As a general rule, I don’t like commentary tracks. I have only listened to a few of them, and I always feel that I would rather come to my own opinions as I watch a film, as opposed to being guided by someone else. In the case of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 masterwork L’Avventura, however, I was willing to accept some help. L’Avventura is a brilliant, seminal film, but it is not one that yields its secrets easily. My first viewing of the Criterion edition of the film certainly established in me the realization that I was looking at a masterpiece, but there was always a niggling part of me that wondered if I was really fully able to appreciate it. Hence, my exploration of the film via the accompanying Gene Youngblood commentary track.
Youngblood was a LA critic, journalist and academic who was instrumental in championing independent film, and his great 1973 book Expanding Cinema, was at the vanguard of the idea of film as high art. Youngblood was at heart a movie geek, albeit one with irons in a lot of other fires. As such, he was the perfect man to tackle the beautiful enigma that is L’Avventura. Listen to his commentary track, and you will be gobsmacked by the breadth of detail and insight into this most elusive of cinematic masterpieces.
The first image we see in L’Avventura is of the mysterious Anna (Lea Massari) emerging from her opulent home, looking a bit dismayed and troubled. As she stops to talk to her father (Renzo Ricci), Youngblood touches on one of the central themes of the film laid out early for us; the juxtaposition of the old and the new – Classic beauty vs. sterile modernity. As they speak, we see a classic Roman dome to her right - To his left, a modern apartment block. The contrast is jarring, and gives a good taste into the detail that LÀvventura contains. The film is crammed full of stuff, and Youngblood sees all of it.
At the heart of most of Antonioni`s work was the upper-class character who is suffering from a spiritual malaise. His films are shot through with people who, on the surface, have everything, but are nonetheless unhappy and unfulfilled. Anna could be the exemplar for this notion. She is scheduled to go on a boating trip with her friend Claudia (Monica Vitti), and her lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), but there is a strange melancholy about her. As they two women arrive at Sandro`s house, Anna hints that she is ready to break things off with him. Then, when she first sees Sandro, she initiates a sexual encounter.
Listen to the insights that Youngblood brings to this scene. It`s telling that the first thing that Anna does when she enters Sandro`s room is to go and open the window. – She is creating an emotional escape route. He also brings attention to the way the sex scene is filmed – In close-up, with the two lovers in the bottom of the screen, and partially hidden in the fame. From Annas face, it`s easy to intuit that she is bringing no passion to the process -It`s sex by rote. The peculiar way in which Antonioni shoots this scene thus has the effect of casting the sex in a stunted, sickly light. It`s not two people on fire for one another; rather it`s two people just going through the motions.
There is a tiny scene on the boat ride where Anna and Claudia seem to be flirting with one another. Youngblood makes the point that many critics have interpreted Anna as being a lesbian, and that her melancholy may be rooted in sexual confusion. There is no denying that that element is hinted at here, because it is literally the only time in the film where Anna displays any warmth or playfulness, but Antonioni doesn`t explore it beyond a few seconds. It is just another part of the mystery.
I`ve always thought that one of the touches of genius about the making of L`Avventura was the selection or Lipari Island near Sicily as the harsh lump of rock that hosts the central events of the film. Right from the first time we lay eyes on Anna, we know there is something eating at her, and when the party arrives on the island, that feeling of unease and discomfort gets nudged up even more. There isn’t a comforting or smooth surface anywhere on this island. It’s the perfect setting to illustrate this story of dissatisfied, morose people.
Youngblood pays particular attention to the final scene in which we see Anna. She and Sandro find a spot alone together and she tries to make him understand her unhappiness. As the two lovers talk around their problems, Antonioni shows another couple from the party in the distance. Youngblood is prescient in seeing how the director uses this second couple to subtly point up the short comings of Sandro and Anna. Youngblood points up Antonioni`s habit of having characters in turmoil turn away from one another, and does it beautifully in this sequence. At one point, Sandro turns away in exasperation and throws a stone into the ocean. The scene ultimately dissolves into a shot of a small boat putting off in the distance, and Youngblood, who greatly admires the scene and the dissolve offers that "We just know that Anna is gone".
Gone she is, and L’Avventura then gets down to the real meat of the film, which is what her lover and her best friend do after she is gone. Anna has only been missing for a few hours, at best, when Sandro approaches Claudia on the boat, and kisses her. Shocked, she leaves immediately. Listen to Youngblood describe the scene immediately following this encounter, as the camera observes from the boat as Claudia gets off. Up until now, the camera has been stable, but at this juncture, Antonioni and cinematographer Aldo Scarvarda let the camera follow the rocking of the boat, underscoring Claudia’s confusion at what has just happened. It’s a brilliant little bit of filmmaking, and it’s one of the ways in which Antonioni nudges the viewer in this ostensibly impenetrable film.
Youngblood is well versed in cinematic technique, and specifically in Antonioni’s techniques, but he is also a wellspring of knowledge about the making of the film. Through the narration we hear about how the production ran out of money partway through, and the cast and crew were stranded on this barren island with no food for three days. He also tells a story about Massari’s falling ill due to extended time spent in the frigid water of the Mediterranean, and how she ended up in hospital in a coma for several days.
I have always been fascinated by Monica Vitti. Antonioni’s favorite female muse was a great beauty, albeit not a classic one. With her impossibly thick blond hair, somewhat flat features, and full lips, she had an utterly unique sexual quality that combined shyness and reticence with a calm inner strength. L’Avventure is Claudia’s movie; the action all is funneled through her, and she is the fulcrum against which the other main character, Sandro, works. As such, I think this is one of the greatest performances in the cinema. When I watch L’Avventura, I am always struck by the way that she and her director use that exquisite face. Vitti’s eyes are liquid, and incredibly expressive. In the scene in the cabin with Anna, they betray timidity, but also sexy playfulness. When Sandro makes his first move towards her, they contain lust tempered with confusion and guilty panic. It’s like she is saying “I shouldn’t be feeling what I am feeling”. Truly, Vitti is the anchor of this movie.
At the top of this commentary I mentioned Antonioni’s juxtaposition of the modern and the medieval. It’s interesting to note a sequence immediately after Claudio and Sandro leave the island, and set out by car on their quest. They pull into what seems to be a deserted town, and the contrast between the rocky island, and the clean sterile lines of architecture is striking, but then you stop and realize that in both cases, Antonioni has placed his characters in barren spaces by themselves. As emotional cues, the rocks and the smooth stucco are one and the same.
When the movie leaves the island, it in effect leaves Anna as well. Although Sandro and Claudia will speak of her, it’s clear that she is no longer important to them. It’s interesting that in the immediate aftermath of the disappearance, the two characters seem to be almost paying lip service to the hunt for the missing woman. Sandro approaches a journalist with the idea of publishing a phony story stating that Anna has been seen. Why do that? It seems like it’s just a ploy to get Claudia back together with him. It’s also instructive to watch Sandro in a scene where a sexy prostitute (Dorothy De Poliolo) comes to town and is ogled by everyone. Having a lover vanish, and starting to make moves on her best friend after only a few hours doesn’t seem to faze this guy. He is still on the hunt, and this particular quarry will show up again, and at a crucial juncture. As Youngblood notes, this is one of the first times we really start to see the scope of Sandro’s self-absorption.
My favorite sequence in L’Avventura revolves around Sandro. At one point he wanders into a courtyard where he sees an architectural drawing that a young man has been working on. Sandro studies it for a few seconds, and then intentionally destroys it. Why does he do this? Sandro is an architect, and has gotten rich through it, but this simple drawing, done by a person with no other motivation than the appreciation of beauty strikes a nerve. Whatever passion he once had for the art has long since withered, and this simple sketch reminds him that he is an empty husk. That’s why he needs to ruin it. When the young man wants to fight him over it, it’s an extra pinch of salt in the wound, because there’s really nothing that Sandro would fight for.
I admire how Antonioni is content to have his characters spent so much time alone, even when they are with one another. There are only a couple of instances in L’Avventura where there is any kind of hubbub of people, and they all have the paradoxical effect of concentrating our attention. The crown around the prostitute gathers our attention on her, of course, but it also calls attention to Sandro. That scene is mirrored later in the film in a scene where Claudia is suddenly surrounded by scores of leering men (Which Youngblood considers to be somewhat of a fantasy sequence). The final “party” occurs late in the film, and it flips directly from raucous to somber. And it leads directly to Claudia’s discovery of Sandro’s final, selfish betrayal.
Youngbloods’ commentary over the final minutes of L’Avventura is razor sharp, as he describes Claudias escape, and how the broken Sandro tries to go after her. Youngblood notes how after the initial shock, Claudia pulls herself together, essentially becoming a full person. As she approaches Sandro, she hesitates, and then gently strokes his head. Youngblood says that this gesture doesn’t necessarily mean that she still loves him or is going to take him back. Rather, it means that she forgives and pities him.
Thus, L’Avventura ends not on a big flourish, but on an exquisite scene of quiet acceptance. We don’t know where these characters are going next or what is going to happen to them. Probably, they don’t either. If this film is about something, it’s about how we can’t live just for ourselves, because that path leads to oblivion. That is the message in those rugged rocks, that spilled ink, and in the marvelous eyes of Monica Vitti.