Michelangelo Antonioni, “La Notte” (1961)
Two couples: The bourgeois husband and wife, their passion clearly on the wane, and the Other couple (the “sexualized, racialized” one, as a fellow YouTuber puts it), enacting an erotic ritual to the rhythm of a dramatic, mysterious jazz piece.
This emblematic scene kind of hits you over the head with a cast iron pan: Desire itself — the glass of wine — is precariously perched between the dancer’s legs, then transferred to her forehead, while the beat moves ineluctably along, and we are held at attention, as if watching a tightrope walker 200 feet above a circus crowd.
Is there anything else possible here? I wonder if that glass of wine is a fragile or a powerful thing. But this famous scene only asks the question, and provides no answers. I often think Antonioni is telling me that it is both fragile and destructive.
If it is fragile, and it breaks, should I believe these dancers are capable of the eroticism they show on stage? And if it is destructive, I wonder if it will symbolically finish off that sexless union between Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni? That glass of wine, as desire, is like a thing whose loss signals the beginning of the end.
Prior to their arrival at the nightclub, Jeanne Moreau, the middle-aged bourgeois wife, has tried and failed to seduce her husband at home. The camera pans over her fingers dancing on the table, making their way over to her husband’s cuff-linked wrist. She pulls him toward her momentarily. What could still be possible between the two of them? But here she fails again.
The dancer has her skirt removed. She manages to drink the wine, posed in an elaborate back-arch bridge. Then, as her companion drapes her in a fur stole, she shoots him a triumphant, satisfied look. She takes her bows, happy and sated, and the bourgeois couple applauds.
And with the wine consumed, the scene ends. Something was had, but what is lost?
– Nyla Matuk