Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: L'Avventura (1960)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #21 (tied with Contempt and The Godfather)

L'Avventura was not Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni's first film in terms of production, as he had been making films for nearly a decade before this film's 1960 release. And yet, in many ways, it's the first "Antonioni film." Today, Antonioni is often mentioned in the same breath as the Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Robert Bresson, three key filmmakers of the French New Wave. It makes sense to lump him in with that group, since like those three, his films attempt to challenge the conventions of mainstream cinema at the time. But where the New Wavers were often deconstructing very specific Hollywood tropes and cliches, Antonioni was doing something different. He was attempting to make films that could demonstrate what cinema could do on an emotional and intellectual level that theatre couldn't. His films often focused on relationships between the characters rather than plot or action.

This is true of L'Avventura as well. The title translates into English as "The Adventure," a clever bit of misdirection given the film's true aims. The film follows Anna (Lea Massari) and Claudia (Monica Vitti), who join up with Anna's boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and others for a yacht trip in the Mediterranean Sea. While visiting the Aeolian Islands, Anna disappears, leaving Claudia and Sandro to investigate her disappearance. They begin a relationship with each other, though, even as they continue to search for their missing friend (and lover).

As mentioned above, the film isn't really invested in its plot. That's the point: Antonioni has crafted a film that's about alienation and the distance between people.

More after the jump.

The mystery is mostly just window dressing for Antonioni and his characters: Claudia and Sandro eventually seem to lose interest in finding Anna altogether, and Antonioni reflects that disinterest by continuing to focus the film on their burgeoning relationship. Every once in a while, he pays lip service to the missing woman, but that's about it. It's telling that the film ends with her disappearance never resolved; it never particularly mattered to begin with.

And yet Anna's disappearance hangs over the film, even when the characters have moved on. Her disappearance comes to represent the bourgeois ennui of the group, all of whom are so centered in themselves that they're incapable of making a connection with one another. Claudia and Sandro's relationship is tangible only in that they're occasionally onscreen together, declaring their love for one another. However, it never feels like a relationship. The audience gets the feeling that even though they're drawn to one another, they still live a life in isolation. They're alone together, which isn't the same as the relationship they claim to have. They each have a callous disregard for anyone other than themselves, even if they're trying not to.

Of course, there had been films about isolation before, and films where the central mystery turned out to  be a secondary interest. What sets L'Avventura apart - what took it from being booed at its Cannes Film Festival premiere to being celebrated as a landmark of mid-century European cinema - is the way Antonioni frames the characters visually. The majority of the film sees only one character onscreen at a time, usually off-center and in the lower third of the frame. This creates an exceptional amount of empty space within each frame. These spaces aren't exactly "empty" in the sense that there is nothing else in the frame, but empty in the sense that there are no other human beings in the frame with the character. It's significant because it not only isolates the characters from one another, but it visually creates a void in which they exist. Similarly, Antonioni's camera lingers on these images for a long time in silence, leaving the audience to study a character's face. It's an alienating effect, but again, that's the point. Antonioni makes the audience a participant in the disconnect.

If there's a modern-day film that's comparable for L'Avventura, the best example is perhaps Spike Jonze's 2013 film Her. Both films were examinations of the growing isolation of their respective time periods, with Her focusing more on isolation via technology (and without a mystery on top of it). They both feature protagonists who are adrift in the world, embroiling themselves in impossible relationships. And Jonze uses a similar visual technique to convey isolation, often blurring the background for wide shots and relying heavily on close-ups of the actors' faces. In many ways, Jonze - at least in his work on Her - feels like a spiritual successor to Antonioni, all the way down to how they end their respective films in this comparison: a touch, one of few moments of actual connection between characters.

Over his career, Antonioni would become a more alienating figure in his own right. His later, non-Italian films, such as Blow-Up (1966) and Zabriskie Point (1970), would prove to be nearly impenetrable works that seemed obsessed with their own opacity. L'Avventura, then, was Antonioni introducing himself to the world, and it's his most accessible film. It was his first major invitation into his lonely world.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday": La Dolce Vita (1960)

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