The first time we see La Notte’s two protagonists—a long-married couple, Giovanni and Lidia Pontano—they’re so distant from the camera as to seem insignificant. Even those who know that the movie stars Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau might have to squint and lean forward, wondering if that’s them. As in his previous film, the groundbreaking L’Avventura, director Michelangelo Antonioni shows more interest in environments than in characters; from 1960 onward, the people in his films are defined less by their words, or even their actions, than by their physical location in the world and the frame. Not for nothing is the film’s opening credits sequence a vertiginous journey down the face of a skyscraper, shifting halfway through to an angle that shows the urban sprawl of Milan in the background.
Unfolding over the course of a single day and the titular night, La Notte opens with a pointed reminder of mortality, as Giovanni and Lidia visit a terminally ill friend in the hospital. Their respective body language in the poor fellow’s room makes it abundantly clear that communication between them is shaky at best; it’s no surprise when Lidia excuses herself, crying alone outside, or when Giovanni allows himself to be briefly seduced by a female patient with apparent mental problems. After an interlude apart, during which Lidia wanders the streets by herself and visits their old neighborhood, the two head out for a night on the town—first stopping by a local nightclub to watch the risqué floor show, then hitting a ritzy party being held by a wealthy businessman who Giovanni, a celebrated author, knows slightly. At the party, they again mostly go their separate ways, though the dawn will see them attempt a desultory rapprochement.
If that doesn’t sound especially thrilling, it’s because the meaning of Antonioni’s work is contained almost entirely in the painful precision of its images. La Notte reaches its emotional peak during the early, largely wordless sequence in which Lidia just walks around, visibly distressed by both the state of her sick friend and the state of her loveless marriage. Antonioni will cut from a long shot of Lidia wearily leaning against a lamppost to a low-angle close-up of her half-circling it to face the camera, and the juxtaposition somehow conveys more than pages of dialogue could. Equally stunning is the nightclub scene, in which Giovanni and Lidia watch impassively as a scantily clad young woman performs various athletic, suggestive feats with a wine glass. The couple exchanges some words during the performance, but they’re all but unnecessary; the degree to which they’re closed off from the sensuousness only inches away says it all.
Unlike L’Avventura and Antonioni’s subsequent film, L’eclisse (the three form a loose “alienation trilogy”), La Notte eventually makes the shift from ineffable to concrete, to its slight detriment. The hour-long party set piece that makes up the movie’s second half benefits enormously from the appearance of Monica Vitti as the host’s daughter, who flirts madly with Giovanni over an improvised shuffleboard game before she discovers that he’s married. (Lidia has her own brief dalliance during a downpour, though her potential paramour is far less memorable.) But these public betrayals merely underline what the movie had already established, and while Mastroianni and Moreau are given significantly more to do, their performances, though often sharp, don’t have the same arresting force as Antonioni’s compositions, which become a bit more conventional once he’s taken root in a single location. It’s hard to quibble with the ending, however, unless resignation and desperation simply aren’t your thing. La Notte leaves its non-lovers locked in a grotesque embrace, exposed at last by the light of day. The movie is gorgeous, but its import ain’t pretty.