La Notte (The Night), the second film in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 60s trilogy of modern discontent, concerns an emotionally estranged married couple, Lidia and Giovanni. Their story is one of halves and transitions: death in multiple forms, and the difficulty of mourning something as abstract and unreliable as love.
The film opens with a visit to their hospitalized friend, Tommaso. His deathbed between them both keeps them apart and anchors them to a common interest. They grieve from separate worlds, different hemispheres—Lidia quiet and withholding, Giovanni conversational. From the first scene until the end, La Notte aches with what’s unsaid, and grief impossible to express. The dying Tommaso ends up comforting Giovanni on the tidings his new novel will bring, while Lidia lingers in the background, consumed and paralyzed by her sadness. Tommaso embodies the problems they’re unable to address in their dying relationship. He tells them, “I never thought I’d end my days in such luxury… Soon hospitals will look just like nightclubs.” This metaphorical hospital is the one in which Lidia and Giovanni are trapped, having dressed and surrounded their marriage in artificial glamour. Wherever they go, they’re sleekly morose, so divinely dour.
Leaving Tommaso’s room a few minutes after Lidia, a young patient accosts Giovanni in the hall. In their brief, aborted attempt at a tryst, the patient clings at him, making wordless demands with furious and bewildered passion. This sequencing places the desire to create and procreate against fading life: death vs. sex. The dream-like encounter allows Giovanni to project his sexual frustration with Lidia, with his own mortality, onto a mute vessel for his emotion. The patient is an ember memory of pure, sensual appetite, but Giovanni can’t ignite that sudden, ravenous spark of vitality with her.
Antonioni cuts a tricky path in following Lidia out of the hospital. He puts us in a position of being able to observe Lidia’s sadness, but unable to penetrate it. This is our slow saturation into her marriage’s ruins. As she wanders the city, her restless melancholia keeps the audience at a distance, no doubt to simulate the one Giovanni feels. Like Giovanni, she has a brief and visceral encounter, hers with young men fighting in the dirt. Her interruption garners no meaningful exchanges. Instead, she remains outside their spirited violence—capable of delaying demise, but not of understanding or reversing it. Death still haunts her, not only as an sadness over her friend, but as a foggy depression refusing to clear.
After their friend’s speech, where else could Lidia and Giovanni possibly go after reuniting? A nightclub, of course, their glittering hospital of dying romance. There the playful, youthful performance of two exotic dancers also fails to jostle the married couple out of their torpor. The dancers are striking symbols of virility, vitality, and sexuality. Opposite of Lidia and Giovanni in almost every way, they are physically powerful, smiling, present, and kinetically engaged. Antonioni allows the female dancer to fully preoccupy the film for several minutes, which creates longing for something joyful and visceral. Her presence establishes that there is a world outside the married couple’s glum alienation. Maybe Giovanni and Lidia realize this, too, and it only pushes them deeper into their nameless misery. Giovanni’s emotional distance echoes Lidia’s physical distance. It’s her, now, turning to him and finding him unavailable. They never communicate, but trade longing. In this longing is the central mystery of the film: are they invested in a connection they’re unable to make, or are they only interested in remote and unattainable ideals of each other?
Lidia and Giovanni, having bored and mystified one another in the nightclub, decide to attend the party which will act as purgatory and reckoning of their marriage. The notte in question has begun.
They arrive to a group of social elites gathered around a racehorse, yet another symbol of strength and vitality, prized for this all too brief peak phase of its life. As the horse is put to bed, prized author Giovanni trots onto the lawn in his place. Despite his effortless, even lazy charm, Giovanni is either disinterested in his admirers or aching in boyish need for their validation.
Lidia, meanwhile, tours the hosts’ mansion just as she did the ruins of the transforming city earlier, observing without attachment. She comes across a dark-haired woman reading and this glance between them is both a look into their future and a handing off of time.
The woman is darkly passionate Valentina, a younger incarnation of the melancholic Lidia and the woman with whom Giovanni quickly becomes infatuated. Their flirtatious game over a checkered flooring draws a crowd, whose tipsy cheer cannot infect Lidia. She escapes to another room in order to call the hospital and check on Tommaso. To the sound of laughter and her husband’s burgeoning new romance, she discovers Tommaso is dead.
Tommaso’s death coincides with the rapid extinguishing of Lidia’s marriage. Before she can rejoin the party, she catches Giovanni kissing Valentina. What better witness than Lidia, who is not spying so much as watching her own replayed past with Giovanni? As Valentina and Giovanni pass by a glass pane, we see a clue that a younger version of himself—his reflection, Lidia’s once-beloved—is pursuing Valentina.
Knowing her friend is dead and her husband is trying to resurrect their marriage in another woman, what else can Lidia do but finally enjoy herself and mingle with the world? Sharing a dance with a younger prospect of her own brings down a sudden rainstorm, a harbinger of change and chaos. It sends the partygoers into drunken joy and heedless passions. A woman kisses a sculpture of Pan, others jump into the pool fully clothed, but Lidia’s dance partner plucks her up and steals her away at the height of her glee. From his car, we see in a rain-splashed vision of her engaged and smiling expression—the only moment in the film where her depression is washed away. Antonioni makes the enchanting decision to exile us from this exchange. We see only two people pleased with each other’s company and hear only the rain.
Meanwhile, Giovanni is left trying to convince Valentina that he’s serious about her, despite being married. Her suggestion is for Giovanni to find a girl and “start over.” In this attempt at resurrection, that is, in fact, exactly what Giovanni wants with Valentina, his unspoiled reincarnation of Lidia. He’s unsuccessful, though, and leaves the ruins of the party at dawn with a defeated Lidia, who is finally ready to bury and grieve their marriage. They walk together across a golf green newly washed clean by rain. Unlike the cluttered cityscapes and rabid socialization surrounding them until now, this backdrop is pristine and peaceful, like a clear mind ready for revelation. The party has died, and so has Tommaso, Lidia tells him—and so has her love for him. She realizes Tommaso had a selfless love for her, one she ignored in favor of the more self-absorbed Giovanni, and reads a love letter aloud to him. Its lines reveal a lover aware of the impermanence of love: I preferred you like this, something no one could take from me because it was mine alone, this image of you that would be everlasting. This line also represents love as something deeply internalized, having nothing to do with the inert beloved, even selfish and possessing. Giovanni, not recognizing his own words of adoration, reacts in a burst of frustrated passion resembling that of the emotionally stunted patient he encountered earlier. He’s distraught, not by the thought of losing Lidia, but by the fleeting, fragile nature of love.
To start over with another girl, as Valentina suggested, is truly impossible when love itself doesn’t last. The death of love is unlike the death of people—love has the hope of being revived. This hope, La Notte suggests, makes love’s death a longer and more torturous thing than the end of life.