Fun until the end: The nightclub fantasy in the Italian cinema of the economic miracle.
Early in La None (Antonioni, 1961), Tommaso, a terminally ill intellectual, remarks to his friends who are visiting him in his hospital room: "The day will come when hospitals will be built like nightclubs. People want to have fun until the end." Indeed, by the time La Notte hit the screens, the nightclub had become a prominent symbol of the transformation of Italian societal mores in the wake of the economic miracle, the aggressive modernization of the country sparked in the late 1950s by a felicitous convergence of American capital (under a provision of the Marshall Aid plan) and Italian entrepreneurship, and fueled by the immense supply of cheap labor constituted by masses of Southern rural workers moving into the manufacturing cities of the North. In less than two decades, as Italy transforms "from a relatively backward agricultural country into one of the world's most powerful modern economies" (Duggan, 2008: 554), Italian society begins to embrace a culture of consumerism and leisure, one that is vigorously promoted by the American propaganda machine (through the hundreds of Hollywood films released every year in theaters across the country), and that is made available for the first time to countless Italians by a steep surge in per capita income, in concomitance with the availability of consumer goods such as cars, television sets, and washing machines (of which Italy becomes Europe's chief manufacturer).
The increased affluence leads to a hitherto unimaginable mass investment in the cultivation of leisure. In her study on the Commedia all'italiana, the highly popular film genre which, between the late 1950s and the mid-1970s, satirizes the practices of the new Italy of consumption and compulsive recreation, Fullwood (2015: 65) points out how, in many such comedies, the nightclub is represented as the chief locus of nighttime entertainment, one whose diurnal counterpart--often within the same film--is the beach. To be sure, the best of these comedies take a complex view of the phenomenon of modernization, inasmuch as the exposure of the spiritual vacuity underlying the new materialistic ways coexists with the acknowledgement of the "civilizing" effect these new ways have after all exerted on the atavistic views and mores of premodern Italy. Comedies make much mileage out of the clash of civilizations between the rural South and the urban North, pitting the male chauvinism and religiosity of a waning patriarchy against the atomized and sexually emancipated society of secular modernity, while the more politically-minded filmmakers prefer to train their lens on the lopsidedness of the economic growth, whereby the general improvement in the standards of living is tied to the immiseration of those segments of society left behind, or newly impoverished, by the capitalist Utopia. On the other hand, FuUwood (2015: 82) observes how, regardless of the degree of sophistication of its social criticism, the Commedia all'italiana is ultimately driven by a (male) voyeuristic rationale, informed as it is by an eroticism that "[is] both part of and contribute[s] to an international trend toward the more prolific representation of female nudity in the cinema."
Critical as they purport to be of consumer society, then, these comedies are, at a deeper structural level, entirely complicit with the logic of investment and return that characterizes capitalist production, a logic that Lyotard (in his 1973 essay "Acinema") sees as informing all mainstream commercial cinema. (1) If, on the one hand, the nightclub is meant to typify the fatuous recreation of the new Italian urbanite, on the other hand, it is also the climactic space where the film "delivers the goods," fulfilling the promise of a sound return on the desire thus far invested by the viewer: the consumption of female nudity. This ambiguity, of course, is not limited to comedies, and it can certainly predate comedy's heyday by quite a few years. We already see it, for instance, in Alberto Lattuada's (1951) successful melodrama Anna, where the eponymous character (played by sex-symbol Silvana Mangano) formerly a reluctant prostitute/nightclub singer, foregoes the chance of true love for herself to embrace a self-effacing life as a nun-nurse. On the one hand, the famous nightclub scene exemplifies Anna's former life of sin and emotional confusion (she is torn between a virtuous suitor and her villain boyfriend); on the other, it is the very climax that fulfills the film's scopic promise: the unveiling of Mangano's body, hitherto hidden under a nun's habit. (2)
Fantasy, desire, and the lost object
What is different, then, about the nightclub scenes from the films I will analyze in this article? Fullwood, who touches only incidentally on nightclub scenes in Italian auteurs, does not seem to believe there is any substantial difference, as she observes that "high-budget art cinema such as Fellini's (1960) La Dolce Vita and Antonioni's (1961) La Notte mediatized the titillating entertainment on offer in Rome and Milan's nightlife by including scenes of semi-naked nightclub performance" (Fullwood, 2015: 82). However, if the expression art cinema is to have any meaning at all, it must be acknowledged that in it, in contradistinction to mainstream cinema, the commercial/voyeuristic aspect is not paramount, but subordinated to aesthetic or philosophical considerations. According to Lyotard, art films belong to acinema, to the extent that they are not (or not entirely) beholden to the commercial law of investment and return. Thus, while the titillating aspects Fullwood decries cannot be disputed, they are nonetheless a mere epiphenomenon of those scenes' chief structural function: that of shedding light on the trauma of the emergence of consumer culture by unraveling the psychic mechanism whereby capitalism lures the subject into its snare. It is crucial, then, to understand the difference between the auteur films I will be discussing in this article and (most of) the Italian style comedies. While the latter's intention may also be to elucidate the bewildering rise of consumer society and to diagnose the consequences the new regime has had on people's lives, their efforts rarely progress beyond the scope of a moralistic critique, no matter how astute.
A moralistic critique remains of necessity at the level of the imaginary: that is, by imagining itself to issue from an untainted place of enunciation, it blinds itself to the possibility of its own complicity, on the structural level, in the very libidinal economy that it sets out to expose. On the contrary, as I will attempt to show, films like White Nights, Nights of Cabiria, and La Notte function at the formal level, engaging both the symbolic register and the Real (the traumatic point at which the symbolic edifice breaks down) to effect a mimicry of the mechanism by which capitahsm captures the subject's psyche through a manipulation of desire and fantasy. (3) Angelo Restivo (2002: 8) has cogently argued how postwar Italian art film was "the most visible national cinema to confront the modernization of 'late capitalism' outside the Hollywood enunciative regime." But this also necessarily entailed confronting cinema's own conditions of possibility, gauging the risk of its own libidinal entanglement with its object, within a new landscape of simulacra that had rendered untenable any simple faith in the objectivity of the camera's gaze. (4)
In psychoanalysis, fantasy is an imaginary scenario that supplements (and distorts) our perception of social reality so that the latter appears "coherent and not marked by antagonisms" (Salecl, 2004: 47). Fantasy smooths over the inconsistencies that imperil the efficacy of every ideology; it obscures ideology's ultimate lack of legitimacy, making it appear as though it were the natural way of the world. At the same time, fantasy provides a scenario whereby the constitutive lack that marks us as subjects is recast as remediable through the acquisition of an actual object that might satisfy it. But the object that might satisfy our lack is, by definition, impossible. Psychoanalytic theory holds that we come into being through a process of castration, that is, through our submission to language. Language closes off the symbiotic relationship we enjoyed with our mother. As a consequence, once we become speaking beings we posit as lost the primordial enjoyment that we assume to have experienced in our unmediated access to the object of our need through that symbiotic relationship. (5) After symbolic castration, the subject "will constantly try to recuperate the object that [it] perceive[s] to embody the lost enjoyment that will make good that lack" (Salecl, 2010: 63). We will look for this object in the Other, the realm of socio-symbolic relations that structure our everyday reality. Insofar as we perceive our colonization by language as an injunction from the Other that, due to the opacity of the signifier, we can't fully comprehend, our entire existence is conditioned by our questioning of the Other's desire, by our suspicion that the Other holds the secret to our lost enjoyment. As a consequence, we are bound incessantly to search for the impossible lost object between the lines of other people's gestures and words. The Other, however, is just as lacking as we are, and cannot satisfy our demand by providing an object that exists only as lost.
Two kinds of cinema
Todd McGowan (2007b: 24) writes: "Fantasy allows the subject to relate to the lost object as an object that is simply out of reach. In fantasy, a spatial or temporal barrier, rather than an ontological one, intervenes between the subject and the lost object." As the predominant producer of fantasies, commercial cinema can be regarded as the main support of today's capitalist ideology. The main fantasy mobilized by Hollywood is undoubtedly that of the successful sexual relationship (or romantic fantasy), which it routinely employs to obfuscate society's other destabilizing antagonisms, such as those of race and class. (6) According to McGowan, there are two different ways in which cinema may deal with the romantic fantasy, and with fantasy in general. The more popular way, which Gowan calls the "cinema of integration," corresponds to the Hollywood model. Insofar as it seeks to provide imaginary resolutions to society's intractable tensions, the cinema of integration is inherently conservative: through an expert blending of lack (desire) and fulfillment (fantasy), it furnishes the audience with an imaginary enjoyment (e.g. the formation of the happy couple) that reinforces their adhesion to the status quo. In this model, desire and fantasy are intermixed so that the passage from one to the other is rendered imperceptible. In this respect, the perception offered by this kind of filmmaking corresponds roughly to our "normal" neurotic view of reality, where we are constantly supplementing the dissatisfaction that inheres in social reality with a fantasmatic scenario where such dissatisfaction may be appeased. "Thus," points out McGowan (2007b: 119), "the problem isn't that most films are too much like dreams, but that they are too much like real life," where "we continue to exist under the strictures of the social law while fantasizing that we are violating these strictures."
However, McGowan shows how the role of ideology's support is not the only one available to fantasy, as he identifies a second, more radical form of filmmaking--the "cinema of separation"--in which fantasy and desire, though still coexisting within the same film, do not blend smoothly into each other, but rather are sustained as separate realms. (7) In this context, two things occur: first, the moment at which fantasy intervenes to suture desire becomes apparent, thus exposing the point of failure in social reality. Secondly, the experience of fantasy is not offered in curtailed or blended form as in mainstream productions; rather, it is shown in its full extent, including the traumatic moment in which, inevitably, it "turns bad," just as a dream turns into a nightmare. No matter the cost to viewers' comfort, the cinema of separation sustains fantasy through the very point of its dissolution. Therein also lies its political value: by making us experience the trauma of the disintegrating fantasy, the cinema of separation forces us to recognize "our role in filling in the lack of the Other." This is because it is "our fantasy--not some secret buried within the Other itself--[that] provides the support for the Other at its point of lack" (McGowan, 2007b: 168). Only the realization that the Other "doesn't have it," that social authority cannot ground itself other than through our own fantasmatic support, can liberate us from ideology's hold on our psyche.
Visconti's White Nights
I will argue that White Nights, Nights of Cabina, and La Notte belong to the cinema of separation, insofar as they not only overdetermine the intervention of fantasy in their respective narrative economies, showing the point at which it sutures desire, but also prolong the fantasy all the way to the point of its traumatic dissolution. In all three films, an uncanny nightclub scene is the stage on which the lure of the romantic fantasy unfolds. White Nights (Visconti, 1957), Visconti's black and white adaptation of Dostoevsky's 1848 novella, chronicles the failed romance between Mario, a lonely dreamer, and Natalia, a young woman anxiously awaiting the return of the man who has promised to marry her. The first part of the film occurs in a context whose connotations of lack and distress, both psychological and external, evince a realm of desire. Visconti modernizes the story by changing the setting from the 19th century Petersburg of Dostoevsky's novella to a spectral studio reconstruction of 1950s wintry Livorno. As they negotiate their conflicting yearnings, Mario and Natalia wander through a desolate city shrouded in fog, where the fairytale look of certain locales (the bridge, the grandmother's apartment) is belied by the still visible traces of wartime misery (the torn buildings, the homeless, a prostitute). The overall stylized nature of the mise-en-scene makes for a certain iconic rigidity that adds to the dominant register of coldness and want. Visconti's Livorno wears its constructedness on its sleeve, never attempting not to look like a stage self-consciously designed to frame the protagonist's highly idealized emotional drama. As Henry Bacon (1998: 198) notes, "some of the secondary characters seem almost a part of the sets. They lurk in shadows, emerging momentarily now and then to encounter Mario and Natalia."
The sense of lack inherent in the environment is quite clearly an objective correlative of the psychological lack that beleaguers the protagonists. They are both longing creatures, yet there is no reciprocity between them: Mario is in love with Natalia, who in turn loves her absent fiance. Everything changes when, two-thirds of the way into the film, Natalia and Mario decide to spend an evening in a dance hall. As they enter the bar, a drastic transformation in tone alerts us that we have transitioned from a realm of desire, denoted by dearth, to a realm of fantasy, steeped in enjoyment. Natalia and Mario sit down at a table and start a conversation in which Mario, as usual, waxes idealistic; but as soon as the juke-box starts playing Bill Haley's Thirteen Women, their talk is increasingly disturbed by the other customers' mounting excitement. Young couples neck on sofas or swirl around in tight embrace, all with languid, sensual looks on their faces. Soon, the atmosphere rubs off on Mario and Natalia, who get up and join the dance. The camera lingers on a seductively agile youth who enthralls the other dancers with his bold across-the-floor moves. As Fabio Vighi (2006: 128) puts it, "everybody is transfixed by the spectral and sexually charged atmosphere." By entering the dance hall we have left a state of lack to access a state of imagined abundance. Of this new abundance. Bill Haley's rock-and-roll song, with its obsessively reiterated chorus ("thirteen women and only one man in town") is of course the main indicator: we have passed, in other words, from a world of desire defined by the impossibility of romance, to a world of (male) fantasy where a glorious surfeit of sexual fulfillment is at hand (not surprisingly, in the song's conceit, this world is just the male singer's dream). (8)
According to Bacon (1998: 198), White Nights is an anomaly in Visconti's oeuvre in that "it lacks all those historical, geographical, and social determinants that define the characters in most of his films." However, it is not hard to view the film's nightclub sequence--absent any equivalent in Dostoevsky's original--as an allegory for the moment in which Italy's old way of life is overthrown by the economic regime of late capitalism. Consumer capitalism is based on the fantasy that human lack is merely a contingent obstacle on our path to the full enjoyment that awaits us. Its unprecedented appeal lies in its promise that there is no hurdle to happiness that may not be circumvented through the acquisition of the right commodity, and that it is no less than our moral duty to pursue that happiness through accumulation. The protagonists' entrance into the fantasy world of the nightclub betokens Italy's entrance into a new socioeconomic order of enforced enjoyment where scarcity has no place. In this context, rock-and-roll, too, the new American music designed for quick consumption, (9) must be viewed in sharp contrast to the performance of Rossini's The Barber of Seville that Natalia and her love interest attend in the first part of the film. Contained in a flashback, and thus twice removed from the nightclub's space-time continuum, the Barber stands as the symbol of an era that will never return. (10)
Slavoj Zizek (in McGowan, 2007a: 92) explains that a peculiar duplicity inheres in the structure of fantasy. Whenever we fantasize, we simultaneously experience these two aspects: the anticipation of total enjoyment, and the suspicion that a rival (the Other) might be threatening our enjoyment, by appearing to enjoy more than we do--a paranoid disposition eminently observable in the subjects of late-stage capitalism. It is precisely this suspicion, fantasy's negative mode, that compels Mario to try and outperform the athletic young dancer--a demeanor so far out of character to appear conceivable only in a context distorted by high fantasmatic stakes:
He bravely steps into the center of the dance floor, performs a series of clumsy moves, falls flat on his face making a fool of himself, and yet he persists in what becomes an embarrassing hopeless show and impossible enterprise. (Vighi, 2006: 128-129).
Yet, because in fantasy normal limitations can be transcended, Mario's improbable stunt pays off, and by the end of Bill Haley's song, he appears to have reached a new level of intimacy with Natalia. This is also the point at which, in mainstream productions, most sequences would stop with a graceful fadeout. Here, on the contrary, the sequence continues until the romantic fantasy, protracted beyond its positive peak, begins to show signs of unraveling. A kind of formal restlessness creeps in, as we are suddenly forced to look in at Mario and Natalia from the sidewalk, through the fogged-up panes of the bar window. This dreamlike shot lasts a full 30 seconds, during which the blurred view of the protagonists inside the bar is accompanied by a muffled, unintelligible reverberation of their conversation. In the next shot we are back in the bar, where we see Mario and Natalia get up from their table and join the dance. They are holding each other close, oblivious to their surroundings, their faces entranced, their lips almost touching. Then the scene cuts to another outside-looking-in shot, where a young woman is standing by the open door, holding a bottle and fanning herself with a look of vexation. Finally, in the next shot, a lady appears in a window to shout: "Gina, call your dad, it's well after 10:00!" This shout is what shatters the fantasy. As Bruce Fink (1997: 129) notes, "there is a threshold of sorts within fantasy itself, the point beyond which it turns to horror." [Emphasis in the original] We see this horror on the face of Natalia, who, upon hearing the shout, remembers that she was supposed to meet her lover on that very evening. She abruptly breaks out of Mario's embrace, and rushes out of the bar. Mario chases after her, but she sternly rejects him, leaving him stunned and angry. In the cold wind that sweeps the streets, Mario is accosted by a prostitute, picks her up out of spite, then changes his mind and walks away. The prostitute breaks out in loud remonstrances, accusing Mario of mistreatment. Her protestations are heard by a gang of thugs, who take them as a pretext to assault Mario. The romantic fantasy shows its obscene underside: sex, pain, violence, and above all the chilling unreadability of the object of desire. At the very end of fantasy lies the shocking realization that the Other does not hold the solution to our quest, that the object of our desire is ultimately empty at its core, a stranger to its own desire as we are to ours.
Fellini's Nights of Cabiria
Fellini's (1957) Nights of Cabiria occupies a liminal status as the feature immediately preceding La Dolce Vita (Fellini, 1960), which marks the definitive realization of Fellini's mature style. Roger Ebert has pointed out its transitional nature: while still preserving the documentary "grittiness" so characteristic of the Neorealist poetics, Cabiria already points to the "visual freedom" of Fellini's later output. I would argue, in but slightly different terms, that Cabiria is still a film where it is possible to detect a clear demarcation between a world of desire and a world of fantasy. Starting with La Dolce Vita, his next feature, Fellini will devote his art predominantly to the multifarious exploration of fantasy--to what Ebert (1998) calls his "dazzling phantasms."
Just as in Visconti's White Nights, in Cabiria, too, the protagonist's escape from desire into fantasy is signaled by her entrance into the uncanny space of the nightclub. Cabiria is a spirited Roman prostitute who navigates a hard life with a buoyancy undaunted by the squalor of her trade. Her unsentimental view of her own profession has been widely acknowledged as the crucial element elevating this feature above the standard of the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold genre. In Peter Bondanella's (1992: 123) words, "she is a courageous, self-reliant woman who practices her trade without any hint of sentimental guilt or remorse even though she would naturally prefer to lead a normal life." Bazin (1971: 85) goes even further in stating that she is "not a character out of melodrama, because her desire to 'get out' is not motivated by the ideals of bourgeois morality." Contrary to this assertion, I would instead argue that what sustains Cabiria's plucky optimism through her peripeteias is precisely the set of presuppositions that constitute the backbone of what was once called "bourgeois morality," and that nowadays is merely the default morality of secular capitalist modernity. These presuppositions gravitate around the two chief illusions at the root of consumer ideology: the romantic fantasy, and the individualist fantasy. The former is already apparent in the first sequence of the film: Cabiria's cavortings with her boyfriend Giorgio on the Roman riverbank abruptly turn sour as Giorgio steals her purse and pushes her into the river to drown. The incident fails to break her, and until the very end of the film, Cabiria continues to be driven by the chimera of the successful sexual relationship.
Concomitantly, we can see how her ability to function in a depressing environment is tightly wound up with the individualist fantasy. Although, as Bazin (1971: 85) points out, "she does not hold her trade in contempt," she does vigorously believe that she is better than her peers. The exceptionality she claims for herself is based on sound bourgeois logic: unlike most of her peers, she owns her own place--a shack on the outskirts of Rome--and she has some money put away. These material privileges allow her to be financially solvent and--unlike her fellow prostitutes--independent of a pimp. As McGowan (2007b: 110) observes, the fantasy of being different from one's peers "is essential to the functioning of capitalist ideology because it prevents the subject from entering into a collective opposition to capitalism." As for Antonio in Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves; De Sica, 1948), Cabiria's escape from her tough life "is always an individualized and private project." But the individualist fantasy is the subject's ultimate illusion. Cabiria's sense of her own exceptionality is a sham insofar as it is ultimately contingent upon the conviction that the Other holds the key to the improvement of her circumstances. All Cabiria dreams about is that Prince Charming will come along and rescue her from her drab existence. In other words, she "desires to discover a point in the Other where the Other recognizes the truth of her being" (McGowan, 2007b: 87). But the Other, being just as incomplete as the subject, cannot provide what the subject seeks. This is what the nightclub sequence--the second of the five episodes that make up the film--bears out unequivocally. One night Cabiria witnesses a street argument between movie star Alberto Lazzari and his blond girlfriend. After the woman drives off, the actor picks up Cabiria and takes her to the Piccadilly club. The fantasmatic nature of the nightclub is immediately apparent in the air of mystery it evinces. The incongruousness of someone like Cabiria, dressed in her cheap tacky clothes, inhabiting the same space as Piccadilly's posh clientele only adds to the uncanny atmosphere. She becomes the object of the upscale women's gaze of disdain or envy, as an African dance--a typical object of consumption in the Italy of the boom--fills the atmosphere with exotic sensuousness. Then Lazzari drives Cabiria to his opulent villa, where he gradually warms to her presence. As soon as the possibility of romance beckons, though, the actor's girlfriend returns to make peace, and Cabiria must spend the night hiding in the bathroom, as the lovers reconcile in bed. In the morning, the actor sneaks her out of the bathroom and sends her on her way with some money. This sordid ending not only shatters Cabiria's romantic fantasy, it also deals a blow to her illusion of exceptionalism. As she walks back from Lazzari's villa, a hooker who just collected her fee for one night's work, she can no longer fantasize being any different from her peers.
This is still not enough, however, to break the hold these fantasies have on her. In the fourth section of the film, we see Cabiria cross another portal into fantasy as she attends a magic show in a vaudeville theater. The magician puts her in a trance in which she reveals to a boorish audience her hidden dreams of romance and stability. When the hypnotist conjures an imaginary lover named Oscar, Cabiria begins to inquire about Oscar's real feelings. Suddenly uneasy with this development, the illusionist quickly breaks Cabiria's trance. According to Bondanella (1992: 127), this scene suggests how "illusion may allow us to express our secret desires but cannot bear a confrontation with reality." (11) In other words, Cabiria is not yet ready to embrace the realization that Oscar is nothing but a phantom of her own desire. It will take one last, devastating reversal for her to be able to do so.
Outside the vaudeville theater, Cabiria meets a man who introduces himself as Oscar, and claims to have been moved by her revelations. He begins to court her in a persistent, gentle manner, professing to care nothing about her unseemly occupation, and over the space of a few weeks, Cabiria falls in love with him. As Bondanella (1992: 127) notes, "in a Pirandellian twist... reality begins to imitate the world of art and illusion: a figure from Cabiria's psyche materializes before her very eyes." In other words, the "reality" into which Cabiria wakes up from the trance is none other than the continuation of her fantasy. When Oscar proposes to marry her and take her away with him, she sells her house and cashes in all her savings. She takes the money with her on her last encounter with a now sinister-looking Oscar. As they walk by a cliff overlooking a lake, Cabiria realizes at last what Oscar's true intentions are. In a fit of crying, she tosses the money at his feet and begs him to throw her over the cliff. After some hesitation, he takes the money and walks off.
The extraordinary power of this scene lies in Oscar's odd behavior. What is unbearable to us is not so much the realization that our desire is at odds with that of the Other; it is the fact that the Other appears uncertain as to its own desire. Here the repeated closeups of Oscar's face convey a strange wavering, an opaqueness that fails to cohere into a clear demand. It is this opaqueness that proves most intolerable to Cabiria, whose fit of screaming must be viewed as a true hysterical outburst against the Other's irresolution. Isn't Cabiria, through her outburst, precisely trying to shake the Other out of its apathy and into some kind of response--even the simple action of throwing her off the cliff to her death? But expecting the Other to respond, or give sanction, to our desire is an enterprise doomed to failure, insofar as the Other is just as lacking as we are, its authority merely a sham. From this perspective, the much-discussed ambiguity of the film's last sequence acquires an added layer of sense. Prostrated by grief, Cabiria shuffles out of the woods and runs into a parade of youths singing, dancing, and playing the accordion. As she joins the group, the despair on her face is slowly transformed into quiet happiness.
Cabiria's transformation here is not unlike the one experienced by Karin at the end of Rosellini's Stromboli. Both women are shocked into an act of symbolic suicide, which Zizek (1992: 43) defines as "an act of 'losing all,' of withdrawing from symbolic reality, that enables us to begin anew from the 'zero point,' from that point of absolute freedom called by Hegel 'abstract negativity.'" Through such an act, "the previous experience of a loss is converted into the loss of a loss itself: indeed, after losing the very thing that mattered the most to her (her romantic fantasy), we see Cabiria "losing that loss" itself, her blissful expression indicating how she may be finally free of her attachment to it.
Antonioni's La Notte
No Italian director has explored the impossibility of the romantic fantasy as subtly and as systematically as Antonioni. Of all his films, La Notte--the centerpiece of the so-called "trilogy" of malaise beginning with L'Avventura and ending with L'Eclisse--can be viewed as the one that addresses this gender impasse most directly, as it chronicles the disintegration of a marriage through a "minimal plot" and with an "Aristotelian intensity of place, time, and action" (Brunette, 1998: 52). La Notte partakes of what McGowan calls the cinema of separation, in that it clearly juxtaposes a (diurnal) space of desire to a (nocturnal) space of fantasy. It also utilizes a nightclub scene to signal the passage from one to the other.
The first part of the film, up until the nightclub sequence, introduces a scenario of want, loneliness, and general unhappiness, as befits a world haunted by unappeasable desire. Such yearning condition does not seem to spare any of the characters in the film, as is immediately apparent in the opening sequence, in which Giovanni and Lidia visit their dying friend and mentor Tommaso in a Milan hospital. Making great mileage out of his trademark handling of deep-focus, whereby people and objects in the background are just as much in focus as the ones in the foreground, Antonioni gives us a clear sense of how the three characters radiate longings that remain hopelessly insulated from one other. While Tommaso's desire to live is compounded by his never requited, yet still abiding love for Lidia, the latter is consistently shown in the background, standing by the window, clearly longing to be out of that room (she will indeed end up leaving before the others). As to Giovanni, his ostensibly declared desire throughout the film is for something to rekindle his lost joie de vivre; in truth, he longs to comprehend the reason for Lidia's restlessness, to probe this new, foreign yearning of hers, which no longer seems to include him.
In the hospital hallway, a young nymphomaniac patient vigorously attempts to seduce Giovanni, her plan eventually foiled by the intervention of the nurses. Her feverish eyes and vampiristic demeanor are another eerie indication of the desire that saturates these premises. The remainder of the first, daytime part of La Notte is devoted to the symmetrical, separate unfolding of Lidia's and Giovanni's solitudes, which play out in starkly contrasting spaces. As Lidia, having sneaked out of Giovanni's book-signing event, spends the afternoon roaming the city of Milan, Giovanni goes back to his apartment and waits for Lidia to reveal her whereabouts. Lidia's sequence is the more visibly fraught with desire. We see it most vividly when she walks in on a gang of youths who seem to be staging their silent wrestling match for her eyes only. When she cries "Basta!", the bare-breasted leader interprets her intervention as a sexual overture, and starts to pursue her. He is not completely misguided, as an undercurrent of erotic longing has indeed been animating Lidia's demeanor, her wandering bearing more than a family resemblance to "cruising".
Later, at her prompting, Giovanni joins Lidia where her roaming has taken her, the town in the still unmodernized periphery of Milan where she and her husband used to meet in the early days of their relationship. This is where we see Lidia at her most desiring, prey to a nostalgic longing for the fullness of a past that is no more. In psychoanalytic parlance, Lidia misinterprets the impossibility of the sexual relationship as an empirical, rather than an ontological, condition, ascribing the marriage's deterioration to the passage of time. This way she posits the lost object as a real object that existed once before and might perchance be retrieved. Things are ripe for the escape into fantasy, which inaugurates the second, nocturnal part of the film.
As P Adams Sitney (1995: 145) has put it, "the ambiguous erotic nostalgia and ambivalent voyeurism of these scenes subtly prepare us for [...] the striptease in the nightclub." Indeed, the club Giovanni and Lidia visit in the evening is entirely a space of fantasy, seething with enjoyment. Of course, enjoyment is fantasized by the jaded couple as possessed by the Other--here, as in Nights of Cabiria, an exotic, African Other. Wrapped in a dreamlike, smoky ambience (whose surreal aesthetics makes it the progenitor of David Lynch's signature nightclubs), Giovanni and Lidia watch the African couple dance and perform slow acrobatics to the sound of smooth jazz from a live band playing onstage. To them, the African couple's cool, harmonious, perfectly synchronized gestures cannot but painfully represent what they, as a couple, will never be. The extraordinary suppleness of the female performer, the impressive reach and balance of her movements, at all times in effortless accord with those of her male partner, the sultry, unproblematic sensuality emanating from their interaction; all seems almost sadistically designed to expose, by contrast, the utter emotional and physical sterility of Giovanni and Lidia's deteriorating relationship. The ironic repartee in which they at times engage--also in an attempt to conceal to each other the extent of their fascination with the African spectacle--reveals all the more how woefully inadequate words are bound to be next to the fantasy of a primordial, physical fullness such as the one embodied by the black couple. Here is where Giovanni and Lidia's respective fantasies, divided as they may be, intersect. The different cast of their fantasies could be diagrammed thus: Giovanni fantasizes coming across someone (a new partner) with whom he might attain that fullness; Lidia longs for days long past when (she imagines) she shared that fullness with Giovanni. (12)
However, as the African show draws to an end, Lidia, who had previously stated her unwillingness to attend the Gherardinis' party, suddenly proposes they go, to Giovanni's surprise. What makes her change her mind? Perhaps the enjoyment produced by the show makes her fantasy momentarily align with her husband's, to the extent that now she, too, yields to the notion that fulfillment may lie in a future development. To be sure, the party thrown by wealthy entrepreneur Gherardini at his mansion--an hour-long sequence that takes up the remainder of the film--can be viewed as a test of the nightclub's fantasmatic premise, namely, that full enjoyment beckons in our future. The place is indeed a smorgasbord of opportunities for the entertainment of the new wealthy bourgeoisie created by the economic boom.
Much in the way of Fellini's La Dolce Vita, the ostentation of enjoyment is pervasive, up to the obligatory scene where the revelers jump in the Gherardinis' enormous swimming pool with their clothes on. Sex is everywhere intimated: from the simple image of a young woman fondling a statue of a satyr, to the suggestion of illicit liaisons for both Giovanni (with Valentina, the young Gherardini daughter) and Lidia (with Roberto, a flirting guest). Here, too, however, as in the other two films we analyzed, the fantasy drags on too long, and soon after Lidia's aborted fling (paralleled by Giovanni's failed seduction of Valentina), it begins to unravel. It is by now dawn, and Giovanni and Lidia have taken leave of their hosts. As they walk away across the vast expanse of grass surrounding the Gherardini estate, Lidia tells Giovanni that she feels like dying because she doesn't love him anymore, and nor does he love her. Against his protestations, she begins to read him a lengthy, passionate love letter Giovanni had written to her before they were married. To Lidia, this is a litmus test, and Giovanni fails it the moment he asks who wrote the letter. Giovanni the wordsmith has been fooled by the very weapon he never thought could fail him: language. He is defeated, as he has been exposed as someone who "does not have it." (13) Lidia and Giovanni are back where they started, yet traumatized into a novel awareness about each other, and possibly disabused of the fantasy that romantic fulfillment is just around the corner.
Antonioni ends the film by moving the camera away from the couple to rest on the empty landscape (a choice he will radicalize in his next feature, L'Eclisse), as jazz music reminds us of the erotic promises contained in the nightclub sequence. We don't know what will become of Lidia and Giovanni's marriage, just as we don't know what will become of Cabiria at the end of Fellini's film. What is gained by the characters by the time the credits roll isn't anything material, just the realization that there is nowhere to go, that our lack is constitutive and irreversible, and that the only true stance available is for us to tarry with it, to insist on it against any attempt at obfuscation.
In the midst of the euphoria produced by the economic miracle, Fellini, Visconti, and Antonioni offer a sobering deconstruction of the mechanism whereby capitalism colonizes its subject by deploying the fantasy of full enjoyment, either in the form of the romantic relationship or in the promise of economic success. They do so through essentially formal means, rather than in impressionistic (or moralistic) tones, by staging the interaction of desire and fantasy, and utilizing the nightclub trope as a paradigm of the way a subject is captured by the ideology of consumption. Through the nightclub trope, these filmmakers put the capitalist fantasy of total enjoyment to the test by letting it unfold until its inevitable dissolution, past the point at which Hollywood endings would stop, to show how, at the end of every fantasy, only loss awaits us. It is not a coincidence that all three films analyzed in this article, to varying degrees, appear to shun strict linear progression in favor of a circular structure whereby the heroes of the story end up back where they started (if not worse off). This is because the capitalist fantasy (and fantasy per se) is indissolubly tied to linear progression, insofar as the fulfillment it promises is constantly deferred to a future time. (14) But no matter how much we invest in the fantasy of future enjoyment, we will always be beholden to the circularity of desire, subject to absence and loss.
More than 60 years have gone by since these films were made, and one might wonder to what extent their message is still relevant in today's ideological and political environment. It is true that the nature of consumer culture has--more insidiously--veered toward the immaterial, inasmuch as we now tend to consume (and be consumed by) gadgets and online experiences, rather than good old-fashioned commodities. Nightclubs have long ceased to be the site of the fantasy of full enjoyment, having been replaced in that role, perhaps, by Silvio Berlusconi's villa, or Donald Trump's golf resorts. Whether these (and many others that could undoubtedly be added) may be differences in kind or just in degree remains to be ascertained. What seems certain, though, is that the nature of human desire hasn't changed, and nor has the way in which we continue to yield to the promise of full presence and enjoyment through a logic of accumulation (of "experiences," if no longer exclusively of objects). Unless we embrace absence and dissatisfaction as our ontological condition--as the very condition that sustains our desire--it is unlikely that we'll ever be free from the vexing injunction to enjoy more and better, from the fantasy that happiness is just one more (click-) purchase away.
(1.) See discussion in Olivier (2012: 280-282).
(2.) It is no coincidence, then, that the financial success of the film was guaranteed precisely by its nightclub sequence, which came, in the popular imagination, synecdochically to stand for the whole film, thanks also to the immense popularity of the baiao song created for it (El negro zumbon, by Armando Trovajoli).
(3.) Marx, of course, was the first to note capitalism's reliance on fantasy, in his famous statement about the commodity-form being "nothing but the definite social relations between men themselves that assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things" (Marx, 1990: 165).
(4.) In Restivo's (2002: 115) haunting words, "the image can no longer function as guarantor of the referent, but rather hides within itself a lethal jouissance that always threatens the subject with disappearance."
(5.) Whether this mythical time of fulfillment ever existed is a moot question, insofar as the individual constitutes herself as a subject only insofar as she subjects herself to language.
(6.) What accords the romantic fantasy pride of place among all other fantasies is, as Joan Copjec (1994: 207) notes, the fact that, whereas ethnic, class, or racial differences "are inscribed into the symbolic, sexual difference is not: only the failure of its inscription is marked in the symbolic. Sexual difference, in other words, is a real and not a symbolic difference." For Lacan (1998: 144), sexual difference is that which "doesn't stop not being written."
(7.) See McGowan (2007b: 163 ff Part 4: "The Cinema of Intersection: Collision of Desire and Fantasy").
(8.) Interestingly, in the song's conceit, this scenario of sexual bountifulness is envisioned to be the consequence of an atomic explosion. As if such an unrestrained supply of enjoyment could only be imagined (by the 1950s American mind) from an apocalyptic perspective situated after the end of the world.
(9.) Although the term "rock-and-roll" can be traced back to the 1930s, disc-jockey Alan Freed popularized it in the early 1950s to designate a mix of rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie, and country music that was becoming more and more recognizable. The "official" advent of the rock era is usually ascribed to the extraordinary success, in 1955, of Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock (first issued a year earlier as a B-side to Thirteen Women). The phenomenon would have been roughly contemporary with the making of White Nights.
(10.) It is tempting, here, to see the sharp dichotomy between the nightclub and the space outside of it as a repetition of the dichotomy inherent in Visconti's immediately preceding film, Senso (1954). In the latter, as I have argued elsewhere (Mobili, 2008), an irreparable dissonance between the historical backdrop (the wars for Italian unification) and the personal plane (Lidia's melodrama) can be ascribed to the inability to entirely symbolize, and therefore psychically process, the trauma of the Italian Risorgimento. It may well be that in White Nights (apparently, a minor, intimate, "ahistorical" film--in short, the opposite of Senso) Visconti is in fact making a very similar point, this time about--if Pasolini is right--the chief historical trauma of 20th century Italy: not Fascism or even the Second World War, but the dramatic restructuring of everyday life caused by capitalist modernization.
(11.) From a psychoanalytic standpoint, however, what Cabiria cannot bear to face is not reality, but rather the Real of a traumatic, disavowed truth. In Lacan's (2007: 57) words, "a dream wakes you up just when it might let the truth drop, so that the only reason one wakes up is to continue dreaming... in reality." It is to avoid the intolerable truth of an inconsistent Other that Cabiria wakes up into reality--the reality sustained by her fantasy.
(12.) In other words, the male fantasy is futural, the female fantasy is nostalgic--which makes it somewhat closer to the real condition of the subject (the impossible object is always already lost). (See McGowan, 2007a: 212-213.)
(13.) This is an apt illustration of Lacan's dictum that "a letter always arrives at its destination" (or its variation, that "the subject receives the truth of his message back from the Other in inverted form.") As Zizek (1992: 13) puts it, "the letter arrives at its destination when the subject is finally forced to assume the true consequence of his activity." In Giovanni's case, the truth he receives back from the letter he wrote but fails to recognize as his is precisely the fact that his profession of love was a sham to begin with. In other words, it was truly not his letter.
(14.) This is especially true of Fellini, who chooses circularity over traditional narrative progression in all his films. Bazin (1971: 84) notices that "any effect of suspense or even drama is essentially alien to the Fellinian system." I would argue that what Fellini eschews by adopting circularity is precisely the idea of storytelling as conforming to the capitalist logic of investment and return (see discussion above).
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California State University, Fresno, USA
Giorgio Mobili, Peters Business Building, California State University, S24S North Backer Avenue M/S PB-96, Fresno, CA 93740-8Q30, USA.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||May 1, 2019|
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