09 May 2017

The Code Word is Aardvark - or - How Antonioni's L'Eclisse Could be a Spy Movie

I was watching Antonioni’s masterful film, L’Eclisse on DVD. Early on two characters are speaking. I know a little Italian but not enough to render subtitles extraneous. So I’m reading them during the conversation. The male character asks the female (played by Monica Vitti) if she’d like him to call her later. This is ably translated and shown in the subtitles. Vitti’s character responds by saying what sounds like the word, “no.” However this is not translated and viewers not conversant in Italian are left to wonder if the Italian sound “no” means the same in their language as it does in English. For all anyone knows the “no” sound in Italian could mean something else entirely like, “aardvark.” (It doesn’t but I’m making a point here.)

So you’re watching L’Eclisse let’s say for the first time, you’re still in the first scene and a character utters a word that you can’t be sure means “no” and may in fact mean “aardvark.” So if the latter you’re going to speculate as to why a person would answer a question regarding making a phone call by naming an animal, one that is, according to my good friends at Wikipedia: “….a medium-sized, burrowing, nocturnal mammal native to Africa. It is the only living species of the order Tubulidentata, although other prehistoric species and genera of Tubulidentata are known. The aardvark is sometimes colloquially called ‘African ant bear’ ‘anteater’ (not to be confused with the South American anteater), or the ‘Cape anteater’ after the Cape of Good Hope.”

You’d likely consider that perhaps the use of the word “aardvark” was code and that the two characters were spies. This would lead to speculation regarding the sudden use of a code word. Did they suspect that there were listening devices in the house? Was the question about calling later a coded message? Could there have been other coded messages within their dialogue? Will all this be revealed to us later in the film or is this one of those deals where we’ll have to ‘read the book.’ And if we do have to read the book what if it’s out of print and hard to get? Or what if the book is really long or what if it sucks or what if it is both long and sucks. That could put one in a deuce of a pickle.

All of this confusion is just based on a supposition that aardvark was the untranslated word. Maybe the untranslated word was “sure.” Thus the woman was inviting a phone call later in the evening. Changes everything though not as much as if the word was aardvark. Of course if the answer was “sure” maybe it was sarcastic. It’s not worth thinking about. It’s also perhaps not worth thinking about the thousands of other words that he woman might have said. A lot of them would be similar to aardvark in that they would not seem to make sense in answering the question. Examples include: sycamore, lioness, pulverize, curricular, bassoon, ensign or umbrella. Again if it was one of these words or a similarly obscure one, it could only mean that the word was code.

This actually might serve to pique the viewer’s interest. Someone without foreknowledge of the movie could find themselves excited at the prospect of a spy thriller with Miss Monica Vitti as the lovely heroine. Maybe this would also feature the Italian James Bond. After all Alain Delon, then a young dashing figure, was the listed co star and he could more than fill the bill as a suave secret agent. Could this mean that Monica Vitti would be a fellow agent? Surely not an enemy one? It would not seem that she would be a vulnerable femme fatale who needed rescuing or an evil seductress. Too big a star for that.
Further complications would arise as the viewer was forced to look for other spoken words that contained hidden meanings. The mind boggles. A couple of scenes early in the film would compound the viewer’s confusion. One takes place in the apartment of a friend of our main character. The friend is recently returned from a long stay in Kenya and has an apartment decorated with African art. Ms. Vitti’s character dons some African attire, darkens her face and dances to tribal music. It’s an odd scene but if one is convinced that they are watching a spy film it takes on additional and more mysterious meanings. Especially when the hosts tires of playing African. Another scene (and indeed there are others there) unfolds in Rome’s stock market and of course international financial intrigue is just the stuff of the spy genre. At one point Ms. Vitti follows a man who she has been told has that day lost millions. We were to believe that she is curious about how someone reacts to taking such a beating but our heroine pilfers a napkin he doodled on. She shows the doodles to Alain Delon. Surely they contain a message central to the entire plot. The failure to translate the word sounding like “no” has now born serious consequences in the mind of the viewer.

Later Mr. Delon’s car is stolen. This would further suggest to confused viewers that spy games are afoot. Surely the car contained vital secrets or was specially equipped. The next morning the car is dredged from a river. There is a body in the car but does it belong to the thief or more importantly to an enemy spy? Was something extracted from the car? One is left to wonder.

The mysteries pile up for our befuddled viewer. The languid pace, the long silent stretches, the shots of buildings, trees rustling in the wind, street lights, people walking seemingly without direction. What does it all mean? And how does one explain the ever-changing nature of the Vitti-Delon interactions. Of course there are no references to aardvark anymore, at least nothing that one can detect.

L’Eclisse finally ends, more like stops and the word “Fine” appears on the screen. Is this the Italian variation of “The End”? Or is this another message? Does it mean everything is fine? One can go mad trying to decipher the hidden meanings. All this because of the failure to translate the “no” sound. But this may be a wasted exercise, though, because sometimes no means no.

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