The nihilistic liberation of L’eclisse

Put me on the spot and force me to choose my favourite film ending ever and I’d get stuck between Antonionio’s L’eclisse or Tarkovsky’s Mirror depending on my mood. The ending of Mirror is phenomenal in its all encompassing connection to everything; in five minutes Tarkovsky manages to fine tune into the pathos and beauty of being alive. A family, symbolic gestures of love, nature and some objects of civilisation depict Earth’s glory, but the core of the scene’s profound insight comes from Tarkovsky’s cinematic usage of time. As an abstract concept time is impossible to recreate in cinematic language, but Mirror‘s approximation of the subject, which is achieved through its narrative flow trickling by in a constant state of flux, connects the audience entirely to the subject and enforces how unfathomable and fantastical time actually is (or feels).

As she lies down down in the field during Mirror‘s ending, Maria (Margarita Terekhova) riffs off of the film’s treatment of time and perceptually pierces through to a metaspace where time is comprehended outside of linear human means. The viewer remains anchored to the physical space Maria exists in through the recognisable signs of civilisation and nature surrounding her but it remains in a state of temporal flux as we watch her ostensibly slip through multiple timelines and see her life, full of love, play out before her. It is as humbling and melancholic as it is evocative of wonder; life is short but awe-inspiring. Tarkovsky’s great appreciation for existence is conveyed through the nuanced understanding of the space Maria cohabits and it’s not possible for me to see the scene as anything but complete antithesis of nihilist cinema. It is the scope of this five minutes’ segregation of metaspace and its abundance of earthly, corporeal and abstract charm that makes it so overwhelming in its life-affirming beauty.

Then there’s L’eclisse, which has an ending that seems to exist on a tonally opposite playing field of Mirror. It’s cold and it’s bleak. It’s the coda of a film I’ve seen described as being about “the end of all meaning”, yet while it doesn’t embrace life in the same way Tarkovsky does, by y’know, having the narrative that contains the main body of the film annihilated in the finale’s existentialist mocking of attributing meaning to places, people and objects, ostensibly deeming anything and everything, even the development of relationships, futile, the film does end on plane where all human baggage is lifted off the backs of its characters and by transference from the viewer too.

The charm and beauty of L’eclisse‘s protagonists, Monica Vitti (Vittoria) and Alain Delon (Piero) are partly why the ending has so much impact; we watch the nascent relationship developing between the two but have a sense that something isn’t right in their trappings: pillars emphatically separate bodies, kisses are made through glass screens, politics and money divide the surrounding characters and nature is at constant battle with the growing artificial landscape devouring it. Our couple push through the oppressive modernist environment and an attempt at a real relationship is made. They meet and achieve brisk moments of intimacy, but eventually as the couple attempt to caress one another, Vittoria finds that even the human body has a hard time complying with another and shatters the illusion by remarking, “‘There’s always too many body parts”. If even something as primal as the body cannot adapt to a comfortable existence, then what hope does anything else have?

Later the couple part after agreeing to meet at their usual locale — the promised date never happens. Then comes the nebulous ending, its liberating qualities at war with the almost contemptuous mocking of the fruitlessness of the relationship we thought might blossom. There’s a key quote to surviving this nihilist onslaught during an earlier scene in the film where Vittoria relaxes at an airfield café. The camera pans to two soldiers and one of them remarks, “We’re the centre of attraction right now”. How harrowing for him would it be to come to the realisation that he’s irrelevant in the scheme of the story we’re participating in. Unfortunately, Vittoria and Piero too bear the same burden of irrelevance. The camera reaches the couple’s designated meeting spot and we find nothing except the passing of time. From behind, both an Alain Delon and Monica Vitti lookalike briefly walk by and we latch onto their presence. Due to prior narrative convention developing a connection between the viewer and the couple it’s easy to fall victim to believing that they’re more meaningful than anything else in the frame. Quickly we realise these aren’t the leading stars, but two other individual people leading out their own stories, their own narratives, following in the footsteps of the soldier, they’re their own centres of an individual narrative universe. Again, Antonioni laughs in the distance for having watched us attribute meaning to anything, even his own characters.

Rome’s streets become increasingly enveloped in a bleak oppression during these final frames as it becomes evident our couple are out of the picture for good, their narrative now part of the void as the viewer becomes aware of the transience of people, life, the significance of objects — all things that Antonioni obliterates with his cold gaze. The film at this point has essentially swallowed all meaning, it all ends in a bright white light, inside a streetlight, nothingness. How can it possibly be conceived that something which externally appears to be of such despair, the opposite of Tarkovsky’s approach to life, can be liberating, if not life-affirming? While the screen may be working to annihilate its subjects, the viewer isn’t going anywhere, instead the film works as a vacuum, absorbing all ephemeral worries that seem petty in contrast to the overbearing inevitably of oblivion. If there’s any film to revitalise an audience, to instil a sense that making the most of the present is important, it’s L’eclisse and its condensed containment of the void; the world outside goes on.

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