L'Eclisse ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclisse (aka The Eclipse) is one of the most enchanting movies I know of. It is neither a simple romantic film nor a dry treatise about loneliness and alienation. It's more of a gut-wrenching apocalypse movie than anything else.

Story-wise, the closest film to L'Eclisse would be, I kid you not, John Carpenter's They Live (1986). In both films, the world is seamlessly overtaken by a mysterious alien force and only the protagonist can see through the deception. But whereas in They Live this threat is literal, in L'Eclisse, the issue is not actual aliens but the materialistic modern lifestyle, which stands in opposition to the protagonists' fullfillment and their vital energy. In some ways, L' Eclisse also reminds me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the sci-fi flick about extraterrestrials who turn people into emotionless hollow beings. While IotBS is a simple thriller without an intended deeper meaning (despite some critics' opinions that it's about anti-communist paranoia), Antonioni's film is a lot richer in style and content while relying on the same feeling of fear (due to our species' implied inferiority to the alien threat) we get when watching a literal alien invasion film. These alien movie tropes are dilluted to the extreme in L'Eclisse, but I found it to be a lot more unnerving than its sci-fi counterparts.

Eros is sick; man is uneasy, something is bothering him. And whenever something bothers him, man reacts, but he reacts badly, only on erotic impulse, he is unhappy. - Antonioni

The title "L'Eclisse" is meant to invoke an image of a source of warmth and light being suffocated or overshadowed by a powerful, dark force (Antonioni's next film, Red Desert, is titled in similar intent). This leitmotif, of a symbol of life and visceral energy getting eclipsed by a cold material power, appears all throughout the film in many forms. Even the opening credits follow that motif; a marvelous, catchy song L'Eclisse Twist which celebrates love and joy starts off the credits, only to be overtaken by a cacophony of creepy discordant sounds, which then gives way to dead silence.

Antonioni's aim isn't to portray modernity as pure evil. Instead, his films depict a struggle between human beings, whose minds and bodies still operate on a Stone Age level, and the rapidly shifting modern world which threatens to overwhelm them. Here, we can see the difference between John Carpenter and Antonioni - the former fights against the conquering alien force, while the latter more or less stoically accepts the world's fate and observes his characters trying to adapt. In Red Desert (1964), the protagonist succeeds in adjusting to her scary environment, even if the triumph is bittersweet. L'Eclisse, however, ends on an utterly bitter and harrowing note; here, the characters fail to adapt.

Antonioni does not criticize the modern world, in whose possibilities he profoundly ‘believes’: he criticizes the coexistence in the world of a modern brain and a tired, worn-out, neurotic body. - Gilles Deleuze (Antonioni had a similar quote)

The first scene of the film tells you all the necessary information about the characters, but it does so very subtly, through visual clues. In it, we follow the last few minutes of the relationship between Riccardo and Vittoria (Antonioni's muse Monica Vitti). She doesn't love him anymore, but she doesn't know why. The answer is that Riccardo has been already assimilated by the uncanny spirit of materialism. We don't know the details, but he's not the same man as before. The very first shot of the movie shows a bunch of static objects, including a certain white shape. As the camera pans to the right, we discover that the white object is Riccardo's sleeve. Vittoria, on the other hand, refuses to be objectified. Unlike the static Riccardo, she moves around. She takes an object out of the frame on the table. She walks out of the shot in which her legs are paralleled with table legs. She lays on the couch, but immediately gets off it after noticing that her body has adjusted to the couch's shape.

Riccardo is not the only person affected by this strange occurence. In fact, Vittoria may be the only character in the film who's unaffected by this eerie phenomenon. As she walks around outside, we notice that the streets are completely empty and deserted, as if the world has ended without her noticing it. It's as if all life and passion has been sucked dry out of this city. The only place where the Eros still thrives is the stock market in the center of the town, where a huge number of men gather around to chase elusive numbers. This is where she meets Piero (Alain Delon), very much a product of this culture.

Even though it may seem that the stock market is teeming with euphoria and competitive spirit, it's all a facade. During a commemorative minute of silence there, the phones continue ringing incessantly (and the only moving thing happens to be a ceiling fan), which shows that the objects have a sort of separate existence from humans and their needs. In fact, inanimate objects have become their masters.

What can I say? There are times when holding a needle and thread, or a book, or a man - it's all the same. - Vittoria

Vittoria visits her neighbor Marta, who has recently returned from Kenya. When looking at images of lions and African landscapes, Vittoria is jolted out of her dry spell and something seems to awaken in her. Cut to a scene where she dances while dressed as an African native. For once she's enjoying herself, until Marta says: "That's enough, stop playing Negroes.", which seems to upset Vittoria. On my first viewing, I thought this scene was her daydream, but it can work both ways. It's also the only scene where the otherwise elegantly static Monica Vitti moves in a highly dynamic fashion, shaking her body and doing a wild dance, as if her character has regained a primal energy that modern life has denied her for so long. The point being that a modern woman is attracted to a more primitive, natural lifestyle, back from the ages when human instincts weren't dulled out. Marta, however, views Africans with visible scorn and believes that the Western civilization truly does mean progress. Vittoria is able to see through this false belief.

Marta: The six million Negroes want to throw out the 60,000 whites. We're lucky they're still in trees and have barely lost their tails, or they'd have already thrown us out. [...] There are about ten leaders who studied at Oxford. The rest are all monkeys - six million monkeys.

Vittoria: But if you like it there, they must be charming monkeys.

In the following scene, we see Vittoria play with dogs and this makes her ecstatic. Her Eros is now in balance, as she connects to her animal side. Her enjoyment is cut short, however, by the unnerving sight of nearby metal pillars being shaken by the wind, which produces a weird sound. Another sighting of inanimate objects pictured as possessing a life of their own. Antonioni may have claimed that modernization isn't bad per se, but he was obviously afraid of it. After all, a monstruous shapeless force that suppresses human libido and joy - how could that NOT be terrifying? Antonioni thought that gradual adjustment to this scary new world was inevitable, all he could hope for was that it won't hurt too much.

The skylines lit up at dead of night, the air-conditioning systems cooling empty hotels in the desert, and artificial light in the middle of the day all have something both demented and admirable about them. - Jean Baudrillard (unrelated to Antonioni, but this quote gives me the same chilling feeling as the movie)

Some time after Vittoria's African dance, she briefly comes upon two black men sitting in front of a wall and looking all serious. This is an interesting contrast to the dance scene; while Vittoria's imagining of Africa is a cheery one, conveyed through exuberance and powered by hormones, the actual two Africans she encounters seem to be as devoid of life as Riccardo, implying that the wave of objectification is more powerful than she initially thought. Later, Antonioni returns to the "eclipse" leitmotif a few times. First he shows us a ruined businessman drawing flowers on a piece of paper, as if yearning for a different kind of existence; one where Eros reigns. Then, Vittoria curiously stares a bit at a slice of lemon stuck in a glass of water. We see this motif again later when Vittoria picks up a novelty pen with an image of a naked woman on it; this image of a human imprisoned within a pen seems to resonate with her.

Our civilization is, generally speaking, founded on the suppression of instincts. - Sigmund Freud

Once when Piero enters the picture, Vittoria becomes an even more nuanced character. This too, however, is hidden in plain sight. Piero is driven by the materialistic culture - the stock market bussiness is how he makes his living, while his car is a principal symbol of his virility. In other words, he's in the heavy grip of the Objects. Vittoria is different, she's able to resist, even control inanimate things to suit her romantic mood. Still, she's attracted to him because his volatile, womanistic attitude tingles not only her libido, but her Eros, given that this visceral, organic feeling of sexual attraction gives her an appreciation of life, as it directly contrasts the ongoing sterile objectification of all living things. During a meeting with Piero where she decides to leave him for a while, Vittoria throws a piece of wood (a phallic object) into a barrel of cold water. When she's lonely in her house later, she demonstrates her current main needs by tightly holding another phallic object (a phone). When they meet the second time in the same place, she initiates the conversation with Piero by moving around the piece of wood in the water with her finger. Immediately, Piero begins to talk, as if Vittoria has performed a voodoo ritual on his sexual drive.

The piece of wood in a barrel can also be seen as an extension of Vittoria herself, given that Piero also throws an object of his own into the barrel (an empty box of matches). Vittoria's act of separating the two objects using her finger therefore has an obvious metaphorical sense to it. This interpretation is a bit different, but has the same takeaway: Vittoria seems to be the only character who can understand the "language" of objects (after all, her job is that of a translator). Both her and Piero throw an object into the barrel, but unlike Piero, she's capable of interacting with objects.

There's also a profound sense of sexual tension present in the movie, like in the park scene, where both Alain Delon and the camera stare transfixed at Monica Vitti's breasts for an unusually long amount of time for an early 1960s film, while the conversely placid mood of the park setting continues to dominate the scene, creating an odd conflict of serenity on one hand and strong sexual desire on the other. The camera then for a moment fixates on a nearby water sprinkler, another phallic symbol. Vitti teases Delon by playfully splashing him with it, once again using objects as an extension of her Eros' whims.

If clothes tear, it's their own fault. - Vittoria

Through blink-and-you'll-miss-it instances of dialogue and visual suggestions, we discover Vittoria's anymosity towards objects and her unique power to control them instead of having them control her. There are numerous instances of this. For example, when not feeling ready yet to kiss Piero, she pulls a window between them and they kiss through the window panel. Before, windows separated her from the outside world (the opening scene, when she stares at a window in anguish), but since she met Piero (who provoked her Eros and sexual appetite and therefore gave her more power over the objects), she's able to use the windows' properties to her own advantage. This makes Antonioni probably the only director I can think of to make something as rudimentary and simple as handling everyday objects look important, complex, even transcendent and enigmatic. It's even a crucial element of Vittoria's character arc!

I want my characters to suggest the background in themselves, even when it is not visible. I want them to be so powerfully realized that we cannot imagine them apart from their physical and social context even when we see them in empty space. - Antonioni

Another praiseworthy thing is that L'Eclisse never sinks into a cartoonish satire with a message as obvious as something like: "Inanimate things are bad! Materialism is evil!" In fact, Antonioni is less interested in pushing a concrete message and more concerned with transmitting some of his concerns and unsure observations. As mentioned, he claimed that he doesn't simply accuse the modern world itself, but instead likes to focus on the characters' inability to adapt to the societal changes. His films operate on a gut level, you either feel the undefined paranoia, the sense of apocalyptic gloom in L'Eclisse, or you don't. In Red Desert, his next film, the protagonist complains: "There's something terrible about reality and I don't know what it is. No one will tell me."

I don't want what I am saying to sound like a prophecy or anything like an analysis of modern society .... these are only feelings I have, and I am the least speculative man on earth. - Antonioni

L'Eclisse's culmination is a famous 7-minute long ending montage of barren streets, a stream of water flowing into the drain, an occasional random person walking by, that piece of wood idly floating on the water, etc. Before this scene, Piero and Vittoria agreed to meet at the same place again, but none of them makes it there. We don't know what exactly happened, but the mood is completely doom-laden and it's more or less implied that Vittoria too eventually became affected by this creepy, rapidly spreading feeling of detachment. Even though the movie is lead by two of the sexiest stars of the time (and not just the '60s), its ending shows the Eros completely extinguished. There is no vital energy anymore. The objects, it seems, have won.

What makes L'Eclisse so amazing isn't just the layered story (though that certainly helps), but Antonioni's cinematic language. Despite a large number of symbols, the film never comes across as a dull, stuffy exercise in boring intellectualism. There's a spontaneous and vibrant nature to the way he tells his story. The characters express everything they need to with a few simple, perfectly measured out lines of dialogue (Vittoria stares ambiguously at Piero and says: "You never stay still", and really, what else do we need?). The plot isn't tight and formulaic; it's quite loose and allows time to reflect on what's happening. The locations here are just as important as the characters. Antonioni leasurely spends some time on each area - the house, the stock market, the airport, etc. - in order to bask in the mood of the location in question. The world building is done by having Vittoria simply observe her surroundings; the people, the objects, the events. Her gaze is ours.

Classical narrative causalities are dissolved in favour of expressive abstraction. Displaced dramatic action leads to the creation of a stasis occupied by vague feelings, moods and ideas. Confronted with hesitancy, the spectator is compelled to respond imaginatively and independent of the film. The frustration of this experience reflects that felt in the lives of Antonioni's characters: unable to solve their own personal mysteries they often disappear, leave, submit or die. - James Brown (not the singer)

As in other Antonioni films, all of this is supported by Giovanni Fusco's excellent soundtrack and Monica Vitti's powerful, downright regal presence that perfectly mixes childlike wonder and a sense of profund dissatisfaction. The visual style is wonderful. Characters are often completely trumped by grotesque buildings, statues, urban landscapes, or positioned between doorframes or behind vertical bars, or separated by large pillars, emphasizing the stressful, claustrophobic nature of the story. Monica Vitti's dresses change color depending on her mood - she wears black when she is stressed out or lonely, white when she's aroused, gray or patterned when she's spending time with friends or her mother, a black-white combination during the first meeting with Piero in the park, when she's attracted to him, but not without reservations.

Till now I have never shot a scene without taking account of what stands behind the actors because the relationship between people and their surroundings is of prime importance.- Antonioni

L'Eclisse opened to huge interest from both critics and moviegoers. It was "the most eagerly awaited film of the 1962 Cannes Film Festival", which is odd considering that his L'Avventura (1960) was famously booed and mocked at its Cannes premiere. In spite of the apparent hype, L'Eclisse wasn't a commercial hit, but for some reason it found overwhelming success only in Japan, where it's a popular movie to this day. In the US, some exhibitors were so baffled by the silent ending that they simply chopped the final seven minutes off (which ironically only makes the end more baffling). Antonioni later continued to expand his obsessions in Red Desert (1964), a less enigmatic but a more emotionally devastating movie. Today, L'Eclisse is generally well regarded, with some people calling it a unique work of art and and some who claim that it's an unbearable, pretentious bore. Obviously, I belong to the first group. In fact, it's one of the few films that I would without hesitation call a masterpiece. Every shot of it is rich in detail, successful in conveying the principal theme and dazzling to look at. And the way the story is told; damn, it's so unnerving, relaxing, unpredictable and floaty at the same time. I can only imagine what a surprise Antonioni must have been back in the sixties, especially to the audience members who shared his sensibility.

I began taking liberties a long time ago; now it is standard practice for most directors to ignore the rules. - Antonioni