The Night (La Notte)

I'm part-way through Mark Cousins' The Story of Film: An Odyssey (very impressive, if occasionally exasperating). Michelangelo Antonioni gets relatively brief treatment, but Cousins identifies his preference for framing people at the edge of shots as being particularly innovative. Watching The Night, I very quickly became aware of this. Cousins argues that the device suggests a separateness between characters – people circling the empty world around them. The effect is most commonly used for depicting Jeanne Moreau, who we learn at the end is feeling suicidal. Throughout the film, Antonioni visually puts her on a knife edge.

There is more formal ingenuity to sink one's film-school teeth into. The Night is built around one married couple and two love triangles. The third wheels mirror each other – one is at the end of his life and the other is at the beginning of hers. Each love triangle get its own 'triangle scene', one at the beginning and one at the end of the film, in which the camera moves in an especially conspicuous and rigid way, highlighting the connections between the characters. The shot in which Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau and Monica Vitti stare towards (and beyond) the camera is especially brilliant, each observing while not knowing they are observed. Moreau is the one that turns to 'complete' the triangle – she is the most self-aware character, and also the most lonely.

Even the dialogue expresses the sense of orbiting bodies around a black hole. People talk in parallel monologues rather than to each other, and there are only occasional moments where meanings connect. Much of the script is therefore obtuse, and if anything, I wanted it to be more purposefully so. I suspect Antonioni wanted these people's ramblings to suggest the empty poetry of the human condition. I think the film would have been more striking still if the characters seemed to barely speak the same language – bored by everyone and fatally robbed of the curiosity of trying to understand each other.

The title refers to the all-night house party in which Mastroianni leaves Moreau to chase after Vitti, but the film is also about the long night that encloses all our lives. It begins with a dying man and ends with the wife at the edge of dissolution, a corpse to be violated by her grasping, desperate husband. The film suggests that the inevitable end of love robs life of meaning, leaving empty shells drifting past each other in silence.


Under the Skin

So what are we left with here? Scarlett Johansson plays a predator who is a skeletal obsidian void – her purpose to suck lusty men into another black void at the command of fierce male motorcyclists. These silent beings are hungry for the fleshy red insides they themselves lack. The contrast between humanity and the alien other comes down to the biology that underpins our sexual and romantic lives. Perhaps... The film really leaves you to work it out for yourself.

What I am certain of is that Johansson's casting was quite deliberate. A bit like Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave, her star-power is impossible to ignore, which is all to the film's purpose. Her role here almost feels like a comment on parts she has played in so many other films (Lost In Translation, The Other Boleyn Girl, Vicky Christina Barcelona) – the babe who isn't quite aware of how alluring she is. Here she is given her skin and forced to seduce men, and she does it clumsily. And yet even that is part of her charm – a corruptible innocent, a bambi-eyed femme fatale who rewards saviours with sex.

When Johansson is damselled for real she encounters two men – the first seemingly benign, the second a rapist and murderer. The first is a proper gentleman, but her silence and passivity means that his interest in her can be little more than physical, since her inwardness is entirely alien and strange. The second turns the tables on the honey-trap predator and destroys her – her sensuality is both her means of survival and her downfall. There is something slightly slut-shamey in this, except that the film suggests that Johansson is being coerced into her role. The motorcycle men collect a dead prostitute at the beginning of the film, which may be a defective model Johannson is replacing. In any case, the women here are disposable and shaped for male ends.

In all these scenarios, the film is gesturing towards ideas that are hardly new or surprising: the automated doll that starts developing a sense of self and begins to dissent gave this blog its title. That this revolution is stirred by the solidarity Johannson finds with the lonely and marginalised is also an unsurprising character arc Рin fact, it's romantic almost to the point of clich̩. Even the final images, where she is burned to death and the falling snow extinguishes her funeral pyre, evoke allusions to witchcraft, martyrdom and nature's indifference to all the living and the dead.

All of the art-film trappings – the black to white framing device (suggesting the birth and death of both the protagonist and the universe), the great soundtrack by Micachu (minus the Shapes) – doesn't quite disguise the fact that pulp has covered this territory already. Under the Skin is stylish, but it isn't all that clever.


Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Given the compromising position S.H.I.E.L.D. was in at the end of The Avengers, there was only one way this film could go - and it's a credit to Marvel that they went the whole hog, getting arch-liberal Robert Redford to play against type as the villain. My fellow movie-watcher, long-time comrade and true believer remarked that the major flaw with the film is how black and white the conflict ended up being. Redford could not just be himself, he had to be the head of a 60-year-old Hydra conspiracy as well. If you had to have Hydra there (to link back to the battles of the first film and hammer home the difference between the state Steve Rodgers fought for and the one he is now fighting against) they could have played a more muted role. Perhaps Redford could have been Zola's dupe - someone who betrayed his country in order to achieve that vision of absolute security. The film's failure is that it didn't give Redford the space to articulate just how seductive that vision can be.

I don't tend to watch a lot of action films, but do think this is one of the best I've seen. I'm paying a compliment when I say the competence on display was dazzling. The directors are most well known for television comedy, but they prove that that's no barrier to really solid stacks of gunfights, car chases and lightning-fast fisticuffs. At points it reminded me of Bad Boys II (again, a compliment) were the sequences pile up without the pile ever feeling too big.

The actors also play their (little more than) functional roles perfectly, their modest little arcs neatly composed in tidy satisfying packages - like an assortment of delicacies in a bento box. Chris Evans is brilliant in what is a tricky part to pull off. Being Mr Sincere in such an arch film can slip into parody, and to his credit there were very few times in which he reminded me of a pre-self-aware Buzz Lightyear. Again, it's a compliment.