"L'Avventura": Wanderers in the space of desire

Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti.

The films of Michelangelo Antonioni are so stylish and atmospheric that it’s tempting to see them as expressions of pure surface.  His astonishing run of early 1960s films—L’Avventura in 1960, La Notte in 1961, L’Eclisse in 1962, Red Desert in 1964—are high on mood and low on narrative momentum, even when they seem to be about such dramatic situations as disappearances and break-ups.  L’Avventura, which baffled audiences when it premiered at Cannes, deceives us by setting up a mystery that is not only never solved but is also gradually forgotten about by the characters themselves.  As the search for the missing Anna (Lea Massari) comes to feel less and less urgent, L’Avventura morphs into an oblique, chilly tone poem about her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti), who embarks on an affair with Anna’s not-particularly-distraught lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti).  Claudia and Sandro spend the second half of the film drifting from town to town, ostensibly in search of Anna but acting more out of aimlessness than anything else.  

L’Avventura is an environment unto itself, serene and cool and always quivering with a vague ominousness that never quite comes to a boil, as exemplified in the brilliant scene where Claudia finds herself in a village square surrounded by leering men who circle her like wild dogs.  But then the last forty minutes or so happen, and you realize that L’Avventura isn’t “just” an exercise in style at atmosphere at all—it has become an eerily perceptive account of the psychological stress that attends a new relationship, the direction of which is uncertain.  (“Avventura” means both “adventure” and “affair.”)  We watch as Claudia tries to navigate the space of her desire for Sandro: at first apprehensive and guilty, she eventually succumbs to it, allowing herself to be overwhelmed with passion.  Until recently I had always hated the scene late in the film when, besotted and giddy, Claudia dances around her hotel room to a dumb pop song.  It always seemed like such a hokey, tone-deaf scene in what is otherwise an impeccably hip film.  Then I realized how naked and moving Claudia’s love for Sandro is in that moment—naked to the point of being embarrassing.  She is naïve and touching in her confidence that this is real, and that it will last.  But in the final scenes of the film we see her riven with doubt, fear, and panic (and guilt—she imagines the vanished Anna returning to stake her claim on Sandro). 

Claudia, love-sick.

L’Avventura captures the sense in which two lovers may occupy entirely different emotional states even as they traverse the same ground of their relationship together.  Time, too, becomes elastic in this state: the film captures the feeling of infatuation, of being drunk on sex, of the inability to concentrate on anything other than the object of one’s affection, and of moments apart that seem to stretch on endlessly.  (Antonioni and Vitti somehow make Claudia’s boredom fascinating, as we watch her stay up all night waiting for Sandro, doodling on newspapers, making faces in the mirror, reciting random numbers to herself.)  The film is a record of an adventure and a journey, but Antonioni misdirects us so that we don’t realize we’ve been pulled into the story of an entirely different adventure, and an entirely different journey, than the one we thought we were watching.  

Vitti as Claudia: bored but never boring.

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