European films of the Sixties were ablaze with glamorous women, from Brigitte Bardot to Monica Vitti. But why were they so sulky, asks Gaby Wood

In the opening sequence of l’Eclisse, the last in Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic trilogy of boredom-based films, Monica Vitti stares as if spellbound. She looks down at an overflowing ashtray and moves it a few centimetres. She peers through curtains drawn against the daylight. She buries her face in the sofa cushions. What she is hiding from, and why she appears to be imprisoned, is unclear. She paces, briefly – just a few clicks of her kitten heels on the marble floor and she’s fed up with that, too. Finally, she glares at a lover we didn’t know was there. “I’m leaving, Riccardo,” she says, before going nowhere at all.

For anyone familiar with Antonioni – and in particular with the other two films in this series, l’Avventura and La Notte – none of this behaviour will come as a surprise. Ennui and estrangement are among his favourite subjects. He can take any landscape – urban, pastoral, oceanic – and turn it into a desert. For him, all relationships are mid-dysfunction, whether the couple is breaking up or has just met. And, cards on the table, I am fundamentally a fan: I have defended l’Avventura against many who have been aghast at its uneventfulness. But on seeing l’Eclisse, which is about to be re-released in a new print, something else struck me. What was Monica Vitti doing?

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It wasn’t so much the opening scene, which was at least momentous enough to show love coming to an end. It was the rest of it, when she meets a new man and can’t work out what to do with him. They go on a date, she turns away, she pursues him, she looks at the floor, she lets the phone ring, she wanders off. All of this leads precisely nowhere, which may seem ordinary enough, except that the man in question is Alain Delon. At one point, Vitti writhes alone between her sheets as if frustration is killing her. There could only be one reason for it, I thought. She is trying to work out why she is so annoying.

It reminded me of another girl in a Sixties movie. In fact, it’s a film, from 1963, often said to be Jean-Luc Godard’s best, but I have never liked it, because Brigitte Bardot’s performance drives me mad: Le Mépris. “Do you think my feet are pretty?” she says, barely a minute past the opening credits. She is lying naked on a bed with her husband, played by Michel Piccoli. “Yes,” he replies. But she goes on. “Do you like my ankles?” She works her way up her own body – knees, thighs, bottom – in a ritual of neediness that would test the patience of the most devoted spouse. “Which do you prefer – my breasts or my nipples?”

"Is this a sex scene? No, it's a staring at the ceiling scene" Credit: Brigitte Bardot in Le Mepris, 1960/SIPA/REX Shutterstock

Many languages are spoken in Le Mépris – Italian, French, English, German – and there’s always a pretty girl on hand to translate for the men. But most of the film is conducted in the language of sulking, spoken impeccably and exclusively by Bardot. The grammar includes a gaze of inexplicable reproach – made all the more unintelligible by its mask of heavy eyeliner – and a pale-lipsticked pout. The weight of the film is tilted towards her; she is too beautiful for there to be any other option.

“A man has a right to know why his wife is sulking,” says Piccoli, reasonably enough. But Bardot is filled with – as the voice-over has it – “an intimate sense of vengeance”. For what? We never find out. One minute she is full of tenderness, the next she is sleeping on the sofa. One second she loves him, the next she’s saying she could never love him again. “Why did I marry a 28-year-old typist?!” Piccoli blurts out, exasperated – and really, you do feel for him.

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L’Eclisse and Le Mépris were made within a year of each other, by two different film-makers, with two different blonde actresses, in two different languages. An unsisterly thought emerges. Why were women in the Sixties so irritating?

With film as my only guide, I excluded from this conundrum a few heroines: the indomitably doll-like Anna Karina, the sensual carnival of Sophia Loren, the elegant playfulness of Anouk Aimée, the cracked little pixie that was Romy Schneider. But there did seem to be another breed, whose modus operandi was a combination of repression, teasing and weariness. And a whole genealogy of cinema could be traced on the basis of them.

"There could only be one reason for her frustration, I thought. She is trying to work out why she is so annoying" Credit: Monica Vitt in Lavventura, 1960/Everett/REX Shutterstock

For instance, here’s one Antonioni made earlier. On the face of it, l’Avventura (1960) shares a number of features with a Raymond Chandler mystery: a beautiful girl who goes missing, a rich father, newspaper reports, search parties, police stations, men jumping on to moving trains. But it is the opposite of a Chandler story: it’s a film about nothing. About absence, and barrenness. It begins with a girl who’s bored of her boyfriend. She goes to see him and, leaving her friend (Monica Vitti, again) waiting downstairs, takes her clothes off in front of him. Is this a sex scene? No, it’s a staring at the ceiling scene: he kisses her neck; she is immune. They go on a luxury trip around the Aeolian Islands with friends, and she spends it looking cross. “These are the aspects of Anna that drive me crazy,” says the boyfriend, echoing Michel Piccoli in Le Mépris – or rather, anticipating him. Eventually Anna disappears, and a plot that is ostensibly about the quest to find her is really about Anna going off in a film-length huff.

Why did women behave in this way? Surely such habits weren’t confined to cinema alone? A few months ago, when I spoke to the playwright Sir David Hare for a piece I was writing about the actress Carey Mulligan, one of the things he remarked upon was her rendition of Sixties womanhood when playing Lynn Barber in the film of An Education. “I knew those women,” he said. “They were the women who drove you absolutely bonkers when you were young, because of that slightly damaged, slightly hopeful, whatever-you-say-isn’t-going-to-be-quite-right-it’s-just-going-to-hurt-me look. It’s so Sixties! I could barely look at the screen, I found the performance so painful.”

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In the memoir itself, Barber says: “I blame Albert Camus.” The girl who would go on to become a famously probing interviewer was too busy posing to ask the most obvious things of a con man who took over her teenage life. “My normal instinct was to bombard people with questions,” she writes. “But just around the time I met Simon I became an Existentialist, and one of the rules of Existentialism as practised by me and my disciples at Lady Eleanor Holles School was that you never asked questions. Asking questions showed that you were naive and bourgeois; not asking questions showed that you were sophisticated and French. 

“I badly wanted to be sophisticated,” she continues. “And, as it happened, this suited Simon fine. My role in the relationship was to be the schoolgirl ice maiden: implacable, ungrateful, unresponsive to everything he said or did.”

The language of sulking: women in the Sixties were masters of the whatever-you-say-isn’t-going-to-be-quite-right-it’s-just-going-to-hurt-me look Credit: Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour, 1967 /Everett/REX Shutterstock

We can blame Camus for Antonioni, too – he read l’Étranger early in his career, and the tenets of Existentialism can’t have been far from his mind when making his trilogy on tedium. L’Avventura was released in the same year as Alberto Moravia’s novel La Noia (Boredom), an Italian tribute to that school of thought. When Antonioni’s character Anna says, for no apparent reason, “Che noia!” (“I’m so bored!”), just before she vanishes, the Italians’ shared project is unmistakable.

Of course, all of these films were made by men, and they were made on the cusp of women’s liberation. The camera dwells on the women in a way that seems to adore them, but they are less like muses than subjects for semi-clinical observation. The result, at least at this distance, is that the women have been given too much rope. There is nothing beguiling about their boredom; they seem oppressed by the scrutiny itself, trapped and overheating under the magnifying glass of the camera lens.

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Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) might be seen as a natural descendant of l’Eclisse and Le Mépris. (It was produced by the same team of brothers as l’Eclisse.) Though sexual repression is Buñuel’s direct subject, rather than an idiom or side-effect as it is for Antonioni and Godard, the frigid woman played by Catherine Deneuve is the evolution of Vitti and Bardot. A well-off doctor’s wife with memories of molestation, she asks her husband to kiss her, then banishes him from her single bed. So far, so familiar. But then she goes to work in a brothel in order to force her coldness to lift. Brothels, after all, are what men get to use so that these sorts of things don’t happen: “Withheld semen is a poison,” her husband announces – in Latin, in case it would seem vulgar otherwise. The husband works in a large old hospital that looks unnervingly like la Salpêtrière, the famous institution in which the 19th-century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot studied hysteria.

What Godard called romance, Polanski turned into horror Credit: Catherine Deneuve in Repuslion, 1965 /REX Shutterstock

In fact, Belle de Jour may be more than a relative of those earlier films. It may be a diagnosis. The disease of the Sixties woman, observed but not identified by Godard and Antonioni, was, in part, sexual confinement. When you are trapped, there just is no way to be. That’s why Vitti stays in the strangely shrouded room after she announces that she is leaving. You could even say that these women are the aunts or cousins of Catherine Deneuve in Polanski’s Repulsion and Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby – two parts of another trilogy in which women are driven to insanity with no way out. 

What Godard called romance Polanski turned into horror. “My husband makes all the decisions,” says Bardot in Le Mépris, a simple pre-feminist expression uttered with such ferocious sarcasm it suggests things are about to go horribly wrong – and they do.

When Catherine Deneuve comes home after her first afternoon’s work in Belle de Jour, she throws her underwear on to the open fire of her bourgeois sitting room. The knickers and the stockings burn straight away, but her bra gets caught on the logs. She picks up a poker to shift it, and hears her husband’s key in the door. She leaves the bra dangling and runs to her bed, pretending she’s too ill to go out.

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"The camera dwells on these women in a way that seems to adore them, but they seem trapped beneath the magnifying glass of the camera lens" Credit: 1960 Rex Features/Shutterstock

No one ever really burnt bras in the Sixties, and 1967 was too early even for the myth. But as symbols go it’s a good one for the liberation manual: effect your release and destroy the evidence. Rosemary’s Baby was made the following year: it ended with a neurotic blonde giving birth to the devil. Maybe that was the fever breaking. The Sixties sickness was almost over.

L’Eclisse is in cinemas from August 28