Films with a cynical attitude towards sex are among my least favorite. When the characters prioritize sex above all else, and when the filmmakers have nothing more profound to say besides that we are primitive beings driven to sex at all costs, I check out early and I tend to stay checked out. That’s what I did watching Terms of Endearment and Y Tu Mamá También, and now, I can add another established classic to that ignominious list: Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura. Since its riotous premiere at Cannes in 1960, this film’s reputation rests on a single narrative innovation: a disappearance mystery in which the vanished, here named Anna, is not just never found, much less her fate confirmed—she’s forgotten about. Why is that? Because her boyfriend Sandro and her best friend Claudia are too eager to take advantage of her absence and consummate their own relationship. This is not the type of couple I like to invest two and a half goddamn hours of screen time in. Monica Vitti as Claudia is an emotionally dishonest performance, mainly spent reciting maudlin dialogue about how conflicted her character feels and wants to feel about bedding her friend’s man-candy in these circumstances, when the brief time between Anna’s departure and Claudia and Sandro’s first shag makes it crystal that she couldn’t care less what Anna would think, even if she did return. Gabriele Ferzetti as Sandro and Lea Massari as Anna are spoiled, suave ciphers, as vacuously clever and forgettable as most of the film they populate.
The story is peppered with hints as to what may have happened to Anna—a boat leaving the volcanic island where she was last seen, a handful of rumored sightings—but this is not to say Antonioni is trying to create the state of confusion and contradiction that all the best unsolved/unsolvable mysteries do (see Michael Haneke’s Caché). Rather, he uses these hints to tease, throw off and say fuck you to any audience members anticipating that he will tell a mystery with a routinely clear resolution when he’s more interested in telling a cheating story. Disclaimer: Going against the audience’s genre expectations is fine. Mixing and switching genres is fine. Telling a story without a neat “ending” is fine. I’ve seen films work wonders bucking these conventions, and I detest Antonioni’s contemptuous presumption that we are adapted to traditional stories and consider everything else torture. In fact, there is something very oblivious and snide about how he keeps prodding us with clues and red herrings into the back half of the film, by which point it is pretty clear that the story’s focus has strayed away from Anna to Claudio and Sandro, so why bother taking Antonioni’s bait and trying to solve this puzzle? That we will not learn about Anna’s fate thus strikes me as more predictable than innovative, even granted that the film’s fame (infamy?) has diluted its central conceit. A mystery with absolutely zero hints as to the status and whereabouts of Anna, I think, would have been much more haunting and effective. That way, we would truly know nothing, and the story could concern itself with how much time after Anna’s vanishing Claudia and Sandro feel they should wait before consummating. Instead, one gets enough of a sense from the hints that Anna is still alive and has simply abandoned Sandro and company of her own accord, in which case Sandro and Claudia aren’t really being unfaithful, so who gives a damn?
Antonioni’s belief is that we’re always on the lookout for the quickest excuses to have sex. As sexual partners—and thus as people—we are replaceable and mutable. A woman accidentally wrecks a man’s work of art, and the man uses it as an opportunity to begin foreplay with her, expressing no passion for art and no anger at the accident. Hundreds of men slowly crowd around Claudia in a public square, as if street harassment were ever that obvious and that methodical. Photographers fawn over a tear in the dress of a famous actress—even though the wardrobe malfunction reveals nothing—in what amounts to a miniature poor man’s La Dolce Vita. These scenes are glib and proud, and the philosophy behind them is fatalistic and inaccurate. There are plenty of people in this world who contemplate sex seriously, with control and hesitation, and the people who jump into sex right away on a whim are very few. That Antonioni thinks otherwise speaks to the perverted impulses that are tucked neatly behind his highbrow veneer. The best thing I can say about L’Avventura is that superficially, Aldo Scavarda’s B&W cinematography is gorgeous, and I admired Giovanni Fusco’s brooding jazz score. It’s not enough. I don’t like to call films “pretentious” because that label is usually used by nihilists who would prefer to discourage artists from art’s potential to transcend the industrial and the commercial. L’Avventura is pretentious, and if any of my favorite filmmakers have ever happened to take inspiration from its long takes and its meandering anti-narrative, then they have merely improved on Antonioni’s gross errors.