When Jules et Jim left the Fenway last week, the best actress in the world remained behind to speak softly and move beautifully in the best movie of the year. La Notte must inevitably be compared with the other fine films recently off the boat--and it stands up to them all. Jeanne Moreau need not to compared to anyone.
La Notte is, as they say, an Antonioni. Which means that Michelangelo Antonioni wrote and directed it. What makes La Notte better than other movies is hard to say. First of all, it has a continuity through narrative, unifying it from the opening shots of modern Milan to the closing embrace in a sand trap. At points, such as when one hears, then sees a helicopter whoosh past the hospital, it parodies La Dolce Vita, a film lacking tightness and cohesiveness, though also attempting to portray the senselessness of modern Italy. The essential difference in approach between Fellini and Antonioni is that the former stuns his audience by exploring the very human situations of three sympathetic characters.
A second strong point of La Notte is its successful use of the existing technique Alain Resnais tried in Last Year at Marienbad: the cinematic journey into the mind. Watching Lidia (Miss Moreau) look at walls, buildings, people, one senses again that Antonioni is parodying. But because of the reality of his characters, and the fineness of his touch, such scenes are not soporific (as Marienbad was). The technique is no longer experimental: it is controlled.
Furthermore, La Notte outstrips Antonioni's last work, L'Avventura, largely because of its quicker pace and more startling scene shifts. One defect of L'Avventura was the sameness of the light that infused each scene. Not so with La Notte: first the dazzling glare of sunlight reflected from the steel and glass structures of the city, then the artificial whiteness of a hospital room, then the shadows by a wall, a continuously changing field of intensities that keep one's attention riveted on the screen.
By keeping it simple, Antonioni is able to tell a whole story in two hours, as he almost did in L'Avventura. In fact, La Notte features Aristotle's other old pals, unity of time and of place, as well. The film portrays one day and night in the lives of Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) a successful young novelist; Lidia, his wife; and Tina (Monica Vitti), 19-year old daughter of a fantastically wealthy industrialist. Mostly it is the story of Lidia's attempt to tell her husband that he should still love her, and his attempt to shake off the lethargy that popular success as a writer has brought him.
The action begins in the hospital room where Tommaso, wonderfully played by Berhhard Wicki, is dying. Lidia and Giovanni, his only friends, visit him, and the camera watches this touching conversation from the ceiling, thus somehow revealing the tired fragility of the marriage. Tommaso speaks of the dissatisfying charade they all play, and one is prepared to watch the protagonists try to put an end to it. In one of the rare overstatements of the film, Tommaso complains of how the hospital is like a night club, only to have the nurse bring a bottle of champagne for him to share with his guests. Lidia refuses her glass and leaves the two men to talk, each trying to convince the other that he has done something worthwhile. When Giovanni meets her outside, it is after having been dragged into bed unaroused by a schizophrenic girl down the hall.
And from there the audience follows them through their day and their night, as they separate, come together to attend a literary cocktail party in honor of Giovanni's new novel (The Sleepwalkers), and again separate as Lidia leaves early, unable to stomach the lionizing throng ("I'd love to know what goes on in a writer's mind"). She walks through the city, fails in an effort to stop a child from crying, passes unnoticed beneath Giovanni's window, breaks up a fist fight between two teen-age toughs, finally calls up to ask her husband to meet her.
She tries to make him notice her, at first subtly, then more and more openly. He fastens her dress in back and kisses her quickly to the nape, but when she turns expectantly to embrace him, he has turned away to get his coat. Then to a night club where the urgency of her voice fails to distract him from the vulgar gyrations of the dancer, and finally to the industrialist's home where a huge party is in progress. One sees them go their separate ways, Giovanni attempting to make it with Tina, Lidia refusing to take any part in the proceedings and eventually going off with a man she's mever met. But she to too honest to kiss him and returns to the party, depressed by a phone call to the hospital which revealed Tommaso's death. Steadily the pace has been building, and in a climactic scene, Lidia, Giovanni, and Tina finally manage to communicate their feelings to someone other than the audience. The decrescendo follows swiftly, and film ending with a walk on the golf course and an embrace in the sand trap, ambiguously suggesting that if things are not all for the best, at least Giovanni will now be able to step outside of his protective shell.
It is too difficult to describe the perfection of the cast, which is uniformly excellent, and it is impossible to write of Miss Moreau's command of movement, gesture, and especially facial expression. Somehow she manages to draw one into her world as very few performers can. The riches of La Notte demand that one see it at least twice; until I have, I will say no more about it.