Drifting along the orbits without contact

L’Eclisse, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni (1962)

“It is the things, objects, and materials that have weight today.” (Michelangelo Antonioni)

The Eclipse is a study of relationships. Just as the occasional and temporary overlapping of the moon and the sun along the earth’s orbit, the characters drift in and out of each other’s lives with the same randomness and recklessness they enter and exit the frame of Antonioni’s camera. Seemingly chaotic, but actually tied to specific patterns of behavior, the characters interact with each other in what appears to be a sporadic manner. They appear to be in a constant state of reaction – they experience change as a sudden fact, rather than a process. They are passive. They do not act.

Meaning is not constructed explicitly throughout the film (unlike in a Hollywood production); it surfaces through certain repetitions, juxtapositions, allusions, and, of course, open questions. The overall ensemble is designed to engage the viewer into a conversation, to provoke questions particular to the individual consciousness, and thus by interpreting, to give the film meaning.

There is a profound superficiality at the core of every relationship between the characters: Vittoria and Ricardo, Vittoria and her mother, Vittoria and Piero. Just as the white-washed, clean-swept, new-designed city, minimalist architecture, clean-cut lines of Vittoria’s clothes, and the artificially-decorated apartments of the inhabitants of Rome, there is a sanitized flare to everything in the characters’ lives. At all costs avoiding messiness, the characters reject anything that demands complications and tarnishing. No complicated thoughts, feelings, conversations. Always maintaining a clean slate; drifting along the orbits without ever really connecting, engaging, or investing. The film portrays the problem of human communication in a de-humanized modern environment, in which objects and things have eclipsed human contact.

Vittoria tells Piero that it is not necessary to know each other in order to love; in fact, it is not even necessary to love. Their fear of complications, of pleasure and pain, keeps them chained to their respective orbits. They are witnesses to their lives, but not active participants; they go about their days without ever accomplishing things (Piero sells and buys stocks for other people without ever gaining or loosing anything himself), which forces the viewer to ask, what does it mean to really live and be alive? What does it mean for a woman? For a man?

Vittoria is presented as a very passive but radiant character, as well as the main constellation, around whom the other characters rotate, similar to the sun. Piero is a very energetic but gloomy character, who seems to be in constant motion, rotating around several constellations at once, and thereby symbolizing the moon. The Eclipse is a story of their encounter. It is not a proper relationship; it is a mere encounter. They both prevent it from turning into love; from being meaningful and difficult, from being complicated and from being alive.

They live in a clean-swept and sanitized world where the stains of war, destruction, and loss have been painted over with fresh white paint and are now invisible. Just as the collective consciousness that represses the past, the characters repress their emotions and shun away from understanding and learning from their experiences. Occasionally their glances express the tremendous turmoil or delights that take place inside them, but they never allow themselves to indulge in their emotions. Where does such strength of repression come from? From the years of destruction and devastation of the apocalyptic age? (we see newspaper headlines such as: “The Atomic Age” and “Peace is Weak.”) Do they merely exist in an auto-pilot mode, the mode of mere survival, perpetually condemned to react and never to act: slaves to their own defense mechanisms?

A modern work of art usually contains a layer of self-critique, a strong sense of irony, or a paradox. In the German translation, L’Eclisse is called Liebe 1962 (Love 1962), which, considering the fact that the main characters prevent themselves from love, or any type of meaningful engagement, is a very ironic title. It de-emphasizes the metaphor of floating bodies, but it evokes a social commentary on what it means to live and love in the new, post-war, atomic age. 1962 is the year when the world was approaching the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is also the time of free love and revolutionary birth control, relationships without commitments, sex without consequences, love without complications. But every new-found freedom brings with it new complications.

L’Eclisse resembles an abstract painting or building. Several scenes in the film represent a contemplation on painterly composition (Vittoria’s search for meaning in the objects of her picture frame sets the leitmotif for the director’s cinematic search for his own aesthetic organization of contemporary world). The characters are often juxtaposed to various geometrical shapes.

The films invites us to re-evaluate our own relationships and encounters. Do we drift – why do we drift – or do we engage and connect? What happens when we connect – are we bound to lose ourselves, to sacrifice, to give things up for the other person? Is it possible to be in a relationship without power struggles, without one eclipsing the other, without simultaneously experiencing loss or exploitation?

The film ends as the lovers fail to meet at the agreed time and place, and we are left watching the surrounding city-scape, and that appears to be an empty frame (or rather a frame devoid of the protagonists). The final shot of the film is a close-up of an illuminated street lamp with a bright halo that suggests an eclipse of natural light by an artificial light. The layers of interpretation of this eclipse are endless.

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2 Responses to Drifting along the orbits without contact

  1. Vanessa says:

    Thanks for the beautiful post on an amazing film. Actually, I’ve only seen L’Eclisse once quite a long time ago but remember finding it truly remarkable. L’Avventura made a huge mark on me when I was 17 with those questions of loneliness, isolation in the city, possibility of human connections. I love the images you’ve chosen from the film and your analysis. Monica Vitti is for me the epitome of elegance and beauty. You should publish a book about films too I think.

    • Kat says:

      Thanks, V! You are very kind! I’ll see if I can turn my dissertation into a book on films and culture…. Monica Vitti is truly one of the most beautiful women of all times. I like the whole alienation and modern malaise trilogy by Antonioni (L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse) – they are all beautifully shot, and very poetic and philosophical.

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