The signs are there from the outset. As Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte begins, novelist Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife, Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), are visiting their friend in the hospital.
Dying of terminal cancer, Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki) speaks of how he no longer has the energy to put up the front of interest to their circle of friends. He’s happy to spend the time with these two, but no other visitors, please. As Tommaso says, “It’s amazing how tired you get of pretending at a certain point.” When faced with the imminent prospect of mortality, who has the time to waste acting like you give a shit? Life is too short at the end, and far too long up until that point.
This conversation sends Lidia walking out of the hospital rather abruptly, ultimately breaking into tears almost the moment she steps outside. We don’t understand why the encounter has had this much of an impact on her, beyond the obvious emotional toll of seeing a friend in this condition, but soon we’ll learn more of what troubles her. Instead of pursuing his upset wife, Giovanni gets caught up by an encounter in the hospital with another patient—an unwell young woman who pulls him into her room and forces herself on him. Well, “forces” might be too strong a word, as Giovanni clearly lights up with desire at the prospect of taking advantage of this troubled woman.
Driving away from the hospital, Giovanni is racked with guilt and confesses the dalliance to Lidia. However, instead of acknowledging his complicity, his active engagement and manipulation of this young woman’s ailment for his own carnal pleasure, he explains to Lidia that he was attacked and overwhelmed—he had no choice, per his account. To Giovanni’s surprise, his wife isn’t upset by this news. If anything, she seems a little irritated that he even felt the need to tell her. He doesn’t realize that this news is no shock to her. She clocked the young woman as they entered the hospital, and she knows who her husband is at this point in their marriage. She’s already given up.
What follows this is a long stretch of the film where Lidia makes her way on foot through Milan. That great cinematic wanderer, Moreau captures in her expression all of the things we need to feel about Lidia: Her rumination on the lives she could have lived, of the people she feels no connection to, but longs to be in communion with. She observes bodies pressed up against one another, workers taking a break to have a bite to eat, kids shooting off rockets in a field, men inside their homes hard at work. There is a life out here that Lidia longs to be part of, yet Antonioni’s understanding of modern-day disconnection places her at a remove from it all.
Through his persistent gaze on the architecture of Milan, Antonioni makes us one with the city. This begins even before that early visit to Tommaso, with an opening credit sequence set up against a skyscraper. Built in 1958, this is the only skyscraper that existed in Milan at the time, and as we pan down its exterior while the credits play, we see in its reflection the city that Lidia will soon wander. We inhabit this reflective quality as Lidia uses the world around her to ponder her own existence and the gnawing feeling of becoming a mere fixed part of the city without a life of her own.
In one pivotal moment, as Lidia saunters around Milan, she comes across a series of waist-high posts sticking out from the ground. Beginning a game of maneuvering in and out of the posts, she comes across an old woman who is hunched over, standing where a post would be. Lidia weaves in and around this woman as if she were a post herself, an object as rigidly a part of the city as any building she walks past. As she leaves the area, Lidia looks back, holding her eyes on the old woman with a sense of sadness. Will she one day become this woman? Is she her already—an object as lifeless as these posts she moves between?
The crisp, cold modern architecture of the city reflects the façade of her marriage—the facsimile routine of the world she’s become trapped in; one where people don’t say the things they mean, don’t express their feelings and are at all times lying to one another and to themselves. At a certain point, Lidia leaves this area of the city and moves into more dilapidated sections. Seeming remnants of damage done during the war, we see buildings that are decrepit, worn down, peeling and crumbling away. Much like Lidia, these sections of the city are still standing, still in the place they’ve always been and will continue to be, but they have been ruined by history. They’re irreparable. Antonioni shrewdly uses the world around his main character to reflect her inner life—not necessarily how the audience sees her, but how she sees herself.
In La Notte, Lidia is the perpetual observer, and we the observers of the observer. This escalates with the film’s second half, in which Giovanni and Lidia attend a vast villa party with their upper-crust friends. Quickly, the two are separated and spend the night living out experiences emblematic of what their positions in life have become. For Lidia, it’s more wandering, more reflections on her own despair as illuminated by her voyeuristic observations of the party’s other attendees. She walks past an old man who has a young woman uncomfortably pinned up against a wall. “Well… maybe…” she hears the woman say, to which the man replies, “Listen, that answer’s not good enough for me.” Is this an exchange of dialogue she and Giovanni may have once had?
Her husband, meanwhile, is where we expect him to be: Flirting with a much younger woman. As Lidia roams the halls like a ghost, Giovanni becomes transfixed with Valentina (Monica Vitti), a self-assured, headstrong attendee who we’ll later discover is the daughter of the party’s hosts. This dynamic serves as the crescendo of La Notte, where these swirling ruminations on the state of each character’s existence come to their head. For Giovanni, Valentina represents what he longs for and can no longer attain with Lidia: Youth, vigor, excitement and spontaneity. For Lidia, Valentina is a reflection of her former self—the promise and hope of a life not yet lived—so much so that Antonioni costumes them in similar black dresses and hairstyles.
In one of many interesting bits of subversion within La Notte, a high point among Antonioni’s career of creating actualized female characters and utilizing the female gaze, Lidia and Valentina don’t see each other as enemies once they cross paths. Rather than taking a combative stance with one another, there is a recognition of their places within the patriarchal world they inhabit. Lidia is what Valentina will likely one day become, and somehow they both know it. Instead of lashing out at Giovanni’s indiscretion, Lidia is resigned to it, as she’s been since the film began. It’s a resignation reflected in an earlier party scene between Giovanni and a woman who describes herself as his biggest admirer in Italy. She tells him that she’d love to read a book about a woman who loves a man, but he doesn’t love her back, though he admires her intelligence and her temperament. “But how would a story like that end?” she asks Giovanni, only to answer it herself by suggesting it concludes with the woman sacrificing herself for another woman’s happiness.
While the notion of Valentina receiving “happiness” from Giovanni is up for debate, she and Lidia feel like two sides of the same coin. In a moment alone together, Lidia says to her, “You don’t know how it feels to have the years weigh on you, and nothing makes any sense. Tonight I feel like dying. I really do. Then this agony could end, and something new begin.”
Giovanni overhears this, and when Lidia realizes he’s in the room she makes sure to tell him that there’s no jealousy in what she said. She knows who her husband is and what he does, but there’s no fight in her anymore. Maybe there used to be, but not anymore. She’s just that old lady hunched over, as much a part of the architecture as a waist-high post you can walk around.
Even for someone as notoriously distanced as Antonioni could be—a director so focused on alienation that he could ostracize many viewers—La Notte is a quite reserved picture. He has no intention of spoon-feeding his audience the interior lives of his characters through dialogue. Instead, he allows image and performance to capture their spirit, along with his ever-present obsession with the environment surrounding them. It’s telling that this large villa is made mostly of glass walls. As Lidia tours the estate, and Giovanni and Valentina do a dance of temptation back and forth, the characters can see each other. The glass between them obfuscates their vision. You can see the person on the other side of the glass pane, but you can’t get in. It’s a mirage of connection. In reality, it only keeps them apart and, instead, allows them the opportunity to reflect on themselves.
It’s only at the end of the film where the truth at the heart of the central couple is ripped open—not with histrionics, but with painful confessions and harsh truths. As they walk away from the distractions of the party, away from the isolating architecture of the city, Lidia and Giovanni are alone at last. It’s here where they finally, fully reveal how broken, empty and hopeless they are. After telling Giovanni that Tomasso died overnight, which Lidia discovered by calling the hospital from the party, she explains that Tomasso believed she had a strength and intelligence in her that she doesn’t have. He believed it so much that she began to believe it too. He gave her a confidence and a level of acknowledgement that her husband, who could only ever speak of himself, never had. And yet she could never love Tomasso.
Sitting beside each other, Lidia pulls out a note from her purse that she reads to her husband. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, written by a man who had just spent the night with her and is talking about how he was staring at her as she slept, overcome by this miraculous moment and their connection together. He felt that she was all his, but even more so that she was now a part of him. The viewer, and Giovanni, get the impression that it was perhaps Tomasso who wrote her this note. When she’s done reading, her husband asks, “Who wrote that?” Her cutting response: “You did.”
After unsuccessfully trying to convince Lidia that she still loves him, Giovanni responds to this note the only way he knows how—he mauls her, pushing her to the ground and kissing her, despite her clear objections. She says, “No, I don’t love you anymore. And you don’t love me either.” He responds with two words: “Be quiet.” Antonioni waits until these final moments to put the hammer down on the dynamic that has persisted the entire movie. A sad, self-obsessed man who will never be satisfied, always hungry for the next thing to feed his insatiable ego; a woman whose years he has taken away, whom he has continually caged to the point where she feels she has no recourse, and nothing left.
After two hours spent fixated on Moreau’s forlorn face, wandering the remnants of the life she wishes she could have had, the camera can’t take it anymore. Antonioni pans away as Lidia continues to resist, and Giovanni remains insistent that this is what love looks like.