Though Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte isn’t a ghost story per se, Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, the glamorous stars at its center, often drift around like spectators to their own empty lives. They’re strangers to each other, and strangers to the Milan that’s changed so rapidly around them, and their dark night of the soul feels like a haunting right up until the last moment, when they finally have to come to terms with their floundering marriage. The year before, Antonioni set the standard for filmic expression of alienation with L’Avventura, his modernist classic about a woman’s disappearance on a deserted island in the Mediterranean. And just as the island itself, windswept and desolate, became a visual representation of its characters’ inner vacancy, the Milan of La Notte—sleek yet underpopulated, and deeply estranging—has a presence as substantial as the ghosts who wander through it.
Unfolding over less than 24 hours, mostly from dusk ’til dawn, La Notte starts with Giovanni (Mastroianni), a bourgeois novelist, and Lidia (Moreau), his exasperated wife, visiting an old friend at the hospital as he nears the end of a losing battle with cancer. Seeing their friend in a state of morphine-fueled regret, picking through the wreckage of his own life, triggers a period of reflection for the couple, especially Lidia, who leaves the hospital and just keeps on walking, while Giovanni stays behind to check in with a sultry young patient down the hall. When the two finally meet again that evening, they decide to go on a rare night out—first to a nightclub, then to an all-night party hosted by a wealthy industrialist (Vincenzo Corbella). As the liquor flows, inhibitions start to slip along with it, and Giovanni starts flirting with the host’s daughter, Valentina (Monica Vitti), who proves to be more complicated than her seductress role initially suggests.
Much of what viewers learn about Giovanni and Lidia’s marriage comes from body language, and when they speak, a lot of the tension seeps between the banal pleasantries. The drama itself doesn’t yield that much more than a friend’s death and some adulterous misconnections at the party, followed by a painful reckoning at sunup. What Antonioni is attempting to convey—what he was always better than anyone at conveying—is the bone-deep ennui of characters who are trying to find meaning (or barring that, sensation) from a marriage and a life that leaves them perpetually restless and dissatisfied, with mutual resentment on a low simmer. There’s nothing driving the action, save maybe for time—the boozy night is pressing inexorably toward a morning hangover. The substance of La Notte is owed entirely to Antonioni’s intoxicating ambiance, and his stars’ ability to speak in looks and gestures more than words.
La Notte’s early scenes have a fascinating obsession with architecture as a reflection of both Giovanni and Lidia’s lives and the transformation of Milan itself into an ultra-modern city. When Lidia goes on her long walk, she looks like some beautiful alien surveying a strange, hostile planet. Antonioni and his cinematographer, Gianni Di Venanzo, shoot her at a marked remove from her surroundings, through reflections in glass, or from a distance as she watches young people shoot rockets into the sky. Later, as the couple ventures to the nightclub, Antonioni contrasts an extraordinarily sensual stage routine—all jazz, contortion, and lascivious dancing—with their half-bored, half-uncomfortable reaction. They clap politely and think of someplace else to go for the evening.
The party consumes the second half of La Notte like one massive, bravura setpiece, with little strands of narrative peeling off from it. Antonioni might have limited himself to a broadside on bourgeois emptiness—and yes, there’s still plenty of that—but there are moments of magic and mystery, like the strange mating dance between Giovanni and Valentina over an improvised kind of shuffleboard, or a sudden downpour where the lustiest partygoers jump into the pool. It’s a confusing, beguiling evening that leads to a piercing moment of clarity, like waking up from some beautiful, terrible dream.
Though slim by Criterion standards, the supplements are thoughtfully considered, and do much to draw out the meaning of this elusive film. New Yorker film critic Richard Brody contributes a terrific essay in the liner notes, which also include a brief article Antonioni himself wrote on the film in 1961. Antonioni felt that women, more than men, were a subtle filter through which to see the world, which explains why Moreau’s Lidia gets more screen time than Mastroianni. Film critic Adriano Aprà and film historian Carlo di Carlo combine their thoughts in a half-hour interview that digs into La Notte’s themes and significance in Antonioni’s career, while Harvard professor Giuliana Bruno, in a separate interview, discusses the film’s striking use of architecture.