It is ever easy to infringe on Michelangelo Antonioni’s reputation with the benighted “pretentious” signifier, avoiding and flattening the mysteries of his oeuvre in the process. The real work, and the effort Antonioni deserves, arrives when one actually looks into the film, engages with the materiality of its existence, and discovers that the act of watching this unquantifiable, unstable film is itself a reflection of the film’s gaze onto the tentative spaces of the world. Antonioni’s cinema isn’t a fixed state, but a thought-process, or a process of gazing and puzzling out a world that is not prefigured or assumed but a project ever in a state of transition. The concept of “the gaze” was waiting in the wings, soon to be all the rage, at around the time of L’Eclisse’s release, but few films transcend the subjective gaze of the character to a higher state of awareness of the subjective gaze of the film quite like Antonioni’s. L’Eclisse doesn’t confound expectation to trick us with a twist but to trap us in a state of affairs where the world must be interrogated. And in trapping us within the world and not allowing us to gallantly stride across it (as most movie characters do), Antonioni’s films are, paradoxically, primarily liberating experiences, works that unshackle us from narrative as well as easy expectations of what the world ought to be.
Often described as an inverted noir, Antonioni’s films (or all of his early ‘60s films) draw energy from uncertain spaces imperiled with thoughts of human absence as well as the temporal understanding of an ever-shifting world. The mystery isn’t a murder to solve or an object to be found. Instead, the treasure – the riddle – is awareness of our very place in the world, and the tenuousness of that awareness. More or less (more less) the story of Vittoria (Antonioni’s muse and fellow wanderer Monica Vitti) breaking off a relationship with Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) and kickstarting an equally fractured one with Piero (Alain Delon), this film is an unsettling experience because the film is so unmoored itself. The narrative is implied and stitched together piecemeal out of bent and broken parts rather than flowing like butter. Although something can be said about looking for companionship in an alienating world in Vittoria’s case, the essence of L’Eclisse is a wider state of searching. Not for something or someone but for the world itself. Minutiae, the periphery, what we would define as distraction from narrative in any other film, instead mutates into focus, perspective, an attempt to gaze onto the world’s tangential nature, into the random nooks of the world in hope of clarifying that world.
Or simply an attempt to exist within the world rather than, as most movie characters do, on top of it or in the foreground of it passing by a world they don’t really inhabit. Antonioni’s cinema, by his own admission, is primarily invested in surfaces that construct states of minds; the world is on the surface, and the exterior – the physical, the spatial – controls the characters, even as they try, possibly in vein, not simply to control or contort that landscape but simply to understand it. In a typical film, the world is a stagnant state, an assumption, predesigned for the individualistic human protagonist to either control actively (to wield to his liking, and it is usually his) or passively (the film reflecting the mental state of that character, whose internal psychology exerts agency on the film). But in L’Eclisse, the world remains in ceaseless tension with the characters, and the cinematography by Gianni Di Venanzo is an appendix of shifting sights that coagulate into an acid bath of ever-changing engagement with the world. Look, or attempt to look, Antonioni implores, only to come to terms with the world that can never be looked at in totality.
One could compare Antonioni to a sort of inverse or downtuned Von Sternberg, a silent and early sound director who similarly channeled his camera into a lens for externalizing the internal states of his characters. But Antonioni is more turbulent still. Although Vitti’s gaze – her act of wandering around the world and looking – double or mirror the film’s own quest to find the world, the film doesn’t exist exclusively within her, nor under her jurisdiction. The film is no longer her, or any character’s private realm to control, but a constant act of reevaluation, compromise, and negotiation of the self and a society forever in passage with impermanence. Not only is Vitti ostracized by the land around her, but the camera is a strange gaze on its own terms, often wandering for something worthwhile regardless of Vitti’s presence in the frame.
Arguably the great filmmaker of perception (and film is after all a perceptual medium at its most evolved), Antonioni visualizes the expedition for meaning in the outside world, but not as refuge or comfort. The anatomy of the film is, instead, galvanized in long takes that emphasize not the transgression of space by the characters (as most long takes do) but the state of the film’s mind in constant transit for a new purpose, another mystery to discover in the outside world. Askew angles from every possible perspective (high, low, eye-level) not only disorient us but augur an undying negotiation of the world, a beckoning for new perspective in a modern world that seems alien to many. Spaces infringe on the characters – crushing them in the frame, constricting them with their imposing nature – only to attune us to their presence, to acclimatize us to the crawling ennui of wandering through a world we do not truly experience. If the queasy, nail-sharpening score exposes a rough equivalent to horror cinema, this is a true study in “terror” in its classical definition: the liminal state of waiting for “the event” or “the horror”, and in this case, never being able to find it.
Some obvious gestures could have been left on the cutting room floor – Vitti’s occupation as a translator is an expression of her tragically ironic inability to communicate with the world or others – but Antonioni generally avoids easy symbolism for a more conflicted sense of poetic visual expression. He rouses the sights and sounds of the world, activating the sensory impulses to develop imaginative affinity with the notion of macheteing through deepest and darkest awareness of space and surface, of the beauty of physicality, of seeing everything as if for the first time. Most films are expeditions into interior mental states, but Antonioni is charting the nature of the outside world; he discovers mental states – anomie, desire, curiosity – through an overtly stylistic tableaux of the material world that operates on a level of almost spiritual wonder. Far from a drunken wake for the innocence of pastoral life or a critique of modernity as a zombified state of trancelike existence, Antonioni confounds the “modernity” and “classical” or “artifice” and “nature” dichotomies by bleeding the two (street lights in the night sky, filmed from a low angle, suggest luminous stars).
Easily mocked with the charge of impenetrability, Antonioni actually animates every image with the allusive beauty of an unknowable world, the humility of accepting one’s inability to know the world and the dogged attempt to pursue whatever we can know anyway. Rather than nihilistic hopelessness, Antonioni evokes a sense of possibility. The world ominously drips overhead, but the images of doom and apocalyptic modernity also open us up to a world we would avoid if we simply tuned into the protagonists. There’s no doubt that an audience, especially an American one, would and will approach the famous ending (where Vittoria and Piero agree to meet up at a fated spot once again, only for the camera to avoid them completely) with an implicit understanding of character reconciliation, the world ever-opening for the people within it. But Antonioni’s bedeviling world, alternating between visual lethargy and visual tantrism, intimates the opposite: these spaces, the world at large, isn’t imagined exclusively for the people within it. In the closing montage – haunted imagery of vacant spaces hovering overhead like phantom memories of ‘40s noirs – the limitations of representation in the film world (the representation of people) showcase the beauty of a world for itself, rather than as a backdrop for human conflict. The world that this film mines is not only two characters struggling for love. It is the trees, the architecture, the empty street corners, all of which are no less valuable than a protagonist, all of which incorporate an untold mystique, a possible clue about, but not an answer for, life.
And thus, although this is the world for the world’s sake, it is also film for human life. For me, there is something intrinsically humanistic and humble, not hubristic, about the unfurling of the film’s linear narrative into a fragmented, uncongealed cluster of images. The pejorative presumption that art for art’s sake, “art-film”, has but a minimal grasp on realism or genuine life experience presupposes that life experience, or reality, holds strictly to one ossified and pre-strung definition, one extant structure that is, in essence, inalienable. L’Eclisse, an exemplar and vanguard of the rise of cinematic modernism, is not the vaporization of realistic art, but the birth of a contemporary, unfixed, endlessly alternative reality, of life re-born or at least re-perceived. It is a sudden burst of light, or rather, a creeping sensation that light is always mutable and itself incomplete, that reality is unstable and no one structure or revelation can accommodate, comprise, or quell it. By unleashing cinema from the classical narrative scripture – the ten commandments of continuity editing – Antonioni’s film discovers a new lease on cinema’s ability to dialogue with and explore – something far less, and thus far more than simple, literal representation – life in all its mysteries and intangibles. If only film could afford the opportunity to pause, and to look.
Thus is the infamous and supposedly “inhuman” conclusion of the film, two people agreeing to meet for a continued affair, only for the film to an affair of its own, digressing from its marriage to the two people at the center and experimenting with a radical, liberating, and entirely humanistic alternative: not following them, losing interest, digressing from its ascetic love story, and discovering beauty not in two people but in the world itself. Many critics have pointed to the film’s conclusion as the ultimate exemplar of Antonioni’s inhumanity, the lynchpin of his hatred for mankind. I’m sorry, but I simply cannot abide; among the most beautiful moments in all of cinema, the conclusion of L’eclisse is Antonioni’s ultimate statement to how myopic human stories in cinema can sometimes be, and the apotheosis of his liberatory aesthetic predicated on emancipating oneself from the confines of individualistic character narratives. It is not anti-humanity; it offers an emancipatory philosophy of humanity that reminds us, with our ears, ears, and hearts, that in order to look into ourselves, truly, we must look beyond ourselves.
This finale is not an implosion of the world upon its degraded denizens, as it is often seen, but rather an explosion of a myopic narrative foundation, an implosion of the hubristic certainty with which we wrap the world’s uncertainty and possibility and mystery around our stifling, conventional two-character frameworks. The conclusion of L’eclisse is an ingenious and ultimately humbling exercise, a radical perceptual maneuver and, as I see it, a prophetic gambit, a vision where we denounce our mental frameworks in hopes of reconstructing them anew. And it is a vision conjured into existence by tough-love humanists and forward-thinking philosophers like Antonioni whose weapons are the sights and sounds we see and hear, and more often, too often, those we do not.