Wednesday, July 31, 2013

OLD TIMES 2: Michelangelo Antonioni's "L'Avventura" at Film Forum

The second feature we saw at Film Forum Sunday was an old favorite, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960).  Me and that film go way back.  The first time I saw it was on a ten-inch black and white television, broadcast on the local PBS station in the mid-Seventies.  Even under those conditions it made an indelible impression.  I’d never before seen such controlled composition of shots.

For many, the film is the quintessential art-house film.  It’s slow-moving, it’s subtitled, it’s vague and a bit elliptical, it’s got plenty of upper-class ennui and little uncomfortable brushes with the masses, it’s got an arch attitude toward the people it portrays while all the while not denying its perspective is “of” them and “for” them.  And it’s Italian rather than French.  The French auteurs were the ones with radical ideas and a counter-intuitive fondness for Hollywood genre films.  The Italians created a different kind of film vocabulary without deliberate ideological significance, much as Japan did.  In other words, cinema was a significant industry in both countries, both defeated in World War II and both achieving mastery of this most modern of arts in the post-war period.  The reception of films by the likes of Antonioni and Kurosawa, of Fellini and Ozu, I suspect, had much to do with their ability to play to the humanism that was already fading in the glitzier productions coming from the US and UK.  To the victors go the spoils?  Yes, and the irony.

L’Avventura doesn’t exactly wear its heart on its sleeve, but the sense that some kind of emotional connection is what we most desire is a given.  We can tell that Anna (Lea Massari) is discontented from the start—she’s snippy with her partician patriarch of a dad, she’s blasé with her best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti, in the role that made her name), and vaguely disgruntled with her well-meaning hunk of a boyfriend, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti).  The trio is off on a jaunt on a yacht with some slightly older Meditteranean types—one couple combines a rather imperious woman with a dogged male admirer, the other, a somewhat ditzy dame, Giulia, and her sarcastic older male partner, Corrado. 

Anna seems determined to break through her boredom.  First, there’s her precipitate plunge into the water from the fast-moving boat, then there’s her cry that she’s seen a shark—while most of the party is in the water—then she admits to Claudia that there was no shark, and then—on a visit to a small rocky island and after words of disgruntlement with Sandro—no Anna.  Where did she go?  No one knows.  Could she be hiding?  Was there a boat no one saw that she hitched a ride on?  Did she plunge to her death off a cliff?

We could say that Anna’s disappearance is the film’s “red herring.”  It poses a question that is never answered and if viewers expect that issue to be resolved, they will be disappointed.  I can’t say anything about that because before I ever saw the film I already knew that that wasn’t the point.  The film introduces Anna only to get her out of the way.  She is the means by which Claudia and Sandro become lovers, and that’s fairly ingenious, as such things go.  Claudia doesn’t get him after a break between Anna and Sandro, nor after the definite death of Anna, nor even in the absence of Anna, in the sense of when the cat’s away….  No, Anna is there and not there.  She’s the reason Claudia and Sandro are together, as they travel up the coast, following up on rumored sightings of Anna.

Into the somewhat aimless lives of these people comes a sense of mystery.  Is Anna leading them on?  Is Anna simply a pretext?  The dissatisfaction with Sandro that we saw in Anna might end up passing to her friend, but for now, Anna has provided them—in absentia—an opportunity to discover if there was a real romance simmering all along.  The film creates a situation in which the possibility of a second romance within a triangle gets to be explored.  Key to that theme are the different responses of Claudia and Sandro to Anna’s disappearance.  The latter wastes no time coming on to Claudia—the very morning after the night spent on the island in hopes Anna will appear, he attempts to kiss her.  It is as if, by choosing to remain with Sandro and Corrado, Claudia has become Anna’s replacement, for Sandro.  When he follows her onto a train, it becomes clear that his “search” for Anna is really a pursuit of Claudia.

Claudia, in a performance of great subtlety by Vitti, is very clearly content to be “second banana” to Anna.  Anna is the capricious one, the well-to-do one, the one who lends her clothes and maybe even her boyfriend, if the mood struck her. 

Claudia is more beautiful but she seems not to realize it, in part because she is herself an observer.  Two scenes are set-up to establish this.  In the first, a beautiful young girl with a tear in her dress nearly sparks a riot among cruising males who seem to see her state as an unavoidable provocation.  The girl, Gloria Perkins, is an aspiring actress and so it could all be a publicity stunt.  Later, Claudia waits outside a hotel where Anna may be staying while Sandro goes inside to investigate.  Claudia is “scoped” relentlessly by every man on the street, as they begin to gather like flies.  The amusement of Gloria is set against the distress of Claudia.  At the same time, the message that she too could have “any man” shows not only the fascination with blondes in this culture but the degree to which Sandro, in switching from Anna to Claudia, is doing what “anyone” would do, in his position.

Antonioni toys with this notion by having Claudia wear a blouse belonging to Anna, by having Claudia present when a young pseudo-artistic prince comes on to Giulia, claiming he prefers her to Claudia, and when he has Claudia don a black wig.  In each instance, the film manages to convey Claudia’s perspective.  She is self-conscious each time.  She never aspires to be a femme fatale, or even Sandro’s lover.  She only becomes the latter, we realize, by falling in love with him.  The scene on the rooftop ringing the bells presents her rare unself-conscious enjoyment of a moment—after she has finally accepted Sandro as her lover in the fields outside Noto—subsequently become ecstatic the morning after they sleep together.  Vitti enacts the joy of a woman in love with playful abandon and Sandro seems like a rather tiresome stiff in comparison.

Alone, Sandro does things like spoil a stranger’s architectural drawing (Sandro is a frustrated architect) and eventually, at a party that Claudia chooses not to attend, is spotted by Gloria Perkins, who makes a deliberate effort to get his attention as a desirable solo male.  They spend the night on a couch, only to be discovered there, still engaged with one another, by Claudia.  The final sequence of the film is rightly famous as a wordless stretch of time in which the two move toward rapprochement, Antonioni’s sense of space and composition acting as silent commentary.

That element of the film has been present all along—for instance with the shot framing Claudia below through a window while we are with Sandro and Anna in his bedroom, or with the figures against the barren island, or with the placing of Sandro and Anna against rock and water.  The use of walls and voids creates a visual texture that comes to have a rigor we grasp as the point of view of the film.  We see not only people in space and in groups and against backgrounds—as in any film—but we see them as figures in compositions, their actions and passions contained by a sense of artistry that, rather than intruding or distracting, provides meaning.  How things look is inseparable from how things feel.  Antonioni’s assertion is that only cinema allows us fully to register this aspect of existence. And this is a film to see that proven.

Viewing it this time, after The Servant, I was conscious of the fact that humor was rather lacking—that irony I spoke of earlier—and that the print was nowhere near as pristine as the one we’d been treated to of Losey’s film.  I believe my copy of the Criterion DVD is sharper, but one thing that came across to me more than before was the score.  The music adds odd commentary to the visuals, often feeling oppressive, or building in ways that suggest discomfort or anxiousness.  There’s a brooding quality that adds a certain solemnity to it all, but that also deadens any sense that the characters have any independence from the terms in which they are presented.  L’Avventura presents a formal and rigorous artistry that surrounds human impermanence with a sense of austere beauty, and finds in Monica Vitti a figure whose expressive resources add a subjective contrast to the sense of detachment.  The film never fails to fascinate me.

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