Kevin Jones’s review published on Letterboxd:
What once was, what is, and what will be define existence. In turn, they dominate Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte. While dinner party conversation focuses on the horrors awaiting them all in the future, the marriage between Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) is built on the past. They are, as they had feared, together out of “habit”. Little can be done, mourning the people and events they lost in the past and silently regretting the years they spent together, all while “what is” finds them drifting entirely apart. A somber, moody, and cold film, La Notte follows one day in their life. It becomes increasingly apparent that this distance between them is insurmountable, though Antonioni introduces it early on. Aside from brief moments, the pair are rarely together.
When they are together, Antonioni underscores the changes that have taken place. Their old friend Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki) is in great pain as he sits in the hospital with the pair visiting him together before it becomes too much for Lidia. The couple, later on, take a walk after Lidia saw some kids playing with rockets. Intent on showing them to Giovanni, all they find is the kids are gone and the old traintracks they used to frequent are no longer in use. At a jazz club, the lively dancing and great sensuality is juxtaposed by both a prior scene of Giovanni and Lidia as she bathes with no intimacy involved and them watching the dancers. Staring into the distance, Giovanni is bored stiff. Lidia, despite efforts to try to liven it up, is not exactly quite enthralled herself. By the time they reach the party that will dominate the latter portion of the film, they go entirely their own way. They stay for the discussion about the terrors of the future and they come back to discuss their downward slide over the years, but they largely occupy themselves with the affections of others and even face temptation to simply give into their lustful desire for someone else.
It is a constant reminder of what was lost, something cemented in the final moments as Lidia reads a letter that Giovanni had written her years ago. It is a heartwrenching moment with a gut punch of a realization of exactly what was lost in the years. It was not just affection or even the company of others, which Lidia certainly mourns with regard to Tommaso’s issues, but the growing distance between them. The passionate and possessing love that Giovanni expressed in that letter is never found in La Notte. Rather, the pair are left to largely walk around the streets and the party, only having those aforementioned brief moments together that only serve as further reminders of “what once was” in contrast to “what is” for them. Above all, they serve to highlight “what will be”. The love is gone. The future is bleak and it is most likely they will go their separate ways. Even though Giovanni does not want to, one cannot deny that he has been straying and that Lidia, herself, has similarly grown away from him. They can try to force it, but their present circumstances ensure that their future together will be brief, continuing their long path to separate lives.
This is all beautifully represented by Antonioni, especially with the entire mise en scene. As in L’Avventura, the surroundings come to life and inform the characters’ journeys or emotions. Vast, open spaces accompany Lidia as she wanders the streets. There are a few people, namely men, who pop up along the way and who look at or chase after her, but it is a largely introspective journey. The vastness of what is around her only furthers the feeling of isolation. At home, Giovanni finds the same, but in a more cramped space. Even at the jazz club, the liveliness of the danger is juxtaposed to the cold emotions between them. At the party, Giovanni is having a good time playing with Valentina (Monica Vitti) only for them to attract a crowd who drown him out and completely changes the dynamic between them. No matter what happens, they are distant and, as the lighting shows, constantly followed by dark clouds. The darkness that seems to follow them or even the rain that comes during the party that sends the guests scattering are powerful representations of the building emotion. As Giovanni tries to get closer to Valentina, who does not want to break up a marriage, they are framed within cement pillars with competing the over-the-shoulder shots revealing this physical distance between them. Lidia excursion with another man during the storm is beautifully shot, but obscured as she and this man are in a car with the rain pouring down. They may be able to get close, but the audience is kept at a distance with the rain often making it hard to see them. These moments are crucial in expressing the emotional distance in the film. There are barriers to the love they seek, namely their marriage. It is an unseen obstacle, something that they must rectify as they will either mend their broken relationship or separate. Either way, it is something that keeps them from chasing that which they truly want.
One of the most compelling elements of DP Gianni de Venanzo’s work is the reliance upon reflections. Lidia, Giovanni, and Valentina are frequently shown in windows with their reflections creating an almost ghostly image. It serves as a constant reminder of a few things. For one, what was lost. As Giovanni forlornly watches Valentina with just his shadowy image visible to the audience, it not only creates that distance between them but it shows the distance with themselves. Lidia and Giovanni have become detached from who they are. They are floating through life, something that Giovanni very upfrontly confesses as he discusses his writing career and a new job offer he got. Their love has become a “habit”, rather than something they are truly invested in together. There is a gap within him that he cannot mend right now, a dichotomy that exists. However, most importantly, these reflections seem to hint at the haunting nature of their lives. They are being followed by their lost emotion, by “what once was”, and by “what will be”. The ghostly visages emphasize this, showing them as a shadow of themselves.
This is a consistently brilliant film, one with many layers to dissect and pour over. However, above all else, it is a story of a marriage falling apart. Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau are brilliant as per usual, while Monica Vitti provides a youthful energy to contrast their morose demeanors (it is no wonder Mastroianni’s character wants her for this reason). A somber, moving, and honest film, La Notte hits the audience in the gut by showing what has been lost over the years. As Lidia reads that letter from Giovanni, only for him to ask her who wrote it, there is little else that needs to be said. Their love, even if he has to profess to still have it, has been lost and has faded into the background. Now, all that is left are the ghosts of better times, the solemnity of the present, and a fear of what the future will bring.