La Notte, Last Year at Marienbad, La Dolce Vita
by Pauline Kael
La Notte and Marienbad are moving in a new filmic direction: they are so introverted, so interior that I think the question must be asked, is there something new and deep in them, or are they simply empty? When they are called abstract, is that just a fancy term for empty? La Notte is supposed to be a study in the failure of communication, but what new perceptions of this problem do we get by watching people on the screen who can’t communicate if we are never given any insight into what they would have to say if they could talk to each other?
For the past year on the radio I had tried to persuade, goad, and even shame people into seeing L’Avventura, which I think is a great film. Then La Notte opened in San Francisco and people were phoning and writing to tell me how marvelous it was and to thank me for opening the world of Antonioni to them. They hadn’t much liked L’Avventura, but they loved La Notte and felt that now they understood why I had been so excited about Antonioni. And I dislike La Notte. Perhaps detest is the better word.
Antonioni is a master of the medium — but in a highly individualistic and peculiar way. He has none of the conventional director’s tricks of the trade, perhaps not even the ordinary syntax, and he is painfully inept and obvious when he has to fall back on a simple action sequence (like the street fight in La Notte). But he doesn’t often need this kind of simple expertise because he doesn’t tell conventional stories. He uses a seemingly random, peripheral course of development, apparently merely following the characters through inconsistencies and inadvertences; and without all the usual plot cues and paraphernalia, we can be far more interested in following him. We go into byways, we don’t stay on the U.S. 40 of most American plots. In L’Avventura, and in La Notte, Antonioni’s camerawork is an extraordinarily evocative mixture of asceticism, lyricism and a sense of desolation. He is a master of space; he can take bleak landscapes and compose or transform them into visions of elegance and beauty. The people are rich but the atmosphere is cold: it is upper-class neorealism — the poetry of moral and spiritual poverty. But in La Notte, the architectural sense, integral to the theme and characters of L’Avventura, begins to dominate the characters, and as the abstract elements take over, the spacial becomes glacial: drama and character and even narrative sense are frozen.
During La Notte, a woman sitting in back of me kept explaining the movie to her husband. She had obviously come to the wrong sort of “art” film, and she was trying to give a conventional narrative interpretation of the story. Determined not to admit that she had led him to the theater by mistake, she was soon reduced to a desperate admiration of the scenery and clothes. But then something came on the screen that she could exclaim over with delight and full approval —it was the performance of the Negro girl contortionist in the nightclub scene, which, like the bitch-elegant Negro performers in Fellini’s films, was, of course, introduced to show the decadence and boredom of the beholders. There was nothing else in the movie the female Babbitt in back of me could enjoy and she gave up.
Most of the audience seemed to accept Antonioni’s terms. But I wonder if perhaps Americans don’t accept the all-passion-is-spent bit in a special way that relates to the failure of his method and something distasteful and offensive in his whole conception. There is a glamour that his characters seem to find in their own desolation and emptiness, and I think to an American art-house audience this glamorous world-weariness looks very elegant indeed. How exquisitely bored and decadent are the Antonioni figures, moving through their spiritual wasteland, how fashionable is their despair.
The images are emptied of meaning. Marcello Mastroianni is used as a handsome, mindless mask, the actor as mature juvenile, the experienced, tired, fortyish man of all these films (he is also the hero of La Dolce Vita, and the hero of Marienbad is just like him). The intellectual gifts attributed to Mastroianni in La Notte are not so much unconvincing, unproved, as totally alien. His face fails to show the ravages of an artist’s mind.
And there is the repeated view of Jeanne Moreau walking away from the camera. Jeanne Moreau is a brilliant film actress and her face is a marvel of sullen boredom that can suddenly be brought to life by a smile, even a forced, meaningless reflex of a smile; but what are we to make of this camera fixation on her rear? In Marienbad I had laughed at the views of Delphine Seyrig’s elegant backside, with its delicate Swiss-watch movements, the walk that was so absurdly high-toned that I took it, rightly or wrongly, for parody, but in La Notte, obviously we are supposed to be interested in Jeanne Moreau’s thoughts and feelings while we look at her from the back, walking around the city. What kind of moviemaking, what kind of drama is this? Is the delicate movement of the derrière supposed to reveal her Angst, or merely her ennui? Are we to try to interpret the movement of her rear, or are we to try to interpret the spacial and atmospheric qualities of the city streets — and the only kind of interpretation we can draw from the settings is, for example, that the impersonal modern glass city reflects the impersonal life of modern man, that city people have lost their roots in the earth and all that sort of thing. It isn’t much, is it?
In La Notte we see people for whom life has lost all meaning, but we are given no insight into why. They’re so damned inert about their situation that I wind up wanting to throw stones at people who live in glass houses. At a performance of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, only a boob asks, “Well, why don’t they go to Moscow?” We can see why they don’t. Chekhov showed us why these particular women didn’t do what they said they longed to do. But in movies like La Notte or Marienbad, or, to some degree, La Dolce Vita the men and women are not illuminated or ridiculed — they are set in an atmosphere from which the possibilities of joy, satisfaction, and even simple pleasures are eliminated. The mood of the protagonists, if we can call them that, is lassitude; there is almost no conflict, only a bit of struggling — perhaps squirming is more accurate —amid the unvoiced acceptance of defeat. They are the post-analytic set — they have done everything, they have been to Moscow and everywhere else, and it’s all dust and ashes: they are beyond hope or conviction or dedication. It’s easy enough to say “They are alienated; therefore, they exist,” but unless we know what they are alienated from, their alienation is meaningless — an empty pose. And that is just what alienation is in these films — an empty pose; the figures are cardboard intellectuals — the middle-class view of sterile artists. Steiner’s party from La Dolce Vita is still going on in La Notte, just as the gathering of bored aristocrats in La Dolce Vita is still going on in Marienbad.
The characters in this group of films seem pawns or puppets rather than characters (this, of course, is carried to the extreme in Marienbad of deliberately treating them as pawns). They have very little personality or individuality; they have no convincing existence. Mastroianni in La Notte is supposed to be a talented and famous writer, but would he behave any differently in the course of the film if he were a hairdresser, or the advertising manager of an airline, or a movie star? But then how can we accept him as a writer? A writer, we assume, is involved in the life around him; he interprets and helps to transform his experience; he has needed will as well as talent to develop his individuality and to fight conformity and insensitivity. When we are told that the hero of La Notte is a writer, he automatically acquires an importance, an almost symbolic status that his character in no way justifies.
And here, perhaps, we begin to get at something centrally wrong in this group of films. La Dolce Vita, La Notte, and Marienbad are all about people who are bored, successful and rich — international café society — but in at least two of them we are told they are artists, and because we know that artists embody and express their age, its soul and its temper, we are led to believe that these silly manikins represent the soul-sickness, the failure of communication, the moral isolation of modern man.
Fellini and Antonioni ask us to share their moral disgust at the life they show us — as if they were illuminating our lives, but are they? Nothing seems more self-indulgent and shallow than the dissatisfaction of the enervated rich; nothing is easier to attack or expose. The decadence of aristocracy and its attraction to and for Bohemia, are nothing new, not especially characteristic of our age, nor even much of a social problem. Unless we can recognize this barren way of life in ourselves, then all we are being asked to do is stare in horror at the decadent upper classes — a pastime as shallow as their own. They show us people walking in a dream, dead without even putting up a fight for life; it’s as if there were nothing to fight for, as if no new experiences were possible. In La Notte the wife goes back to where she and her husband used to go, reads him a letter to remind him how he used to feel. Like the nagging hypochondriacs who enjoy poor health, she has nothing to do but savor the dregs of old experiences as she wanders aimlessly in her melancholy. Well, what has defeated them all? I don’t want to sound like a Doris Day character — the All-American middle-aged girl — but when I put the coffee on in the morning and let the dogs out, I don’t think I feel more alienated than people who did the same things a hundred years ago.
I have heard that at the graduate-school level Antonioni’s endings are said to be very beautiful, even inspiring, that the “shared hopelessness” indicates that modern human experience need not be altogether downhill, that you must make the best of a bad world, and that there is nobility and beauty in resigning yourself to the futility of life. Surely this is the last gasp of depleted academia. In La Notte Antonioni has intentionally created a ghastly spectacle: two people sharing an empty life. The problem of interpretation is simply whether we can accept the meanings and overtones with which he surrounds this dead marriage; is it so central and so symbolic that all these ornaments and icicles can be hung from it?
I reject the terms of the film on commonplace grounds: why the devil do they stay together, why doesn’t she leave him if this is how she feels? What has made this a world in which there are no alternatives, no hope? And what is so shocking about a married couple, after ten years or so, no longer being in love or having anything to say to each other? What is so dreadful about their looking for other people to whom they can feel some response? Why are they shown as so withered away, destroyed, dead because they are weary of each other? And if they have no other interests, why should we care about them?
And isn’t it rather adolescent to treat the failure of love with such solemnity? For whom does love last? Why try to make so much spiritual desolation out of the transient nature of what we all know to be transient, as if this transiency somehow defined our time and place? If it is the sickness of our time that married people get fed-up with each other, when was the world healthy? I thought it was the health of our culture that when married people have had it, they are free and sufficiently independent to separate. (Perhaps the marriage in La Notte just lasted too long: I don’t know anybody who has stayed married for ten years — nobody except relatives.) Surely there are some institutions, like magazines, to which we must apply criteria other than durability: we do not, for example, call Dwight Macdonald’s politics a failure because it ceased publication or the Saturday Review of Literature a success because it is interminable.
The symbol of the end of the world and the failure of human relations is a big dull party in both La Notte and La Dolce Vita. But I don’t understand how these film artists can think they are analyzing or demonstrating their own — that is to say, our own, emptiness by showing the rich failing to enjoy a big party. Whose experience are they expressing — or is the party just an easy photogenic symbol of modern life that is being loaded with meanings it can’t carry?
I suspect many Americans are attracted by this view of fabulous parties, jaded people, baroque palaces; to an American who works damned hard, old-world decadence doesn’t look so bad — all those desperately unhappy beautiful people, surrounded by champagne, lobster, dance orchestras, and a wide selection of gorgeously dressed sex partners to be had for the lifting of an eyebrow. Forgive me if I sound plaintive: I’ve never been to one of these dreadfully decadent big parties (the people I know are more likely to give bring-your-own-bottle parties). And isn’t it likely that these directors, disgusted though they may be, also love the spectacle of wealth and idleness, or why do they concentrate on these so empty and desiccated rich types? If the malaise is general, why single out the rich for condemnation? If the malaise affects only the rich, is it so very important? As usual, there is a false note in the moralist’s voice.
These movies are said to be “true” and “important” because this kind of high life has been observed (gossip columnists assure us that they have been eyewitnesses); do the people who read the gossip columns get so much vicarious pleasure that they think they’re living it? Here we are in an age of increasing mechanization and dehumanization — with the trends horribly the same under both capitalism or socialism, with no relief in sight, and people go to Fellini’s and Antonioni’s Marxist-Catholic-Hollywood glamour parades and come away carrying the banner that fornication is the evil of our times! And whom do these directors pick to symbolize the victims of materialism: the artists — just the ones who escape into freedom. I’ll admit that I once knew an apparently bored artist, a famous composer, born wealthy, who said to me, “The days are always two hours too long for me.” I wanted to hit him with a poker because the days are always too short for me and I am always trying to prolong them by staying up half the night. But I decided that he was using his boredom as a come-on — a lure so that people would want to fascinate him, to awaken him from his sleeping beauty trance.
* * *
The term “sleeping beauty” provides, I think, a fairly good transition to Last Year at Marienbad — or Sleeping Beauty of the International Set, the high-fashion experimental film, the snow job in the ice palace. Here we are, back at the no-fun party with non-people, in what is described to us as an “enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel — where corridors succeed endless corridors.” I can scarcely quote even that much of the thick malted prose without wanting to interject — “Oh, come off it.” The mood is set by climaxes of organ music and this distended narration; it’s all solemn and expectant — like High Mass. But then you hear the heroine’s thin little voice, and the reiterated questions and answers, and you feel you shouldn’t giggle at High Mass, even if it’s turning into a game of Idiot’s Delight. Surely conversation about whether people met before at Frederiksbad or Marienbad or Baden-Salsa can only be a parody of wealthy indolence — but is the film supposed to be comic? Probably not, but it’s always on the edge — so the effect is ludicrous. The settings and costumes seem to be waiting for a high romantic theme or a fantasy; the people, pawns who are manipulated into shifting positions, seem to be placed for wit, or for irony. But all we get are games, and tricks that look like parodies of old movies and decorators’ versions of film art. Once again the sick souls are damned well dressed — from the look of all these movies, you might begin to suspect that soul-sickness is a product of the couturier.
The author Robbe-Grillet says: “This movie is no more than the story of a persuasion, and one must remember that the man is not telling the truth. The couple did not meet the year before.” The director Resnais says: “I could never have shot this film if I had not been convinced that their meeting had actually taken place.” But who cares if they met before and who cares what happens to them? Enthusiasts for the film start arguing about whether something happened last year at Marienbad, and this becomes rather more important than what happens on the screen in front of them — which isn’t much. The people we see have no warmth, no humor or pain, no backgrounds or past, no point of contact with living creatures, so who cares about their past or future, or their present? Does it matter if it’s a chess game or a recurring dream game? Resnais dissolves time all right — by destroying any sense of relationship to events or characters. He says he has cut out the “explanatory scenes” and the dialogue whose sole purpose is “to keep the action going” — I think this is exactly what he is giving us: all the mechanics of drama without any drama. We know nothing about these people except that they move up and down corridors, open and close doors, change clothes, so it seems a mere idle game, as idle as the match game the men play, to speculate about what has happened or is going to happen to them. (About the only question I came out asking was: how many changes of costume did the girl actually have?) It is one thing to cut out the unnecessary mechanical transitions of film (as Godard did in Breathless), but Resnais cuts away something that is basic to drama — our caring about the characters and what they are doing. (I don’t mean this in the naive sense that we must like the characters; there are many ways of caring.)
Resnais: “Perhaps it may seem pointless to some people to train a camera on the inner minds of the characters rather than on their external behavior, but it is fascinating once in a while.” But that is exactly what we get — their external behavior; we get no sense of what he calls their “inner minds” at all. (I wonder what he thinks their outer minds are like.) He says that in order to “bring the art of film-making to this abstract plane,” he “has eliminated the ‘non-essentials’ — plot, action and rational explanations. . . . My films are an attempt, still very crude and tentative, to visualize the complexity of the mechanism of thought.” But without those “non-essentials” of plot and action and rational explanations we are left with figures going through unmotivated movements. If changing clothes and going in to dinner is all that is in their heads, he doesn’t have much to visualize. And if the crisis of all this thought is whether to change partners, going from one dummy to another, how are we to find the girl’s vacillations and visions anything but faintly comic? If she sees herself as a femme fatale in feathers, posturing like an early movie siren — Evelyn Brent or Marlene Dietrich in a Von Sternberg setting — if this is all that is in her head, then hasn’t Resnais selected a singularly vacuous specimen of woman, and of man, to suggest the complexity of the mechanism of thought? (The international playgirl figure in La Notte, Monica Vitti, can be seen, rather like Delphine Seyrig, as a parody derived from Hollywood’s glamour periods, but is the parody intentional in her case either?)
I don’t know the source of this notion that film making should be brought to an “abstract plane” (is this plane, by some analogy with mathematics, supposed to be higher than the level on which directors like D. W. Griffith and Jean Renoir have worked?) and I don’t know what battles will be fought on that plane stripped of plot and action and rational explanations, but there seem to be a few skeletons from old movies lying about. The characters of Marienbad, it is indicated, do what they must do: it’s all supposed to be preordained, simple and irrevocable, in a world without choice or responsibility. And in this not so very intellectually-respectable aspect Marienbad is a “classier” version of those forties you-can-call-it-supernatural-if-you-want-to movies like Flesh and Fantasy — only now it’s called “Jungian.”
Resnais: “Make of it what you will . . . whatever you decide is right.” This is like making a mess and asking others to clean it up; it’s also a cheap way of inviting audiences and critics to make fools of themselves. And they do: they come up with “solutions” like “Marienbad is supposed to be interpreted like a Rorschach test — you are supposed to give it whatever meanings you wish.” But, but — a Rorschach test is a blot, an accident onto which you project your own problems and visions; it is the opposite of a work of art, which brings the artist’s vision to you. And Marienbad, though it’s silly, albeit at times amusing and pretty, is in no way an accidental blot. And whatever is there to decide about? A riddle that has no answer may seem deep if that’s your turn of mind or it may just seem silly and pointless. Did they meet before or didn’t they? It’s rather like Which Twin Has the Toni. You have to work hard to pretend it’s a complicated metaphysical question. If you compose a riddle and then say all solutions are right, then obviously there is no solution, and the interest must be in the complexity or charm or entertainment of the riddle and the ideas or meanings it suggests to you — in its artfulness. And at this level, Marienbad is a mess — or, rather, it’s a neat mess, and it’s too heavy to be so lightweight.
No wonder nobody remembers anything — if the days of the intervening year were all alike and all chopped into pieces like this hour and a half. The fragmentation of conventional chronology doesn’t do more, in this case, than break up in bits and then arbitrarily repeat the externals of behavior. (It has, however, the advantage of disguising the banality of the material by making it confusing — and as an extraordinary number of people take confusion for depth, even the embarrassingly paranoid Guns of the Trees may acquire a following now that Jonas Mekas has re-edited — and fragmented — it.)
Mustn’t the movie be seen — if it is to be enjoyed — as an exercise in decor and romantic mystification? I was intrigued by the palaces and parks and wanted to know where they were, who had built them, and for what purposes (I was interested in the specific material that Resnais was attempting to make unspecific). I enjoyed some of the images: an over-exposed moment when the screen is flooded with light; dancers and game-players who might be evocative of something or other if glimpsed just briefly or in the distance. But when this exercise goes on for an hour and a half, the figures abstracted from all living detail become as tiresome as shadow dancers. Lousy story, but great sets. The trouble with sets like this is, what possible story could be told in them? Robbe-Grillet and Resnais tell the audience to do the artists’ work and inhabit the empty movie with life and meaning. This peculiar presumption, all too common in “avantgarde” film circles, can pass for new and daring and experimental in art houses. And those familiar with “avant-garde” film program notes with their barmy premise that what can’t be seen in the film is what makes the film important, will recognize Robbe-Grillet as the definitive, classical practitioner of the genre.1
* * *
Let’s leave the ice palace and go down to Fellini’s hotel in hell, his gilded apocalypse. If Fellini meant it when he said his aim was “to put a thermometer to a sick world,” his method and subject matter make no sense. It’s a waste of effort to stick a thermometer into a pesthole. It’s like poking your head into a sack of fertilizer and then becoming indignant because you’re covered with excrement. The aim, the scale, the pretensions, the message are too big for the subject matter: tabloid sensationalism and upper-class apathy and corruption. Fellini is shocked and horrified — like the indignant housewives who can’t get enough details on Elizabeth Taylor’s newest outrage, and think she should be banned from the screen. I don’t think he’s simply exploiting the incidents and crimes and orgies of modern Rome in the manner of a Hollywood biblical spectacle, but La Dolce Vita is a sort of a Ben Hur for the more, but not very much more, sophisticated. And in attempting a modern parallel with the revelations of the apocalypse, he’s very close to the preachers who describe the orgies of high life and the punishments of eternal hell fire.
It doesn’t make very much difference in the world if people who have a lot of money or people who want publicity are bored or drunk or autoerotic or queer. They may be disgusting (and they may also be highly entertaining) but they don’t do much harm, and their casual promiscuity which doesn’t hurt anyone except possibly themselves is not so shocking or immoral as, for example, the cruelties that can be found at any social level — like the way middle-class and laboring people can feel virtuous and righteous while taking out their frustrations on their children. Is Fellini really so appalled by the rich girl and the hero making love in the prostitute’s room, by the transvestites, by the striptease which gives the woman gratification? Is he at heart a country boy who can never take for granted the customs and follies of the big city? Perhaps, and perhaps also a showman who knows that these episodes will be juicy fodder for the mass audience — middle-class and working people always hungry to learn the worst about the terrible dirty rich.
The movie is so moral in its emphasis that all vice (all non-innocent fun?) seems to be punished by boredom and defeat. But why are people looking so eagerly at the movie, hoping for ever more horrifying views of that unrestrained high life? The sweet, soft life is just what hardworking, moralistic people envy; maybe they don’t think it’s so dull and awful as Fellini tells them it is. And Fellini presents more and more and more of it — until the audience is more tired than the characters at the all-night parties. (Perhaps you don’t decide it’s dull until after you’ve had a lot of it? Morality becomes a function of exhaustion.) Surely to audiences the drinking and bodies and striptease parties are more interesting than the message of condemnation, which is like a moral consolation prize for the opportunities they don’t have. He uses the swarming photographers as a chorus of Furies, a remarkable piece of sophomoric self-indulgence: they are as eager as he to “expose” vice, i.e. — to catch the rich in the act. (Perhaps the artists who capture the popular imagination are those who retain the fervor and grandiloquence of a high-school orator: people all over the world were moved by the spiritual message of La Strada that everyone has a purpose in the universe.)
La Dolce Vita wants to be a great film — it cries out its intentions — and it’s frequently clever, as in the statue hanging from the helicopter, and it’s sometimes effective, as, near the end, when Marcello throws the feathers. And that is all it is. Perhaps what it needs to be more than that is some more serious examination of human folly: perhaps we need to see some intelligent, hardworking or creative people who nevertheless have the same outlets — or vices, if you will — as these shallow people. There are plenty of serious artists, as well as plenty of business and professional men, who are lecherous, promiscuous, homosexual; there are plenty of narcotics addicts on Wall Street (maybe it helps, if you’ve got to wear one of those hats). Why use the silly publicity-seekers or aimless rich as scapegoats for all our follies? Does no Communist or working-class girl ever fantasize taking off her clothes in public? Does no American college girl ever fantasize changing places with a whore? The rich are in a position to act out our fantasies, but surely an artist like Fellini, knowing that these fantasies are general, should not allow the middle class to cluck with glee and horror at seeing the rich do just what the middle class secretly wants to do. The world wouldn’t end if they did, nor would capitalism or Communism rise or fall. Fellini’s desire for a great theme notwithstanding, even if the subject of “vice” were treated more seriously, it still wouldn’t make an apocalypse.
La Dolce Vita is very different in directorial style from the semi-abstract kind of movement in La Notte, and the fooling around in the intellectual sports arena of Marienbad. I’d better say that very clearly, because as I dislike all three, there is a temptation to lump them together. And they are lumpy. Structurally, all three are disasters, and perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to confuse them. If you remember a scene at a party — was it in La Dolce Vita or La Notte, or Marienbad, or was it in the big hotel of L’avventura? The Morandi paintings link the Steiner episode of La Dolce Vita with La Notte; and both have the same dull writer-hero played by the same actor. Who can remember who did what to whom in which movie? The rich hostess of La Notte, who greets her guests in the garden, and points to the house, saying, “They’re all dead in there,” might just as well be pointing at the hotel in Marienbad. Are the people who play the Marienbad game any different from those who play games on the floor in La Notte? Did they meet last year in La Dolce Vita?
The episodes in these films don’t build, they are all on the same level. The view is panoramic, and there’s even a rather peculiar concept of documentary — many people playing themselves, some using their own names, or names like their own, or no names (names, like definite characterization, seem to be regarded as unimportant). Despite the length of the films, so much is vague and unspecified, and the characters are inexplicable. We sometimes get the impression that Fellini thinks that the lives and fates of the people in La Dolce Vita are very important, but we can’t tell if Emma, the hero’s mistress, is supposed to be some kind of life-force the hero should cling to in order to be saved, or just a jealous nagging ninny. People say the girl in Marienbad is an anima or perhaps they say she is the eternal feminine. But what clue do we have for her? You could say of Garbo that she was all women, but this girl is no woman, she’s just a nameless puzzle for those who want to create artificial problems for themselves. And who can say what the wife in La Notte is — is she weak or strong, does she stay with her husband out of inertia or pity or indifference? The directors show us people playing pointless games in order to reveal the pointlessness of their lives; like the fairground in recent English movies, it’s an oddly simple-minded device (and a maladroit symbol — as some of the most active and energetic people relax with games of chance and skill). And, depressingly, it’s a boomerang: the latest intellectual game is devising interpretations of these movies. If it is all a dream, it is a bad dream.
All these films have their source, I think, in Renoir’s great The Rules of the Game  — but how different his party was: it was a surreal fantasy, the culmination of the pursuit of love, a great chase, a great satirical comedy, a dance of death. The servants were as corrupt as the masters. And how different were the games — the shooting party in which almost all living creatures were the targets, and then the unplanned shooting party. But the themes were set — the old castle that seems to symbolize the remains of European civilization, and the guests with their weekend activities — sex and theatricals and games. Renoir’s film was a dazzling, complex entertainment, brilliantly structured, building its themes toward a climax. These new party films are incoherent message movies — at least La Dolce Vita and La Notte are. Who can say what Marienbad is? (Marienbad has at least one definite relationship to The Rules of the Game: Chanel dressed the ladies in both.) They are important, not because they are great movies (they are not) but because of the way people are responding to them. Their audience may be enormous (as for La Dolce Vita) or small, but Fellini, Antonioni, Resnais have caught its pulse: they are telling people what they want to hear, which, I think, means they are obscuring problems in a way that people like to see them obscured. The message of La Dolce Vita or La Notte isn’t very different from what they might hear in any church, but it looks different, and so they are being struck and moved by all sorts of “profound” ideas (our lives are a living death, we have lost the capacity to act, we are losing the “life force,” and all that).
At the end of La Notte (conceptually, the ugliest sequence in modem films), the writer and his wife leave the party, and dawn’s early light finds them walking across the golf course and coupling — if we can call it that — near a sandtrap. I couldn’t resist subversive thoughts: why can’t he wait until they get home? And finally I whispered to my companion, a professor of English, “How can he do it with his clothes on?” and my friend answered, “Maybe that’s why those Italian suits are becoming so popular.” The sleepwalking husband and wife do a turn worthy of the contortionist.
These reactions will no doubt infuriate La Notte lovers — I know very well that we are supposed to be so involved in the interior problems of the characters that we shouldn’t think in such terms. But how far can we go in following a director who has refined narrative and character out of his drama, who is attempting to turn the peripheral elements of drama into its center, who is so preoccupied with boredom and isolation and drifting and the failure of communication and the impermanence of desire, that he has lost the sense that people share other interests and pleasures not so impermanent? (The only parent in these movies is Steiner, who murders his children! Don’t these people even have any pets?) If there are people this bored and vacuous, how did they get this way, and what makes the directors think these people are so central to the modern world that they symbolize our experience? (I admit that when I talk with people who find La Notte “beautiful,” they sound as weak and empty as the people in the movie. Surely this must be the power of suggestion? They also accept Antonioni’s self-serious, literary dialogue as art.)2
Is Antonioni so different from his contortionist? Doesn’t he experience a sense of accomplishment after completing this ugly, pointless, but difficult-to-do act, this film with its titillations for the blasé (the nymphomaniac in the hospital) and its arty-intellectual appeal for the naive (the tape-recorded poetry)? But, more dishonest than the contortionist, he condemns the act while performing it: he builds in the morality for the audience so that they can feel the desolation of their own emptiness — oh, the pity of it all. And if they have ever experienced despair, they can imagine that it was like this, part of the universal sickness of the rich and gifted, and that they, too, were elegantly above it all.
Antonioni’s dawn is not merely the dawn of people who have been up all night; it is dawn as the fag end of the night before; it is the cold light in which you see yourself and know that there is no new day — just more sleepwalking and self-disgust.
In film after film, the contortionist and the sleepwalkers. The symbols are artistically arranged, beautifully composed, but they are not really under control. The directors are not saying what they think they are saying. All we need to undermine and ridicule this aimless, high-style moral turpitude passing itself off as the universal human condition is one character at the parties — like, say, Martha Raye in Monsieur Verdoux — who enjoys every minute of it, who really has a ball, and we have the innocent American exploding this European mythology of depleted modern man who can no longer love because he has lost contact with life.
1. “In Marienbad, the important phenomenon is always the basic lack of substance at the heart of this reality. In Marienbad, what is chimerical is ‘last year.’ What happened — if something did happen once upon a time — constantly produces sort of a gap in the story. . . . In Marienbad, at first we believe that there was no last year and then we notice that last year has crept in everywhere: there you have it, entirely. In the same way we believe that there was no Marienbad (the place, that is), and then we realize we’re at home there from the beginning. The event refused by the young woman has, at the end, contaminated everything. So much so that she hasn’t stopped straggling and believing she won the game, since she always refused all of it; and, at the end, she realizes that it’s too late, that in the final analysis she has accepted everything. As if all that were true, although it well might not be. But true and false no longer have any meaning.” How’s that again?
2. Even while I was saying these words on the radio, I was aware that they weren’t adequate, that I was somehow dodging the issue. Though I believe that whatever moves people is important, I am, perhaps by temperament, unable to understand or sympathize with those who are drawn to the La Notte view of life.
SOURCE: The Massachusetts Review, 1963