Film Review: “L’Avventura”


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.

Grade: D+

Film Review: “L’Avventura”

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Four: “The Old Gringo” by Carlos Fuentes


Representative excerpt: “Harriet dancing this night with her ramrod-straight, decorated, brave father at a soirée welcoming the heroes of Cuba, tricolor rosettes on the bosoms of all the women, WELCOME HOME HEROES OF SAN JUAN HILL, her uniformed father, with stiff mustaches and hair smelling of cologne, proud of his slender daughter in her whirl of taffeta, Captain Winslow with a slightly different scent, and she, burying her nose in her father’s scent, smelling the city of Washington there, that false Acropolis of marble and domes and columns sunk in the wet mud of a pernicious tropics that dared not say its name: a Southern suffocation, a jungle of marble like a grandiose and empty cemetery, the temples of justice and the government sinking into an equatorial, devouring, spreading tangle of undergrowth: a vegetal cancer rooted in the foundations of Washington, a city moist as the crotch of an aroused Negress: Harriet buried her nose in Tomás Arroyo’s neck and smelled a Negress’s swollen, velvety sex: Captain Winslow, I am very lonely, you may have me at your pleasure.” (pp. 109-10, trans. Carlos Fuentes and Margaret Sayers Peden)

Carlos Fuentes’ Old Gringo is a journalist and minor author who arrives in Mexico in 1913 and shacks up with Pancho Villa’s army with the intent of committing suicide by Mexican Revolution. He is modeled on Ambrose Bierce, who may have succeeded in euthanizing himself in such a way—but we cannot confirm that because he vanished, so it is natural for authors like Fuentes to fill in the story’s gaps with legend, not unlike the composers who’ve tried to finish Mozart’s Requiem. The Old Gringo is banked on the allure of an unsolvable mystery—on “what might have happened” serving as a nourishing aesthetic substitute for the unknown “what happened”—but that mystery is far from Fuentes’ only concern. In fact, most of the novel’s midsection is devoted to the sexual liaison that American tutor Harriet Winslow enacts with rebel general Tomás Arroyo to keep Bierce safe, once it becomes clear that Bierce—a paternal figure for Harriet—is challenging Arroyo’s authority. The characters spend much of that liaison flashing back to the traumatic events that define them and their relationships with their homelands, and many of the resulting flashbacks deal with sex, abusive parents, Oedipal crap, a scary cellar, and other psycho-mumbo-jumbo. So you see, I’m skeptical. This isn’t because I feel misled by a title and back cover blurb promising a story about Bierce—it’s hardly fair to force an author to conform to all your expectations—but rather, it’s because I’d hoped an author of Fuentes’ stature was above Paddy Chayefsky’s rubber ducky exposition: “Someone once took his rubber ducky away from him, and that’s why he’s a deranged killer.” Bierce specialized in short stories, poetry and adages, so it’s appropriate for Fuentes to work in a calculatedly incoherent, unfocused fashion, and there is some insightful poetic waxing on the sociopolitical ties between the U.S. and Mexico, as well as between the human body and its landscape, and on Bierce’s curious links to W.R. Hearst. This is a novel of and about substitutions—of myth for history, of surrogates for biological parents and children, of new regimes for old ones, of propaganda for fact, of oral culture for written language. All is mutable. The cognitive impulse to fill in our vacancies and wounds is a natural and potent one. It’s frustrating when Fuentes resorts to the usual trite Freudian psycho-babble to meet that end, but when he is dissecting the constant exchanges of people and territory between his home nation and its imperialist northern neighbor, and when he is actually getting to the heart and soul of the Ambrose Bierce mystery, there is a plenitude of profound moments.

Grade: B

Next week: Another tale of a life-and-death struggle in the middle of nowhere, this time in Tasmania: Nobel winner Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves.

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Four: “The Old Gringo” by Carlos Fuentes