Like director Michelangelo Antonioni’s earlier L’Avventura, La Notte was slammed by critics of its time for being boring and for “nothing really happening”. But this time around, I thought that there was actually a whole lot going on – just on a non-obvious level.
Things kick off with Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) visiting their friend Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki) in a hospital in Milan. Tommaso is dying, and everyone knows it, but Tommasso insists he wants to talk about Giovanni’s newly-published novel instead, and even gets the nurse to bring in some champagne to give a toast. But Tommasso is really not doing very well; he is in near-constant pain, and has been musing a lot about his own mortality, confessing to his friends that he feels like he hasn’t really done much with his life. Giovanni and Lidia try to put a brave face on things, insisting as they leave that they’ll come back and visit the following day, because Tommasso will be just fine, surely.
The rest of the film covers the next several hours after that visit, as Giovanni and Lidia head out to a launch party for Giovanni’s book, a night club, and then a neighbor’s house party. Lidia gets bored at the book party and leaves early for a neighborhood walk. Giovanni hits on someone at the house party. Lidia watches some kids shoot off homemade rockets. Both seem bored by a burlesque dancer at the night club. At the very end of the film, Lidia rereads Giovanni a love letter he’d sent her but he can’t remember writing it in the first place.
Nothing really happens as such. But coming on the heels of that first scene with Tommasso, and his deathbed insights into his life’s emptiness, that kind of “nothing” felt profound. Tommasso dying is making both Giovanni and Lidia think of their own mortality, and each handles those thoughts very differently. It’s also clear that their marriage is more of a formality at this point, and this introspection is bringing that fact to the surface.
What threw some critics and viewers for a loop is that none of this stuff going on with Lidia and Giovanni is verbalized. They barely talk to each other throughout the film; Lidia is crying after they visit Tommasso, but Giovanni says nothing to comfort her. Lidia sees Giovanni kissing a woman at the neighbors’ party, but says nothing to him about it. A lot of their scenes together consist of them just sitting in silence, staring out of windows or watching other people. But them not talking to each other is exactly the point – a healthier couple would be talking to each other about everything they were going through and would be more in sync.
Antonioni also captures the weird hyper-focus on The Present Moment and the weird impulses that you get when you are dealing with some heavy stuff and you’re still kind of in shock. Lidia suddenly needing to go take a walk through Milan is kind of like when my college friend Ian learned his grandmother was dying; I rushed over to visit him when I heard, expecting to find him glumly packing to head home, but discovered he and his roommates all having a hilarious contest to see how many people could fit inside their dorm room closet. Having a loved one die gives you some intense thoughts, and sometimes that makes you do really weird stuff to try escaping them.
So this isn’t another film about bored people in a state of ennui – it’s a portrait of a couple in mourning, but mourning the way it really happens.