Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Closing shot of Antonioni’s L’Avventura

Going Places

When the audience at Cannes in 1960 first saw Michaelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura they likely did not walk out thinking they had just seen a fascinating film about boredom and spiritual desolation. In fact, if I remember the story right, they hooted in derision at its glacial pace, its long, wandering takes, and the general aimlessness of a story that deliberately goes way off track.

Watching it this afternoon for the first time in a few years, it was rather amazing to me how boring it isn’t. It moves a lot quicker than I remembered, and even the scenes where people aren’t doing all that much don’t drag. Compared to what I remembered, it has a (dare I say it?) nimble (or at least intense) narrative drive. It may just be that it's a better experience on subsequent visits than the first, the same way a lot of novels are -- once you get past a story that upsets your standard expectations, you can concentrate on the rich moodiness of the film and the power of the compositions.

Antonioni is one of the inevitable names that come up when you think of the whole cult of the auteur; he's one of those great cinema masters -- like Hitchcock, Bunuel, Kurosawa, Fellini, a number of others -- whose work is always more reflective of their personality and vision than anything else. People rarely talk about the actors (although I was struck here by the strong emotional performance of Monica Vitti) so much as the signature look or style. Here more than perhaps anywhere else in his body of work, you see what a remarkable visual poet he is -- a landscape artist whose settings (whether it's the sea, the city, a restaurant, a hotel room, or a bed) always show the distance between people. This hasn't always paid off in later films, like Zabriskie Point, for example, but here there's not a single wasted shot.

L’Avventura has always been one of the key movies in my years of film-going because it’s one of the very few that takes such a deliberate turn in it’s storytelling. There are, to my mind, three great films that pull off the feat of taking you on a journey toward an unimaginable yet somehow perfect ending, and which in the end seem like genuine journeys of discovery: Psycho, L’Avventura and The Crying Game. You may hoot and holler at the last one, but I don’t care. It fooled me. Some lesser but no less stellar examples are House of Games and The Usual Suspects.

Watch these movies and you really feel you’ve been somewhere. They are real “adventures” in the best sense of the word, although in the case of Antonioni’s film, the title is more than a little ironic. It’s an “adventure” that has little to do with action as we usually think of it, and it’s set among a rather unadventurous lot, what was loosely defined back then as the jet set, people with loads of money and time and a fairly loose attitude toward common morality. It’s about how things don’t go as planned, and how life is shaped both by who we are and by what what we can’t foresee.

As would be true in the other two films I mentioned, we are lured into thinking that the first person we meet is the major character. Her name is Anna (Lea Massari) and she’s about to go on a yachting expedition with her friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) and her lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). The first thing we learn about this affair is that it’s doomed. Anna’s father (Renzo Ricci) tells her that the guy she’s hanging around with isn’t going to marry her, and that she’s just wasting her time. Anna doesn’t exactly disagree with him and doesn’t really care. She and Claudia take off anyway, hook up with Sandro at a hotel, and then Anna and Sandro impulsively make love while Claudia waits downstairs.

Impulse is very much what rules the world of these people; Sandro and his friends, whom we meet the next day on the yacht, are a bored and beautiful lot who are unafraid of either fondling or humiliating each other in public. Like the people in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, to which Antonioni’s film is frequently compared, and which I’ll get to at a later date, they are all in the market for sensation.

As if to somehow disrupt the non-party of this ship of fools, Anna dives off the boat and then screams that a shark is after her. She is rescued, the party repairs to an island -- and Anna suddenly goes missing. Despite an exhaustive search among the boating party, and then later the police, she never turns up. She has simply disappeared without a trace, and there isn’t a clue as to what happened to her.

Ah, you think, so now the movie is going somewhere. We have a mystery on our hands. Well, yes, but not quite the one you might think. The story of Anna’s disappearance slowly, gradually gives way to another story: Sandro and Claudia, who have returned to the mainland and are still nominally following clues about Anna, are falling in love. They met as strangers who shared a connection to Anna, and it is Anna’s odd, totally inexplicable disappearance that has now put them in each other’s sights. Claudia still feels too close to Anna to get involved with her boyfriend, but Sandro’s insistence trumps her resistance -- and besides, they’re both lonely, and how much loneliness, solitude or, you might even ask, lack of adventure can a person stand?

Besides being thrown together by circumstances, Sandro and Claudia both see in each other something they need. We learn that Sandro is a former architect with artistic aspirations, and has now become so cynical about making money that he no longer believes in himself. (In one scene, Sandro deliberately ruins the etching of a young artist for seemingly no reason -- except that maybe it reminds him of his younger self, and perhaps his own blasted dreams.) Claudia, by contrast, does believe in him just as she believes, or wants to believe, that he can love her as much as she thinks she loves him.

Anna now only matters in a very restricted sense -- Claudia, Anna’s best friend, now finds that her feelings have, in the space of a few days, shifted completely: if Anna comes back, it will destroy her new relationship. And what if Anna doesn’t come back? Will Sandro love her? Clearly he didn’t cherish Anna’s memory that much, and when we think back to her earlier scenes, we realize again -- as Anna’s father did -- that he didn’t really love her that much alive either. Claudia comes to realize she can’t trust Sandro, and he’s all she has. Like every value in this particular neighborhood of modern life, love is as slight and ephemeral -- as suddenly here today and gone tomorrow -- as life itself.

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