Film: L’eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)

Antonioni’s film about stockbrokers and urban alienation is like its protagonists: baffling, beautiful, and strangely clinical

-Kathryn Bromwich

l'eclisse

Apart for the admittedly problematic blackface scene, Antonioni’s L’eclisse has largely withstood the test of time. The BFI recently revisited some of the Italian director’s other films, including L’avventura (1960) and Red Desert (1964), yet L’eclisse would appear to be a more timely choice. This exploration of the stock market, juxtaposed with the characters’ ennui and solipsism, strikes a chord with the disillusionment rife in a post-Lehman Brothers economic climate.

Antonioni’s muse Monica Vitti stars as literary translator Vittoria, who at the start of the film breaks off a relationship with her academic, socialist boyfriend. Vittoria is like a modern-day Madame Bovary: well educated, elegant, and hopelessly bored. She is certainly enigmatic. Her thoughts and motivations are never fully explained, but we are left to understand that she is full of restlessness and joie de vivre (she is flown about in a small private plane, recklessly demanding to be flown into a cloud), and that she is unhappy in a middle-class sort of way (she is fascinated by Africa, where she assumes life must be simple and easy).

Just before the film disappears into an insufferable cloud of narcissistic first-world problems, Vittoria makes an unexpected encounter. The film follows her as she visits her mother at the Rome Stock Exchange, effectively gambling away her money after the death of her husband. There, she meets an uncannily young-looking Alain Delon, playing the fast-living, no-nonsense City boy Piero.

Everything about him should make us, and Vittoria, recoil in horror. Piero is loud and rude, and shrugs off clients who have lost millions because of him with a breezy “the stocks go up, and they go down, what can I do about it?” He can’t sit still for a second, is an amateur philanderer, and has a penchant for blondes. The stock market is presented as being like a boxing ring, with the investors shouting, squabbling and cheating their way to affluence. Like gambling, it attracts lonely and vulnerable people, not least of which is Vittoria’s mother.

Yet, after a long and tortuous courtship full of mixed messages on both sides, Vittoria allows herself to be seduced by him. Perhaps it is boredom, curiosity, or the lure of sleeping with the enemy. We are not told: all we are given are shots of her inscrutable and statuesque face staring into the distance. Both of them are young, good-looking, and extremely unlikeable.

The setting is what gives the film its power. Closer to the Italian neo-realist tradition than much of Antonioni’s other work, L’eclisse is set in an eerily empty post-war Rome. There are several symbolic, enigmatic features that appear throughout the film: a strong wind, a piece of wood, a horse and cart. The effect is of a disjointed, fractured society in which the protagonists fit uneasily.

The final scene is stunning yet subdued: a seven-minute succession of silent, near-still street scenes of Rome, uninhabited and desolate. The viewer is left to infer that the relationship has fizzled out. According to Monica Vitti, the title refers to the fact that it is ‘the story of a love that lasts for a short time – as brief as an eclipse’. There is no drama and no fallout, just a kind of emptiness that is, deliberately, neither explained nor satisfying.

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