Michelangelo Antonioni is the cinematic patron saint of ennui. His films are about beautiful people who fail to find connections among themselves. While their plots can technically be said to be about love, there doesn’t seem to be much of that going on in his films. Judging by their utterly alienated atmosphere, it’s possible that Antonioni himself doesn’t believe in the possibility of meaningful connection among people, let alone love. Antonioni-town is not a terribly fun place to be.
Monica Vitti, Antonioni-stalwart and his muse of misery, stars as Vittoria, a young woman who breaks off her engagement for unexplained reasons. She leaves her fiancé and spends her days idly wandering the suburbs of Rome or whiling away the day with her equally aimless friends. In a scene that reminded me of the end of La dolce vita in its sudden, violent raucousness, Vittoria visits a friend from Kenya and dresses up in blackface and tribal gear, dancing garishly to a stereotypical African beat. Random events like this are common in the world of Antonioni, which is one of the several ways that this film-maker is singular among the great auteurs. Strange things happen but they don’t feel all that strange in this context.
Vittoria doesn’t seem to have a job, but may be living off the profits of her cold but shrewd mother, who spends most of her time at the stock market, nervously pacing around and yelling at brokers. One of the young men she heckles is the brash Piero (Alain Delon), a broker who bounds around the stock market like a jackal, barking orders at fellow brokers and cursing at people over the phone. He catches the eye of Vittoria, who begins a sort of push-pull with him. Another director might make this film about their romance, but Antonioni seems less interested in their love affair than he does in the relentlessly noisy and busy modern world that envelops them.
In an extraordinary scene, the stock market in Rome seems to crash, thrusting the bustling room into chaos and the investors into many different kinds of panic. Vittoria doesn’t seem too concerned about her mother, who suddenly becomes millions in debt to her stockbrokers, but rather is drawn to a crushed-looking man who stalks out of the market, buys some over-the-counter drugs, and draws some flowers on a napkin. Vittoria follows him all the while, curious about his unusual reaction to the calamity that has befallen him (he lost 50 million lire in the crash). Antonioni reveals her to be the only person in the entire world who cares about the man’s sadness; Piero merely shrugs and lights a cigarette.
It’s this sort of apathy that Antonioni rails against, even though he makes films about people who fail to be anything more than that. Vittoria and Piero begin to play at having a love affair, but their hearts don’t seem in it, as though when they are trying to be affectionate with one another, it’s only a faint mimicry of love. Delon plays Piero with a mix of ferocity, twitchiness and sangfroid, making him an uneasy match for the cagey but intrigued Vittoria. She initially rebuffs his advances, which border queasily on sexual assault, but eventually gives in. That’s all these people do, is give in.
Then, out of nowhere, Antonioni appears to be finished with the film’s narrative. He then concludes the film with a striking series of bleak images of the environment, from the functional, ugly apartment buildings to the blinding street lights at night. Anonymous people look off into the distance past the camera wordlessly as droning music plays over the soundtrack. We see shots of urban decay, like dirty runoff cascading into a sewer grate from a bucket filled with stagnant water. Then the movie’s over.
I have no clue what I’m supposed to feel, but it’s not good. I guess Antonioni got the reaction he was hoping for. I’m going to have to sit on this one.