, I go back and forth as to which is Antonioni’s best film; L’avventura, Red Desert, or L’eclisse. But I can say without much uncertainty that it is L’eclisse which best crystallizes what it means for a film to be an Antonioni film. In it, he best expresses all the concerns that made his name – the modern feeling of alienation from your fellow human beings, how unknowable even those closest to you are, the almost post-apocalyptic sensation of walking through Europe following World War II, the prominence of objects and buildings in our environment (and how they overtake, work around, or are consumed by natural elements), and the impossibility of love in a time of relative affluence.
L’eclisse begins with the sort of image that will typify the film. We are shown a lamp and some books, but also an odd shape on top of those books, white and lumpy and almost severed. The shape fidgets a bit, and the camera, as though snapped to attention and curiosity, pans over to reveal a man in a chair, leaning against the pile of books, scratching his nose before looking up expectantly at…what? The oscillating fan in the background mirrors his gaze, turning to the right of frame as he leans forward, all the objects around him an extension of his complacency and desires. He slumps over, defeated, and only then does the film cut to his fixation – Vittoria (Monica Vitti), his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, playing around with her own set of odd objects, her hand reaching into a frame without a picture, everyday knick-knacks filling a space once reserved for art and loved ones.
So will continue the rest of the film, showing us things both familiar and almost extra-terrestrial, continually frustrating and enlightening our senses of scale and perspective in ways that compel the audience to reexamine their beauty and their worth. Apartment complexes cut the skyline as might one shape obstruct another in a minimalist work of geometric abstraction. A seemingly hollow room is filled with light. A poster on a wall is revealed to be in another room entirely. I suppose this all sounds rather dry, but this is really the essential stuff of cinematic tension, to destroy our complacency, the sense that we can be certain of the environment with only a glance. Antonioni highlights this notion of the limits of perception midway through the film, when Vitti tries to pinpoint a house just slightly outside of the view of a photo.
Furthermore, Antonioni is far from an anti-humanist. He was an expert director of melodrama before he made L’avventura, and he held onto the same central emotional drive through this phase of his career. His 1950s films, such as La signora senza camelie and Le Amiche, were equally defined by themes of longing, unfulfilled desire, regret, repression, and a certain sadness that sometimes accompanies wild passion. In the 1960s, he simply began to see with how little he could accomplish the same effect, searching for, as he termed it, “traces of feeling,” the small revelations people let slip when they’re trying to shore up some inexpressible or embarrassing emotion. He was referring primarily to men with that term, but the women in his films are equally cagey, if for different reasons. Like Joni Mitchell said, “and if you care, don’t let them know; don’t give yourself away.”
It is little wonder, and to our immense benefit, that he latched so strongly onto Monica Vitti, both personally and professionally. Vitti was a mainly known for comedy before her starring role in L’avventura, and her performances are marked by a comedian’s sense of how little need be conveyed in order to get the point across. Additionally, Antonioni was happy to highlight her more performative talents, most pointedly and uncomfortably in L’eclisse, when, visiting a friend who has recently returned from Africa, Vittoria decides to dress up an “play Negro.” A less empathetic director would settle for what he immediately establishes, mocking the prejudices and short-sightedness of the rich and white. But Antonioni recognizes that these attitudes usually result simply from a lack of exposure, from conditioning, and when Vittoria’s friend, clearly despondent, turns off the record and asks her to stop, Vittoria is filled with embarrassment and despair over her lack of perspective, how she unknowingly insulted the culture in which her friend had immersed herself. Vitti turns this on a dime, stopping like a deer in the headlights when she sees her friend’s reaction, the enthusiasm and joy slowly melting from her face. The old certainties have faded away, and the transition will be rough, but empathy, potentially, may yet prevail.
Long available on a rather stunning two-disc DVD release, L’eclisse has been further restored by Criterion for their new Dual-Format release. The DVD represents a marked improvement over the older version, but, naturally, it is on Blu-ray where the film really stuns. In one of the supplemental features, it is remarked that L’eclisse is really more a “movie in white,” than a movie in black-and-white. The blacks are as dark and deep as one would hope, but there’s a tremendous amount of detail revealed within them as well. In the opening scene, we see the specific curves and folds of Vitti’s black dress, far from a mere mass of nothingness. But it’s the whites that really shine, really granting the film its key otherworldly feel, as though all the light of the modern world would swallow them up (I thought, rewatching the film, of the opening of Jonathan Glazer’s recently film Under the Skin, and his environments of pure light). The rest of the usual markers of quality – depth, clarity, and the texture of celluloid – are well represented. There are some moments of light flicker, sometimes purposefully (as when Antonioni points the camera directly at a bulb), other times probably just a technical era inherent to the source. At any rate, they do not distract terribly. It’s a luminous film filled with beautiful people (one must not discount the simple pleasure of watching Vitti and Alain Delon move about the film), perfectly suited to the attraction of Blu-ray.
The three supplemental features – an hourlong documentary on Antonioni from 2001, a collection of interviews assembled by Criterion, and film scholar Richard Peña’s excellent commentary track – are all ported over from the original Criterion release, and available on both discs. A booklet is also included with writing from critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Gilberto Perez, as well as Antonioni’s own writing (he’s a hell of an essayist) about his work. I should note one odd error, however: on the DVD, Criterion accidentally inserted Matthew H. Bernstein’s commentary for Riot in Cell Block 11. The Blu-ray is has the correct track, so all is well there, but those who rely on their DVD copy for whatever reason should take note of this. Otherwise, the special features are uniformly excellent and well worth your time.