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.

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Book: André Gide, L’Immoraliste

Based as it is on misanthropy, ennui and lewdness, it is tempting to describe The Immoralist as a pamphlet to Modernism

-Kathryn Bromwich

That The Immoralist (1902) was criminally ahead of its time is a given. In a pre-Chatterley, pre-Burroughs, pre-Henry Miller era, André Gide’s candid and unjudgemental depiction of an outwardly immoral and selfish man came as a bolt from the blue. Now the modern world has more or less caught up with it, and Gide’s work reads as freshly as if it were published today.

Brilliant Parisian scholar Michel, married to the delicate Marceline partly out of duty to his father, partly out of boredom, grows sick with tuberculosis. In his slow convalescence, he discovers a joie de vivre he had never known: in his own words, ‘daylight acquired an unhoped-for radiance.’ Once found, however, this feeling proves difficult to hang on to, and Michel finds that he can only recapture it in the company of young boys.

Like in Hesse’s Siddhartha, the protagonist first experiences the world of the intellect, and is later on in life awakened to the possibilities of bodily pleasures. While the former transcends the mind and body dichotomy to achieve a state of Nirvana, the latter unsuccessfully tries to balance the two, resulting in existential anguish and dissatisfaction. The conversations with his nihilistic acquaintance Ménalque express dialectically the difficulty of finding a balanced stance in relation to society. Yet he is not a figure altogether worthy of hatred: there are elements of Dostoyevsky’s innocent Prince Myshkin in Michel’s frank attitude to his feelings, and Gide’s unwillingness to condemn him makes the reader makes the reader question their own standpoint.

Highly innovative and pithily written, it proved to be a milestone for 20th century literature, influencing Camus and Sartre, among others. The novella encapsulates the spirit of the following decades, prefiguring the early 20th century interests in primitivism, sexual instincts, and repression.