L’Avventura (The Adventure) Michaelangelo Antonioni (It. 1959, 2hrs 23min) Monica Vitti, Gabrielle Ferzetti; Lea Massari
viewed Mubi 26 Jan 2021
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I was thinking about Antonioni’s title for his film ‘L’Avventura’. What does the idea of ‘The Adventure’ point to? The final sequence of his movie suggests one answer. In this final section, after a number of close shots, the last image in the film, is a long shot of Claudia standing behind Sandro. He is sitting slumped on a bench overlooking an ocean vista with a mountainous island away in the distance. Claudia’s hand mechanically combs through his hair. They are not young people any more. They look like an elderly defeated married couple who are incapable of movement. Antonioni’s title is perhaps mordant sardonic. In a narrow sense ‘The Adventure’ that Antonioni points to, is that of women escaping ‘marriage’; the wider sense ‘The Adventure’ is that of women escaping men and the consequences of them not being able to do so.
In ‘L’Avventure’s’ scenario Anna gets away from men, escapes both her father her boyfriend, escapes from them radically permanently mysteriously. But Claudia for all her hesitation her doubts and uncertainty in that last shot denotes that she cannot escape, perhaps cannot even quite see there is a problem, she has become a adjunct of the male.
‘L’Avventura’ is a woman’s film. Antonioni’s script concerns itself with and focuses on women. To do this he uses ‘situation’. His female characters are trapped in the world of men, their souls snuffed out. This is not addressed directly by the female protagonists. The women simply don’t have the voice to confront what is happening to them, which is of course Antonioni’s point. Their entrapment is something he shows us, that we see directly on the screen. Through Anna and Claudia’s situation we see that something is terribly wrong in their world.
The opening title sequence is underscored by a piece of contemporary jazz (repeated over the final shot and end credit). The music is driven by rhythmic guitar, it’s a dissonant nerve jangling track that might have been composed for a mystery murder movie. The music sets up the psychic state of the female protagonists (who are in effect being murdered). The music has edge; the women are edgy. They are suffocated. They are aware that they have no air but still they must breath. And it is this disturbance in the women’s psyche between the in-breath and the out-breath that interpenetrates ‘L’ Avventura’. As the camera focises on the faces of Anna and Claudia, the affect image we read in their expression is that of derangement. Their clothes are perfectly arranged but beneath the outer garments, under the skin, a derangement of body and mind.
Anna the fiancé, caught between Papa and Sandro, dives off the yacht and swimming out in the Mediterranean cries out: “Shark!” …there’s a shark in the water. However she’s crying ‘wolf’ though no one realises it; this time she is playing a game, her next scream will be silent, next time she will not be heard because she has no voice with which to scream out: ‘Me!”. Another later scene: Claudia and Sandro are together in the country locked in a charade of intimacy. He looks across the landscape, remarks: “Look there’s the town!” Claudia replies: “That’s not a town, it’s a cemetery.” Sandro mistakes life for death, As he forcefully takes possession of Claudia, she has no defence against him, her face increasingly assumes an expression internal panic; the look of a wild bird in the hunter’s hand. Until that final shot when she appears to have resigned herself to entrapment in Sandro’s cage.
Antonioni doesn’t confine himself to the private sphere of his female protagonists interpersonal relations. L’Avventura’s script extends out into the vulnerability of women in the public arena. This is the domain men have claimed for themselves, in which unaccompanied females are the subject not only to the male gaze but surrender their right to body space. They are prey to be hunted. In the scenes in Palermo and the small Sicilian town, Antonioni’s scenario unleashes scenes of the savage depraved nature of male desire unleashed by the appearance of the lone woman target. The scenes are a reminder of the reason for the disturbance underscoring Claudia’s derangement, that detached and out by herself on her own she is subjected to the hostility of men and their implied punishment of gang rape. Without a voice she is defenceless.
‘L’Avventura’ is set in the wealthy high bourgeois strata of Italian society. This a world of privilege where the men are judged by the degree of ownership and control they exert on others through their possessions: their cars their yachts and their women. It is a world where the women are trophies. Their looks their couture and culture simply reflect back onto the glory of their consorts. The women have little actual significance, they are appendages, ultimately replicants, spare parts. If one goes wrong, vanishes or gets old, they can be replaced. Hollowed out and colonised by the male all that is left to them is an assemblage of deranged psychic responses. As Sandro moves with intent to replace vanished Anna with present Claudia, the interlinking theme of ‘L’Avventura’ is woman as a disposable entity; the one is as good as another. And of course the deal cuts both ways, as in one scene Claudia blurts out to Sandro: “You look like some one else.” In times when we are increasingly defined by our consumption and leisure, people can start to look like some one else.
The island setting used by Antonioni for his scripted ‘coup’ of Anna’s anti-climatic disappearance, is reminiscent of Rossellini’s film ‘Stomboli’ which is set on the eponymous Aeolian island. Rossellini’s protagonist Karen is ravaged by malignant hostile social forces but in the final sequence the volcanic physicality of the island in itself overwhelms her being. She submits to the force of nature. It is certain Antonioni saw this film and that it’s powerful climax fed into his script for ‘L’Avventura.’ The raw power of the natural environment frees Anna from the chains of a world conformed to men’s authority. The island sets her free. Perhaps as with Karen, it becomes clear to Anna that she must answer to the logic of the island not men.
Outside of the island section of ‘L’Avventura’, built structures dominate the locations. These buildings feed both Antonioni’s aesthetic and also the film’s subtext about the expression of power. The modernist construction of Sandro’s apartment, the new buildings in Sicily are the backdrops against which a new and more defined visible sort of power can be expressed: the coming of man the consumer giving clear and unambiguous unornamented expression to the world. The older buildings with their rococo interiors and exteriors signify a world where power is more concealed less brutally announced, more hidden, but nevertheless real.
Seen today after 70 years after ‘L”Avventura’ was made, Antonioni’s film shocks as a reminder of the debasement of women’s role in this era. There have certainly been critical changes since 1960 in the status of women. Feminist sensibility has primed both women and men to challenge the whole range of their social and economic relations. But Antonioni through his film still has something to say; something to show us. It has to do with being possessed or dominated by an externality, something that that you are not able to oppose with a voice. The consequence of this is aderangement, self obliteration. Also Antonioni shows himself to be a film maker, a director who uses film to that we may see. He doesn’t use polemic, he doesn’t preach through his characters, he simply shows us things, perhaps obliquely, giving us the space to think through what we have seen for ourselves. One piece of dialogue stays in my mind:
“I feel like I don’t know you.’
“I want what you want.”