When I first reviewed Michelangelo Antonioni's 1961 La notte [The Night] back in 2008 I was still not sure how I felt about this highly admired director and his distinctive work. In this respect, La notte lived up (or, depending on how you choose to view it, down) to my expectations, being visually arresting, impressively cast and performed, but emotionally cold, tonally reflecting the barely suppressed despair of its two central characters, a husband and wife whose marriage is in its death throes. I found it fascinating but distancing, a surgically constructed film that engaged and rewarded the intellect but seemingly made no attempt to touch the heart.
I still stand by much of what I wrote then and you can read that review here.
Coming back to the film after a five year break and having a clearer idea what to expect, however, proved an interesting experience peppered with small but significant surprises. Knowing from the start that Giovanni and Lidia's relationship is teetering on the verge of collapse really did change how I watched and reacted to the first half of the film. This time around almost every look and word that passed between them felt infused with a level of meaning that simply did not register on the first viewing, at least to the degree it did here. And it really made a difference. Far from feeling emotionally distanced from their plight, I found myself almost in the position of someone watching two friends trying to cope with the sort of tortuous pain that accompanies the impending break-up of any long-term relationship worth its salt.
In a response that seems to fly in the face of the proclamation I made in the penultimate paragraph of my original review, I began to care for the couple at a disarmingly early stage. I may not have got to know them any better as people than on my uncertain first viewing, but this time around I more readily empathised with the outward signs of an all-too recognisable inner pain. That I did so more easily with Giovanni than Lidia very likely says more about my position as a male viewer than it does about Antonioni's handling or the performances of Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau. Having only experienced a drawn-out break-up from the male perspective, here I really did appreciate those subtle but oh-so-telling moments in Mastroianni's performance: the unhappy pause for reflection following his departure from Tommaso's hospital room; the distracted manner in which he wanders around his apartment and wearily lies down; the apprehensive pause as he enters the book launch. As a result I became more involved with the pair as they drift through the party that dominates the film's second half, and their gradual disconnection with each other and their fellow guests.
One thing that did strike me this time around was an aspect of Antonioni's editing technique that takes almost oppositional approach to one employed by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock insisted that when a character stands up, for example, the edit should occur after that person begins to move, the idea being that the editing should not anticipate the action but be led by it. In the early scenes of La notte Antonioni does the exact opposite, cutting to new angles that clearly announce that someone else is about to enter the frame or even the room. I'm not reading anything into that, it's just an observation.
What is it about Blu-ray and cars? For some reason nothing says HD transfer like the polished metal finish of car bodywork. Whatever issues there may be with film grain or high contrast or shots that don't quite make the grade, you'll know whether or not the transfer is up to scratch the moment a well tended car drives into shot. The car in question here is the one driven by Giovanni from the hospital to the book launch, and the bodywork looks lovely, and the street in which it travels is rich with crisply rendered buildings, vehicles and pedestrians. This sharpness doesn't always pop, but intermittently I found myself pausing the disk to marvel at the level of detail – following Giovanni's return to their apartment, for example, there is a captivating high angled wide shot of Lidia, one dominated by a huge tiled wall that towers over her, and I swear you can clearly see every single one of the two or three thousand tiles that must be there. As with the previous transfer, the black levels are beefy enough to suck in some of the surrounding detail, but is otherwise appropriately steely, and the print is impressively clean.
The linear PCM 2.0 mono soundtrack has a similarly restricted range and treble bias as the Dolby mono track on the DVD, but the the dialogue is always clear and volume a little higher than on that disc.
If you were hoping that this new Blu-ray release would expand on the uncharacteristically thin selection of extras on the earlier DVD then you're likely to be disappointed. Only the transfer has been upgraded here, so the extra features are still restricted to the slightly deceptive Theatrical Trailer (3:10) and the usual Masters of Cinema Booklet. But as anyone who owns one of their discs will tell you, Masters of Cinema booklets are very special things and the one here is no exception, containing as it does a smart analysis of the film by Brad Stevens, a sizeable and detailed Q&A with Antonioni himself, a short but telling scrapbook of interview snippets and information, credits for the film and the disc, notes on viewing and a selection of stills.
I was fascinated by La notte on my first viewing but left emotionally unmoved, but this time around I connected with the characters and the encroaching despair at a speed that I wasn't prepared for. I maintain that this is not a connection many will make automatically or easily, but it's worth recalling the closing words of my original review, where I suggested that a stronger connection with the characters might be formed by watching the film a second time, which is exactly what happened. Uncanny, huh? As the extras are the same, if you already own the DVD the decision on whether to upgrade to the Blu-ray will probably depend on how fond you are of the film. If you don't then this is definitely the one to go for.