Today we look at one of the most critically lauded films in motion picture history, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960). I cannot believe that all the people who claim to love it really do. They say they can see the emperor’s cool new threads. I say he is naked.
The plot of L’Avventura is simple. Two young women, Anna (Lea Massari) and Claudia (Monica Vitti), meet for a boat trip. After picking up Anna's lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), they join two other couples to visit a small island. Anna goes missing. Claudia and Sandro search for her; they never find her.
It is not that I find the film unfathomable. It is completely fathomable… to the point that I now regard it as insulting and simplistic. When I was an undergrad, I first saw L’Avventura in a film history class. I was bored by it then, just as I am bored by it now. But I got it. I even thought there was something cooly ironic about a film titled The Adventure that was anything but an adventure. Like most snot-nosed 18 year-olds, I was way into easy irony.
Roger Ebert was the same age for his first encounter with the film. He writes, “I did not much connect with the film when I saw it first--how could I, at 18? These people were bored by a lifestyle beyond my wildest dreams. When I taught the film in a class 15 years later, it seemed affected and contrived, a feature-length idea but not a movie.” Although Ebert says he later came to love the film, I think he should have trusted his first instincts.
At its premiere at the 1960 Cannes festival, the audience actually booed… so I guess the Cannes judges had no choice other than awarding it the Special Jury Prize, which they did. Now that’s unfathomable.
It is okay for a director to want the audience to draw its own conclusions. What I object to is a director who makes a film about emptiness and meaninglessness and then fails to offer anything we do not already know about emptiness and meaninglessness. He seems to be saying that they are “bad.” But the only evidence he offers is that his movie is full of both, and IT is bad. When we demand that Antonioni actually say something about WHY life is empty and meaningless, he simply shrugs and says conspiratorially, “You know – life is empty, and meaningless.” I’m looking for an artistic statement, not a noncommittal shrug.
“Fans” fall all over themselves apologizing for this film. On the Imdb (which, if I understand it correctly, is a series of tubes,) Fandango1 writes, “Slow pacing, of course. But what can you expect when you are watching a movie that look [sic] like a moving painting of [sic] two hours. [sic] You simply have adjust [sic] yourself to the interior beat of this brilliant movie… “ This rationalization comes close to a new critical phenomenon Patrick Bromley has talked about on this very site. People will give a movie a “free pass” simply for being the movie it is. (“You thought Transformers was awful? What did you expect? It is a movie about fighting robots.” Silly me, I expected a good movie about fighting robots.)
This is also an example of circular logic. Why is the snail’s pace of this film a given – because it is like “looking at a moving painting”? Well, WHY DOES IT HAVE TO BE THAT?
Here is another fawning apology for this film from one of the geniuses at Imdb-heebeejeebee. Poison River opines, “The first time I watched it, it seemed to wash over me without affecting me in any way. Later on … I found images and dialogue from the movie creeping into my subconscious; entire dreams would take place upon the island where Anna goes missing.” Here Poison River pioneers a new definition of cinema classic: complete disinterest, followed by nightmares.
Speaking of nightmares, take a look at this hyperbolically titled clip on the YouTubes:
I think this is far from the Most Provocative kiss in film history. If you agree with me, then you have kissed someone. Also, you will agree that L’Avventura is not the Most Provocative film in film history. Also, worship me.
Also, L’Avventura brings up a much bigger issue: Why does this film exist? For the audience? For posterity? For art? Or does it exist solely for Michelangelo Antonioni?
Great art, whatever its medium or subject, finds a way to let us in. True art finds a way to let its audience connect. If it is willfully obscure, if it is so intensely personal that it purposely locks an audience out, then it exists only for the artist. I have no interest in that kind of art.
L’Avventura is very much like a recent open-mike poetry event I attended. Each poet was expected to observe a three-minute time limit. Few of them did. Once they had the microphone, these poets were going to make us sit through their stuff, all twenty minutes of it in some cases, whether we liked it or not. They had the microphone, see? They are artists, see? These poets felt that the mere fact that they had written something, that they were at that moment holding a microphone, compelled us to listen… and what’s more… automatically qualified what they were reading as art, and therefore worthy of our time.
Antonioni is the poet who will not get off the stage, who will not relinquish the microphone for 143 long minutes. He has something very personal to share with us. If we do not get it, or deem it worthy of our time, then that is our problem and not his.
This film has garnered an astonishing 96% rating on the Tomatometer at RottenTomatoes.com. Yup, this is a masterpiece. If you do not like it, perhaps you are simply too stupid to understand the central conceit. Life is empty and meaningless, so Antonioni made a movie that was empty and meaningless. Get it? I see you nodding your head, but… are you falling asleep?
Bowsley Crowther (not the one from Charlie’s Angels, the former film critic of The New York Times) was not snookered by the film, as he wrote in his original review, “Just when it seems to be beginning to make a dramatic point or to develop a line of continuity that will crystallize into some sense, it will jump into a random situation that appears as if it might be due perhaps three reels later and never explain what has been omitted. At least, that's how it strikes us.”
Take a look at this scene. Actually, I dare you to sit through the whole thing:
Okay. I get it. The future is empty, and they are doomed. Could you not just tell the audience that at the beginning of the film with some sort of title card? Then you could show us cartoons for two and a half hours. Good cartoons.
I know life is empty and meaningless. That is why I go to the movies.
BETTER YET: La Dolce Vita, made the same year by Frederico Fellini, covers much of the same ground: rich, doomed people with no future.
Ennui – but entertaining ennui.