In “The Elements of Space,” Rudolf Arnheim writes that “The architect does not build space but creates it just the same” (18). Using this definition, Michelangelo Antonioni is just as much an architect as he is a filmmaker for the ways that he creates visual, filmic, and narrative space in order to comment on the isolation of the post-War world. The two films that best convey Antonioni’s use of space are La Notte and L’Eclisse, each of which explores different thematic social commentaries relating to Arnheim’s spatial concepts. La Notte seems to explore the theme of individual searching, and the directional and directionless aspects which stem from Antonioni’s view that in the absence of absolute values, individuals enact a solipsistic search which can create social chaos, or at the very least aimless wandering. L’Eclisse follows this up with the comment that when the search (or wandering) yields no results, post-War people attempt to fill the void left by the aforementioned absence of values as they anxiously await the next cataclysmic event. Arnheim’s theories of space help to convey Antonioni’s themes and to reveal the filmic style he uses to visually comment on the world. In both films, Antonioni “seeks the proper ratio” between the “impenetrable matter” and “the openings that we can pass through” (Arnheim 17), which nearly always results in a view of the post-War world that is similar to Arnheim’s idea of the “visual, functional, and social chaos of modern life” (17). It will best serve the argument to explore La Notte’s spatial view of the world first and L’Eclisse’s second, since the former establishes problems that the latter attempts to resolve.
The visual metaphor Antonioni uses to convey the post-War social dilemma of individuals seeking their own, solipsistic goal—instead of the communal course stemming from pre-War, absolutist values—is Milan’s traffic, which precipitates Lydia’s wandering. In this brief but important sequence in La Notte, momentary chaos occurs when the vehicles are all competing for space, which Antonioni conveys in a long shot of the cars attempting to maneuver around a circle. The result is a temporary jam, giving Giovanni time to confess to Lydia of his near-transgression. Even when the cars move again—shot through the windows of Giovanni’s car—the movement is slow and cramped. The effect is what Arnheim would call “mutual repulsion,” when “objects that look ‘too close’ to each other…want to be moved apart” (19). Here Antonioni, the constant architect, restricts space to reveal the mutual repulsion that has become extant due to the absence of values. The cars, acting as individuals, have their own solipsistic direction, which results in disorder. Antonioni uses this sequence to set up the next, where people replace cars, competing for space in the director’s camera. This is Giovanni’s book party, where the space of the room is packed. While it does not reveal the same chaos as the traffic sequence, there is a significant shot where the people in the frame are so cramped that the viewer is forced to notice their mutual repulsion. In an overhead, medium close-up of the h’ors d’oeuvres table, three people are squeezed into the frame and Lydia fills the tight space to put down her glass; however, she is all but bullied out of the shot by the other actors. It is obvious that Antonioni’s intentions are to create claustrophobia, for two reasons: one, to convey the disorder that happens when the pre-War order has fallen away; two, as a set-up for Lydia’s wandering, or her attempt at a search for something absolute in the otherwise anarchic world.
In the absence of black-and-white morals, Antonioni visually argues, we either wander aimlessly without course, or we seek something firm to believe in, and therefore appear to have direction. Lydia’s trek through Milan—and its outskirts—encompasses both wandering and searching; it’s often difficult to distinguish between which. Antonioni also focuses on her aimless movement throughout the party, where she is attempting to find position in the architectural space he has created for her. It’s important not to choose whether Lydia is wandering or searching, but that she’s doing both, since as we’ll see, it’s the ambivalence that Antonioni is interested in. Arnheim’s point about a “visual target” is helpful to discuss Lydia’s journey:
A stranger trying to reach the one tall building that rises above the city may walk in the direction of [her] visual target, selecting street after street as it seems to lead [her] in the right direction, without any more conscious apprehension of the pattern of streets [she] is traversing than if [she] were hacking a path through a jungle. Even though a complex physical structure is physically present, the experience is dominated by the primary goal and the single-minded effort to reach it. (11)
La Notte absolutely has this “one tall building that rises above the city,” and it makes many appearances during Lydia’s journey. The first time it appears is as Antonioni’s camera rounds the corner, it becomes the most prominent visual in the shot, and it is only after a beat that we see Lydia, small in proportion, walking away from it. That Lydia is walking away from the building disproves the interpretation that it acts as her metaphorical “primary goal,” though it does seem to be in the shot to act as the viewer’s rudder in the wandering to come. In other words, that Antonioni inserted a visual that appears more than once in this sequence begs that we view it as a point of reference from which we position Lydia. Again, Antonioni is creating space for us as a way to direct our viewing.
The building’s second appearance comes shortly after—following the post-apocalyptic image of a solitary infant crying before a crumbling building—when the camera holds steadily on its lower half. However, Antonioni tricks us in that it is Giovanni’s car that pulls up beside; he deliberately sets us up to think that the establishing shot is part of Lydia’s journey, perhaps to convey the disorientation of one’s existential search. Another tricky hand-off happens as Giovanni lays down in his apartment, looks out the window, and there’s Lydia—though she’s not out his window. As the camera follows her around the corner, we can see, for the third time, the “one tall building” directly in front of her; the next shot is of the top of that building, a tilt down to Lydia standing before it. The very next shot is from, apparently, the desolate outskirts of the city, the building off in the distance. In this sequence, Lydia watches the young men fight, and in one shot, the building is prominently displayed behind them. When she leaves the scene of the fight and walks toward the rockets firing, the building is there again looming in the background. The numerous appearances of this building point to the metaphorical point of reference Antonioni uses to build space in which his existential themes can thrive.
An individual’s search for position and direction is further dramatized by Lydia’s aloofness and movement at the party, and also by the contortionist dancer that seems to inspire her. Not only does Antonioni allot the dancer a narrative space to maneuver—meaning that the dancer enacts an entire story with a beginning, middle, and end—but he uses her to symbolize the possibility of control in his otherwise bleak world of wanderers. As Arnheim illuminates, “a strong personality may cope with aloneness by establishing… herself as the center and irradiating the surroundings from that center with a sunburst of forces that animate emptiness” (22). Filmically, this scene is important in that it acts as antithesis to most other shots in La Notte: a character is provided an uninterrupted space to move, each movement is captured in detail, and her entire figure is typically in the shot (in other words, Antonioni doesn’t “cut” her with tight framing as he does most other characters). Narratively, this scene acts as inspiration to what Lydia desires, a clear direction, a centralized position, and a way to “cope with aloneness.” We can see that already the dancer has given Lydia the ability to be coy with Giovanni, an attempt at finding existential position. The scene to come, the party, will show her attempting to find more literal, spatial position.
Antonioni provides an architecturally complex space at the party—internal and external—to both restrict and free the characters in order to determine their existential positions. Lydia’s attempt at aloofness mimics her desire for direction while also revealing her lack of it. In many different shots, Lydia is shown sitting by herself away from the party-goers, standing on a balcony above them, or simply wandering through, a mere observer to the life happening around her. Antonioni gives the other characters lines to interpret Lydia’s aloofness: “Why don’t you mix with the others?” and “All alone Signora Pontano?” However, Lydia is not always successful at remaining distant. For example, when standing on the periphery of the dance floor, a gentleman asks her to dance, and she commences to partake in her social surroundings (though the man can’t dance). Similarly, when it rains and everyone begins to jump into the pool, Lydia seems affected by the childish moods and joins in (though she is “rescued” by Roberto). In these examples, Antonioni appears to comment on the difficulty of an individual’s search for herself amidst the chaotic frivolity of those around her. In a world that lacks values, people fill that empty “space” with inane games (sliding a compact on the floor, jumping into the pool with clothes on); those who attempt to detach themselves to find meaning have a difficult time remaining focused on that goal. What remains to be seen, however, is whether Lydia finds her positioning at the end of the film. In order to analyze this sufficiently, however, we must first examine the architectural motif in the film.
As we will see, Antonioni is making a much more complex argument through the architectural visuals: he is pitting architectural order (or fixed determinism) against social chaos (or agency), the very existential dilemma created when the absolutism of religion gave way to the randomness of its absence in the post-War world. Antonioni establishes the conflict between the two at the very opening of the film, when the credits open on a tall building that lacks any sign of humanity. What the viewer should appreciate is the order in this visual: the spatial symmetry of the structure’s windows and the controlled movement of the camera. The very next shot is a dissolve to Tomaso dying. Thus, Antonioni is setting up an antithesis for the viewer: the cold, austere architecture versus the fragility of mankind. As the film commences, Antonioni—as a good architect would do—sticks to this plan: Lydia wanders in and out of the fixed position of buildings; cars move chaotically in the cramped space of the city’s walls; and the party-goers act as the haphazard molecules moving randomly at the architect’s mansion. The architect gives voice to the deterministic idea of architecture when he tells Giovanni, “When I was young, I imagined a world like this… and set out to create such a future.” Here we have the philosophical idea that only where the future is fixed can one predict its outcome (or imagine it). He also tells Giovanni emphatically, “The important thing is to create something lasting” while banging on the physical table. The significance of this comes when we consider architecture itself as a deterministic art form. If the architect does not abide by physical laws, the structure will fail. In other words, a building cannot deviate from these fixed, predetermined laws of physics; therefore, all buildings are the visual manifestation, and reminder of determinism. This, then, should give more thematic weight to the characters’ maneuvering in and around the city that Antonioni gives so much attention to in the film.
In another sense, La Notte itself seems to follow a fixed plan. How else are we to interpret Signora Resy’s prediction of Giovanni and Lydia’s outcome? In the following monologue, she tells Giovanni of a book she’d like him to write, one which forecasts the actions of Giovanni, Lydia, and herself:
I’d like a novel about a woman who loves a man, but the man doesn’t love her. But he does admire her intelligence, her character. They live together… but how could the story end? She’d have to be strong and sacrifice herself. She sacrifices herself for another woman’s happiness… It makes me want to cry.
What follows is that Lydia sends Giovanni to Valentina, thus sacrificing herself. At the end of the film, or the story, Resy is seen crying on a bench. So, through the eyes of an architect, we can see the film as a piece of architecture which follows a fixed plan. In terms of space, we should note that in a deterministic world, humans are given little-to-no space to make choices, since their fates follow a fixed path. Here, it seems that Antonioni is restricting the characters’ narrative space, perhaps as a way to reveal the pre-War absolutism colliding with the new randomness that came with an absence of fixed morality. “Collision” is important, since no Antonioni film follows a clear-cut interpretation (an explanation of which will be posited later). After all, the anarchic response of the party-goers during the rain perfectly contrasts the fixed determinism. Perhaps in no other point in the film is Antonioni’s commentary about post-War humanity so clear. In this scene, he shows how lost people are, so much so that they are rendered as children playing in the rain, or writhing sexually before “false idols” (a statue of Pan). An interpretation of this is that once people were free from the shackles of religion and morality, they were like children suddenly unleashed by parents. In this way, Antonioni is also allowing the characters the space to have agency.
In typical Antonioni fashion, the end of La Notte gives the viewer contradictory images with which to contend. In one sense, Lydia finds her position, and in that sense, Antonioni gives the viewer narrative and filmic positioning; in another sense, however, Lydia and the viewer are rendered stuck in position. In terms of the former, it’s important to note that as Lydia and Giovanni move away from the house into the open expanse of the lawn, Lydia is often in the center of the frame (with Giovanni next to her). Antonioni also gives her the same generous space (in the frame) as he gave the dancer: in a wide shot, we can see her entire figure. The viewer is also given space to breathe, as Antonioni, for the first time in the film, gives us an extreme long-shot of nature (sans architecture) in the rolling expanse of the lawn. Here, the viewer feels some relief from the chaos and cramped spaces from earlier in the film. On a visual level, then, it seems Antonioni is ending on a positive image, making us apply that to Lydia finding her own freedom. Antonioni counters that, however, in two ways. First, the final image of Lydia is a violent one, being in a submissive position below Giovanni, nearly pinned to the ground. This comes after Lydia attempts to free herself from him by breaking off the relationship. In a tracking shot, Antonioni moves us away from this upsetting image to land on that expansive shot of open space; any relief we might get is disturbed by a freeze frame—temps mort—where the space is suddenly restricted by time. In other words, the feeling of progression and freedom the viewer might have gained by the shot is cut off or frozen. Antonioni is far from confused. In fact, his film is following the valueless world that he is capturing. In a place that lacks absolutes, it makes sense that he would not end his film with an absolute; in a post-War time full of contradictions and individuals all searching for their own solipsistic meaning, the final scene in La Notte demands that the viewer seek her own meaning.
As La Notte centered on the theme of individuals searching for existential meaning, in L’Eclisse, Antonioni seems to be exploring what happens when the searching becomes fruitless, and people simply wait, anxiously, for what the uncertain world will deliver next. In this way, Arnheim is still helpful in examining this theme, since another way to describe waiting is through the idea of the space between two objects, or events. As we will see, Antonioni, the architect, contrasts the restricted, internal space with the free, external space in order to convey how post-War individuals attempt to fill the vacant space as they anxiously await the next narrative object. Another way to put this is in Arnheim’s words:
Everyday experience distinguishes between impenetrable matter, such as mountains or tree trunks or the walls of buildings, and the openings that we can pass through. This distinction is fundamental for the architect, since he constantly seeks the proper ratio between the two. (17)
In L’Eclisse, Antonioni expertly finds and utilizes the ratio between the impenetrable and the open.
As a way to segue visually from La Notte to L’Eclisse, Antonioni inserts the looming water tower in the opening, which seems to serve the same symbolic function for Vittoria as it did Lydia. As in La Notte, the water tower could be seen as the “building towering over a fairly empty plain” serving as the “primary goal” (Arnheim) for Vittoria, or at least to provide a point of reference for the viewer to make the connection that she is seeking direction. This water tower is visually powerful as it demands the most attention in every frame it is in, from seeing it through an open window to when Vittoria walks past it and it dominates her proportionally. What is significant, and where Antonioni makes a break from La Notte, is that the water tower disappears completely after the opening. If the structure does serve as a metaphorical goal for the characters showing that they are searching for something, and as a rudder for the viewer, then the absence of the otherwise domineering structure is a frightening statement. In other words, Antonioni announces that the search is over, the point of reference is gone, and therefore we are entering into an interval of space, or absence—the unsettling wait. What the characters and the viewers are now attempting to do throughout the film, even if subconsciously, is fill the space left vacant by the water tower. Historically speaking, a void has been left in the wake of the Wars which people are attempting to replace. What Antonioni provides us with hereafter, are two types of spaces—internal and external—which serve as his way to explore how people attempt to exist in the interval.
The film opens in an internal, cluttered space where the characters compete with objects. The mise en scene in Riccardo’s apartment is cramped with desks filled with various objects and walls crowded with abstract paintings. In the very opening of the film, it is impossible to distinguish Riccardo’s elbow from the clutter of books, until the camera pans over to him and the viewer recognizes the “white object” as his arm. Thus we have Antonioni establishing the idea that in these post-War times, people have been relegated to the status of objects. In another scene in the apartment, Riccardo becomes more of an object than a person, as he sits so still in the chair that he seems made of wax. If the characters are competing with objects for space in this sequence, it’s fair to say that the characters often lose. However, this only scratches the surface of Antonioni’s use of cluttered space.
Through the two intense stock exchange sequences, Antonioni gives us a restricted, internal space to reveal the desperate ways in which people literally fill it. Much like the traffic in La Notte, the characters are competing with each other for space in the stock exchange building, which emphasizes Arnheim’s “mutual repulsion” as well as social chaos. More so than in La Notte, however, Antonion attempts to see how many people he can get in a single frame, to intensify the restriction and clutter. Interestingly, in the first stock exchange sequence (when people are making money), Antonioni gives us two glimpses of social order. The first is that while the stockbrokers are frantically moving about and colliding with each other, there are those who abide by the order of the rails that organize the space, which seems to show that order can exist in such restricted circumstances. The other instance is more pronounced, and that is the moment of silence, or the quiet space between the chaoses, where we see that the mob is capable of solemnity. This is shown to us through an overhead long shot to emphasize the characters’ stasis. Antonioni could be using this quiet space to not only provide a glimpse of hope for post-War humanity, but perhaps to serve as a metaphor for the Wars themselves that interrupted the societal flow. Interestingly, immediately after the moment of silence, the action commences as though nothing had happened at all, a bleak comment on the meaning that is lost on people. In terms of filling space, Antonioni is also showing rather obviously how money is the new god that replaced the pre-War religion. (Consider Vittoria’s mother and the other ladies wearing their “Sunday best” to buy and sell stocks!)
Perhaps more thematically and visually significant is the second stock exchange sequence, since Antonioni gives us a bleaker, more terrifying view of humanity which he conveys through a more intense restriction of space. In this sequence, people are losing money, and therefore it makes sense that the chaos and desperation are heightened. In contrast to the first sequence, Antonioni focuses the camera significantly on the numbers board that looms over the mob of stockbrokers. In a terrifying long shot, we can see proportionally how huge the board is, dwarfing the characters below it. A cause-and-effect relationship is being established here: the numbers are the god, dictating the characters’ frantic actions. Antonioni also gives us more close-ups of the stockbrokers, the camera becomes more askew, and at one point, the camera even momentarily goes in and out of focus as if to shudder at the frightening behavior of the characters. In these extremely cramped shots, “the [viewer’s] glance finds itself in the same place wherever it tries to anchor, one place being like the next; it feels the lack of spatial coordinates, of a framework for determining distances. In consequence, the viewer experiences a sense of forlornness” (Arnheim 22). By crowding the camera’s frame with so many close-ups of people, the viewer is disoriented and is forced to seek space, to want out of the scene. However, Antonioni keeps us in this restricted space for an uncomfortable period of time. What the viewer should then realize is that the characters within the scene want the opposite: they don’t want to leave. Consider again Vittoria’s mother who, even after losing so much money, is seen inexplicably hanging around, until she is all but thrown out. Through antithesis between the viewer’s desires and the characters’, Antonioni is further revealing the bleak status of post-War behavior.
As if this were not bleak enough, compare the overhead shots of the swarm of stockbrokers to one of the final images of the film, the ants swarming the tree. The viewer should make this visual connection, and it’s Antonioni’s final comment on this capitalistic, human behavior: that it is indelibly not human. So in one sense, Antonioni comments that in the absence of pre-War values, people are relegated to the same status as objects, and in another sense, they are no more than insects.
Antonioni gives us many visual breaks from the restrictions of internal space with its opposite: wide open, external spaces where the characters have the freedom to maneuver, visually, narratively, and existentially. The most obvious sequence that showcases this is in the airplane and on the airstrip. In terms of the former, the viewer cannot miss the obvious symbolic significance of the airplane as representing freedom, and as the open sky representing possibility. This is shown at the beginning of the sequence, as the plane flies off the runway and the camera holds as it enters the open space of the sky farther and farther until it nearly disappears. Antonioni gives the plane space (and time) to fly before ending the shot. Thereafter, Antonioni’s camera work is uncharacteristically ethereal, focusing on the wisp of clouds off the plane’s wing. In terms of space, the clouds have an interesting significance, as they are neither “impenetrable matter” nor are they clearly “open” (Arnheim 17); the viewer cannot see through a cloud, but he can pass through it. Antonioni emphasizes this dichotomy by having Vittoria request to fly through one, and showing (from off the wing tip) as they do. Therefore, Vittoria’s decision that she wants to fly through the cloud, and her being allowed to, conveys the choices Antonioni allots the characters in open space. The many shots of the city below, the Coliseum and Rome’s streets and buildings, give the viewer the feeling of omniscience over the architectural order, and more important, an escape from the cramped spaces of the city.
On the airstrip, Antonioni continues to film the visual space and the characters’ freedom to maneuver within it. From the ground, the camera has the vantage of the vastness of the sky and the other planes flying up into it. In a beautiful long shot, Vittoria stands on the airstrip just slightly off-center, the sky and clouds taking up the majority of the background. As with La Notte, that Antonioni gives such space in the frame to a character is significant, as he doesn’t do it often. Here Vittoria is in a unique narrative space, between her relationship with Riccardo and the upcoming one with Piero. Then, as Vittoria wanders to the airport bar, Antonioni teases the viewer with the expectation that Vittoria will enter the internal space, since he shows us what is inside. However, he wants to keep the camera outside, since Vittoria prefers the openness. Once again, the shot is uncharacteristically breathtaking: easy jazz is playing, two men are talking casually below a parasol, and the sunlight washes the scene warmly. The resulting feeling is one of calm and peace, which Vittoria articulates to Marta simply: “It’s so nice here.” With Antonioni, though, nothing is ever completely “nice”. The two black men sitting outside the bar are a visual reminder of Marta’s earlier racism and the viewer’s own disturbance of Antonioni’s casually allowing her to make it with impunity. Also, what directly follows this open-space is the second, intense stock exchange scene. Therefore, Antonioni, the architect, is expertly creating the “proper ratio between the two” types of spaces.
It is important to note that the sequence showing Vittoria and Peiro’s blossoming relationship is visually similar to the way Antonioni shot the airstrip. While the two walk through the park, piano music is playing, there is a similar breezy openness, and in an extreme overhead long shot, the two are allowed visual space as they run down the open road. Here, in these open spaces, the characters have the freedom to choose love, to be happy. In these open-spaced visuals, Antonioni might be making an optimistic commentary, that given the freedom to start over after the Wars, people can return to their blissful, personal relationships. However, this optimism does not last.
Antonioni ends the film in an unsettling space, showing disconnected images that point to the theme of anxious waiting, which reveals the director’s view of post-War life. While exhaustive, it is worth noting each image Antonioni uses to end L’Eclisse, and the trilogy. These are the shots: barrel of water, building under renovation, horse pulling chariot, tree shadows, street, tracking shot of buildings in the foreground and buildings behind, swarm of ants, overhead shot of street, bus, building under renovation, barrel losing water running to street drain, people waiting, newspaper (“Nuclear Arms Race,” “Fragile Peace”), sprinkler, water on leaves, different close-ups of building’s profile, plane-tail in the sky, blonde woman (not Vittoria), extreme close-up of man waiting, water trickling, nurse pushing baby in pram, dusk, woman’s face, lamplight, street at dusk, bus, people on desolate street, building under renovation at night, and finally, extreme close-up of lamplight. The thematic unity of these shots is that of anxious anticipation, which in terms of spaces is the interval between events. This final sequence fits perfectly with Arnheim’s statement about the “social chaos of modern life”:
That is the sort of disconnected treatment to which we owe the visual, functional, and social chaos of modern life. It derives from the tunnel vision employed for immediate practical ends, especially under social conditions that atomize the human community into a mere aggregate of individuals or small groups, each minding its own business…. Socially as well as perceptually, one cannot understand the nature of either the small house or the large house as long as one considers each only by itself. (17)
Through separate shots of individualistic items, Antonioni emphasize the “mere aggregate of individuals or small groups” to create a feeling of disconnectedness and isolation. Even when people are seen together in these last shots, they appear disconnected from each other; they do not interact with each other, and they walk away from the camera onto a desolate street as if being dumped off into an uninhabited city. Even before this sequence, the street on the corner of the building being renovated—where Vittoria would wait for Piero—would appear desolate, and the characters that would appear on the street—the horse pulling the man, the nurse and the baby, the man with the nice face—would seem to come from nowhere. Architecturally, Antonioni ends the film not on a narrative object but in a moment of space; the anxiety exists in this interval, where the viewer is left without knowing what the next “object” will be, and thus the density between the objects is unknowable. In this way, Antonioni comments that the absence left by the Wars has been filled not with hopes, love, or meaningful values, but by anxiety and fear. In this way, Antonioni would agree with Arnheim’s view about the “social chaos of modern life.”
Architectural language is perhaps the best kind to describe what happened historically after the two World Wars, since a gaping hole, or space, was created in the foundation of the Western world. Historically, we have been attempting to fill that space since, and the world we live in now is very much comprised of the new values, customs, scientific theories, and social and political ideas that were created to replace the absence. Therefore, Antonioni’s socially sensitive eye is extremely important in understanding the historical and existential spaces, and coupled with Arnheim, we now have a language—filmic and architectural—with which to comment on the tumultuous events. Examining La Notte we understand the existential wandering of individuals in and around the metaphorical architecture that seeks to control them; studying L’Eclisse we better appreciate the isolationist mentality of people as they wait in the anxious interval of historic events. While Antonioni’s statements might be bleak, we should find hope in the fact that he gave us a visual language with which to comprehend an otherwise incommunicable fear.
- Arnheim, Rudolf. “The Elements of Space.” The Dynamics of Architectural Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.
- L’Eclisse. Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni. Perf. Monica Vitti, Francisco Rabal, and Alain Delon. 1962. DVD. The Criterion Collection, 2005.
- La Notte. Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni. Perf. Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, and Monica Vitti. 1962. DVD. Genius Entertainment, 1989.