Le notti bianche

(White Nights, Luchino Visconti, Italy/France, 1957)


The story of almost every major Italian director in the 1950s is their sometimes uneasy negotiation with – and drive to break away from – the imposing legacy of 1940s neo-realism. Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni …


By 1957, Luchino Visconti had already made his operatic aspirations perfectly clear in Senso (1954), not to mention his work in theatre. But Le notti bianche, an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s oft-filmed tale “White Nights” – Robert Bresson (Four Nights of a Dreamer, 1971), James Gray (Two Lovers, 2008) and Paul Vecchiali (Nuits blanches sur le jetée, 2014) have given us their equally personal, customised takes on its basic plot template – still managed to throw many critics of the time for a loop.


On the one hand, Visconti had returned to the joys and sorrows of ordinary people in something resembling everyday life – and he observed their social context in meticulous detail.


On the other hand, Le notti bianche flaunted its high degree of artificiality: completely constructed and filmed on a set, controlling every aspect of weather and environment for purely expressive and poetic purposes. Unsurprisingly, its combination of storybook artifice and bittersweet melancholia had a particular impact on one budding filmmaker soon to launch his debut feature: Jacques Demy.


Of all Visconti’s films, this is the one least concerned with large questions of European historical and political transition, of the kind we see so vividly dramatised in The Leopard (1963) or The Damned (1969). Its agony is intimate, tracing the largely unrequited longing that Mario (Marcello Mastroianni) feels for Natalia (Maria Schell) – who, while letting herself be entertained for a few nights by Mario, only pines for her dream-man (Jean Marais) to return, if he ever will …


As in Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962), a dance scene takes prime position in Le notti bianche’s unfolding chronicle. And what a dance scene it is! As I have argued in my book Mise en scène and Film Style (Palgrave, 2014), this eleven-minute extravaganza is a set-piece that sums up what many people mean by classical mise en scène when referring to 1950s work by Vincente Minnelli, F.W. Murnau or Kenji Mizoguchi.


In the light of his later work, Visconti is often regarded – inaccurately, in my view – as a director whose method is based on excess, pure spectacle and proudly superfluous detail. But no touch is superfluous in Le notti bianche, and least of all in this central dance scene.


In a club, Mario tries to draw Natalia’s attention, to make himself irresistible to her through reminiscences and confessions. But as the dancers hit the floor around them, literally intruding into their personal space, Natalia is increasingly distracted and Mario realises that his amorous campaign is lost – unless he gets her out of her seat to join the throng.


Here, too, Mario tries to engineer intimacy – but Visconti throws every possible obstacle in his way, from the club’s star show-off dancer (Dirk Sanders) to the changing lights and spaces of the room.


Finally, Natalia flees, once more in search of her fantasy – and Mario is stuck with the unbearable tension of pathos and defeat.

© Adrian Martin February 2015

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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