European cinema in the 1960’s gave us many bourgeois women feeling their way restlessly through modernity: Cleo in Cléo de 5 à 7, Belle du Jour, Lidia in La Notte, the wives of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Hillary in the Grass is Greener, and Anna in Indiscreet. Their ennui is framed through their relations with men, the ones they marry or want not to marry – what are they supposed to do now that being a wife is no longer the only option? Do they have the same sexual and emotional freedoms and wants? What are the permissible ways to express those wants?
L’Eclisse‘s Vittoria, on the surface, faces something similar: after her old-world academic Riccardo comes her old-world but new-money Piero – they bookend her narrative. But Antonioni does something quite different: Vittoria faces the ennui of modernity with the women in her life and witnesses the ugliness of it through her environment.
L’Eclisse is oft-cited for its terrific and unsparing mise-en-scenes of the futility of modern life: a boxing ring of a stock exchange, the looming largeness of apartment complexes in the exurbs, relentless city traffic, wasteful water use, wide, unfriendly streets, and unfinished construction. Taken together, the post-war world feels empty, hesitant, lacking in passion. (Ce pasione de cosa? Vittoria actually asks at some point.) Vittoria roams through these environments with a real intellectual and philosophical curiosity. Does she fit in this environment, or not? Does anyone else other than her friend Anita live in her apartment building? Does it feel like home? Framed against these environments, Antonioni leads us (beautifully) to feel her despair. Is there beauty? Is there pleasure? If modernity is not about beauty, pleasure, or even love, then what the hell is it about? The places of beauty (that is to say, non-modernity) that she finds are short but life-giving gasps of air: in a private airplane, high above the clouds, far from the ugliness of exurbs; in Piero’s aristocratic family home; and Marta’s Kenya-inspired apartment.
The women in her life deal with modernity in disillusioned or destructive ways. Most notable and chilling is her stock market-obsessed mother. Like a gambler at the racetrack, modernity for her is a feverish race to avoid poverty. She does what she can, including being ensconced in a very masculine world – she plays their game, talks their talk. She doesn’t understand why her daughter is concerned neither with being poor nor rich. Vittoria’s neighbor Marta, on the other hand, deals with modernity by reminiscing about Kenya in a way that only colonialists can: a place of solid, permanent beauty, where you don’t worry about whether you are happy or not because things just “unfold.” Kenya is home for the Italian Marta, not because she is particularly enamored of Kenyans, but because the country is resolutely un-modern still, a land of lakes and wildlife and majestic mountains. Vittoria sees through their illusions. For me, this makes her one of the most intelligent of the bourgeois anti-heroines, though in the end, Antonioni suggests that she may make the very modern mistake of marrying the first handsome stock trader she meets (even if it is Alain Delon).
This is not to say that I do not have any sympathy, or even empathy, for the bored bourgeois housewives; but I particularly enjoyed and appreciated Antonioni’s slightly different and female-centric treatment of an unnameable yet particular feeling. Despite her despair, Vitti’s Vittoria is strong, watchful, and, I think, very certain that it is only the simple pleasures of life which make her happy.