L’Eclisse (Eclipse, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)
with Monica Vitti and Alain Delon
L’Eclisse changed the way I watch movies.
Vittoria (Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s wife and muse) is a young girl, in her early twenties, who works as a translator. At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Vittoria just as she is breaking up with an older man. The scene is quiet and there are numerous objects throughout the room: the fan, the abstract paintings, the empty picture frame. The focus is not so much on words and dialogue or even plot or narration, instead, Antonioni uses images as their own stories. As the film progresses, Vittoria is drawn into another relationship with a young investor, Piero (Alain Delon). Piero is the complete opposite to Vittoria. While she is quietly contemplative, always studying something, always off in a distant place, Piero is rooted in the here and now. He likes cars, women and making money. From the very moment that they meet, we know that they won’t work out. Antonioni places hints throughout the film, like here:
This is one of Vittoria and Alain’s first meeting and in the very way the scene is shot, the two are divided in half by a massive stone column, separating them.
At the end, after Vittoria and Alain’s numerous meetings and romantic getaways, they promise to meet at an intersection, their favoured spot, and leave. The film ends with a seven-minute long montage of shots, of that same intersection and of places where the two previously visited and walked. There are other people but no sign of Vittoria and Alain. We are left with a sense of foreboding and we understand that the two never showed up to their meeting. We don’t know why, only that they did.
L’eclisse isn’t a film about a relationship and it isn’t particularly about Vittoria and Alain. After all, these are two intelligent, young, attractive people. Their relationship falling apart is no big deal, they’ll eventually move on and find other people. Their story is not what is important here. What Antonioni is trying to impress upon us, through Vittoria and through his images, is the disquieting alienation that the modern world can have on normal people. Antonioni sets the film in the very modern EUR district, where buildings like this strange mushroom-shaped water tower abound:
Antonioni is driven by theme and composition rather than plot or dialogue. In fact, there is very little of plot or dialogue in Eclipse, the focus instead is on the themes of the abstraction of feelings and emotions, the material world versus the intensely personal one and the gradual way in which material reality swallows up anything personal. In part, this theme is what is echoed so wonderfully through the last seven minutes. As Vittoria and Piero plan to meet the crossroads of the Eur, we are instead treated to multiple shots (not a long take as someone above me suggested) of ordinary things happening, only with an ominous undertone. There is silence, and there is emptiness, like in an eclipse, we feel something missing. Vittoria and Piero are missing and their love, like the water flowing out the barrel where Vittoria’s stick of wood and Piero’s matchbox float, is leaving them. This loss of love is referred to in another clever oblique way, that of the man who turns off the sprinkler that is spraying water everywhere. I understood this as a symbolic turning off of their feelings for each other.
Eclipse needs to be understood as a film that doesn’t give in to conventions. Besides the flimsy plot and the spare dialogue, Antonioni switches to an almost documentarian eye when shooting the Rome Stock Exchange and again, when shooting the scenes out of the plane’s window. But again, Antonioni doesn’t stick to these either. His shots are fragmented and he seems to delight in synecdoches. The openings shots to the film establish nothing. There is no establishing shot, no diagetic zero, simply a shot of an elbow that we only understand to be an elbow when the camera pans to the right. We are treated to various shots from different sides of the apartment but never given a feel of what the apartment exactly is like. There are numerous shots later in the film where Antonioni uses a high angle, the head or the shoulders outlined against the sky or trees or foliage. These shots have an unsettling effect. They serve to isolate the characters from their comfortable backgrounds because in a way, Eclipse is a film about contrasts and discomfort. The earliest hint of this comes in the credits where the popular upbeat swing song fades out in the middle to an atonal, disruptive sound/music. Antonioni is challenging the viewers even at this earliest moment, before the film has even begun, that this film is a film about discomfort.
In Antonioni’s shots, we find a thematic link that brings together form and content. Many simply dismiss Antonioni and L’eclisse as simply a director of ‘style’ films and a ‘stylistic’ film and to those who love the film, as being victims of the so-called aesthetic of ‘style over substance.’ I disagree wholeheartedly. In fact, style is substance and vice versa. L’eclisse doesn’t seem to be lacking in either. Style is evident in the strange angles, the long takes, the abrupt cutting, the use of ellipses, synecdoches, the 180 degree rule transgressions, the digressive takes and shots, etc etc. I could argue for substance based simply on these stylistic choices but for those inclined otherwise, substances comes from the junction of style and content. The film is about Vittoria’s alienation from the world, her gradual separation from personal intimacies and contacts. It is her giving in to the sublime, the contemplative. Often, we find Vittoria intensely studying some movement, whether it is the rustling of foliage or the movement of a stick of wood in a barrel. Her way of seeing the world is in clear aesthetic terms. Piero who comes from an ordered numbered world (that of accounting), doesn’t understand Vittoria. He doesn’t see what Vittoria sees. And what Vittoria sees is alluded to in the opening where she reaches into an empty picture frame and moves objects through them, arranging them in a style suitable to her. When Vittoria’s alienation reaches its zenith, we are at the end of the film, where Vittoria herself is absent. In a way, she has disappeared and what has taken her, and Piero’s place, are the ordinary banal objects that were always there: the trees, the crossroads, the buses, the ordinary people milling around, the buildings. In effect, Vittoria has disappeared. Her alienation from the material world is complete.