Monday, 29 September 2008

L'Avventura (1960, Italy/France, Michelangelo Antonioni)

One should be careful about making judgements upon the first impressions of an Antonioni film. If ever a film maker requires a second, if not several, viewings of his films, then it's Antonioni. My first experience of Antonioni was approximately a year ago, when I saw a double bill of 'L'Eclisse' and 'Il Deserto Rosso'. These are two of Antonioni's best known and most acclaimed studies of alienation. But his films have always divided audiences, with some critics bemoaning the slow pacing and the cynical portrayals of a jaded Italian middle class. The first screening of 'L'Avventura' at Cannes in 1960 is arguably the most famous first screening of any film ever, with much of the audience booing the film, forcing Antonioni and star Monica Vitti to flee the screening. In response, the films' supporters issued a statement declaring 'L'Avventura' one of the most important films not just in recent cinematic history, but the entire history of cinema. Indeed only two years later, the film ranked second in Sight and Sound's poll of the greatest films of all time behind perennial favourite 'Citizen Kane'. To this day the film remains notoriously divisive, and it's well accepted that Antonioni's films require numerous viewings to fully comprehend, so as I said in my opening, it's perhaps best not to rush in with a definitive statement.

The film starts with the three principal characters, Anna (Lea Massari), her on-off boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and Claudia (Vitti) embarking on a cruise around the Sicilian islands. At this point, we consider the main emphasis of the film to be about the relationship between Anna and Sandro, which is uncertain. Anna could be in love with him, but then she might not. Their sex is indifferent and they barely communicate. As Sandro explains "words are becoming less and less necessary. They create misunderstandings". In Antonioni's universe, shown in subsequent films also, his characters never have fulfilling relationships, and Anna and Sandro perhaps represent the archetypal Antonioni couple. Much like the most famous film from this year, 'Psycho', 'L'Avventura' then pulls the rug from under our feet with an incredible narrative twist - the disappearance of its most central character to this point, Anna. Intriguingly, Anna mentioned spying a shark earlier in the film, which she confessed to Claudia was a lie. However before she disappears, we ominously see something swimming in the water, but there's no doubt that this is a Macguffin, much like the money that Marion steals in 'Psycho'.

After the initial search, life seems to return to normal and Anna is seemingly forgotten. It's as if seismic events such as a disappearance cannot affect or change the entrenched sense of alienation amongst this bourgeois class. Claudia and Sandro's growing closeness, albeit frustrated and uncertain in nature, begins to resemble the previous relationship between him and Anna. Perhaps all bourgeois relationships are doomed to this sense of unease and anxiety. Claudia is unable to commit one way or the way, and it's evident that she feels guilt about Anna's disappearance, even if it goes unsaid. Sandro, who later takes up with a call girl, perhaps represents the jaded playboy that Alain Delon did in 'L'Eclisse'. Antonioni was always far more sympathetic towards his female characters in this series of films focusing on alienation. With Vitti as his muse, she was always unable to commit to love (when asked "why not?" she replies "I don't know why", whereas the men who desired her were not equally in tune with their emotions, although the final scene in which Sandro breaks down might represent a final acknowledgement of guilt. It should be noted here that this scene, like the final scene of 'L'Eclisse' is a superb demonstration of the use of settings and environment to reflect the inner emotions of the characters. Here, Sandro is flanked by Claudia, with Mount Etna in the background, threatening to erupt. Much like their emotions perhaps.

I have only seen four Antonioni films to date; this, 'L'Eclisse', 'Il Deserto Rosso' and 'Professione: Reporter', and each film I have only seen once. As I mentioned, the critical consensus suggests that you must see these films more than once for them to reveal their magic and meanings. At the moment, my reactions have been a combination of admiration and bewilderment. I daresay that sits in the middle between Antonioni's supporters and his critics; a kind of neutral, sitting on the fence position that fails to commit one way or the other. Like his characters. 4/5

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