Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.
This week, they try to understand Michelangelo Antonioni‘s L’Avventura in terms of the Hitchcockian legacy that even Alfred Hitchcock himself was defying by 1960.
In the #21 (tied) movie on the list, a group of sophisticate hedonists set sail, but one of them doesn’t come back. Cutting through the passion and hunt for meaning, a lady vanishes, and the world moves on.
But why is it one of the best movies ever?
Landon: So after being booed at and disliked to such an extent that Michaelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti had to flee the theater upon its Cannes premiere in 1960, the festival jury decided to give L’Avventura an award for, in so many words, establishing a new language of cinema. My first question is, why did Cannes have to invent an award for this film? What is this new language?
I thought I’d start off with something light.
Scott: Excellent, I’ll stay surface level by proclaiming that L’Avventura is the anti-Hitchcock. That’s also my answer to your question.
I’m not sure exactly why Cannes had to invent a new award (either because noted something special about the film or believed that a movie that aggressively received had done something worth noting), but it’s not hard to understand the reaction.
Landon: 1960 was a big year for a lot of movies: Breathless, La Dolce Vita, this, and your man Hitch’s Psycho. All of them were shocking to a certain degree. But in a few ways this film really surprised audiences. Was the anti-Hitchcockian nature of this film part of that?
Scott: Yes, but it also rejected three decades (or so) of Hitchcockian storytelling. In many ways it feels similar, and it’s actually a really easy movie to watch, but it’s also really frustrating on a psychological level. Where Hitchcock built a career on exotic locales, mysterious happening, handsome people and trains, Antonioni has all of those elements but refuses to build any internal tension. He also commits a cardinal sin of refusing to deliver any resolution (dead mom in the basement-style or otherwise).
Landon: Interesting. I never viewed it as having all those elements in play. L’Avventura even has a European version of Hitchcock’s blonde leading lady. And even outside American filmmaking, Cannes audiences may have expected a European thriller like Polanski’s Knife in the Water, which was a thriller on a boat released three years earlier.
What they got instead was an existential search for non-meaning.
Scott: And it feels even more irritating because the movie is put together so beautifully. Lesser movies might have felt unnatural, but the characters here seem realistic. Horrible. But realistic.
Landon: Yes, and the character study aspect of this film seems to preview what’s going to happen (or rather, what’s not going to happen), as we only get to know these characters better because Antonioni is not interested in using elements that propel the plot forward as the primary justification for what we see. Instead, we get these long, drawn-out conversations between Claudia and Anna that don’t serve “the story,” but do create a palpable sense of the world these characters inhabit.
Then when Anna disappears, you really feel that her presence is gone.
Scott: And by another happy accident, Antonioni gets rid of his main female character around the same time that Hitchcock does in Psycho. But that aside, there are a ton of Hitchcockian elements in this film — like a chef using the same ingredients, but instead of cooking a lasagna, he cooks a rolltop desk.
Landon: Hitchcock was a master of that rule of drama Chekhov used: if you introduce a gun in the first act, it has to go off by the third. What we have here is a gun that decidedly never goes off.
It’s deliberately frustrating. It’s hard to imagine any reaction other than what this film initially received at Cannes. But it’s also audacious, even brilliant.
Scott: Plus, Antonioni didn’t even make a cameo. What’s that about?! He clearly didn’t know how to be a director.
Landon: He also forgot to say “cut” during all those scenes with the characters just fartin’ around!
But what’s the end game here? Is this some pre-Michael Haneke attempt at prodding an audience, or does Antonioni seem to be doing something with our inevitable frustration?
Scott: I legitimately have no idea. I’ve never read an interview where he talks about intention. And from the film itself, it could be read either way. Especially considering that 1960 seemed to be this breaking point for filmmakers — even Hitchcock — who were tired of doing things the same way all the time.
Hell, Psycho itself is anti-Hitchcockian in a lot of ways. And watching some of the broad, silly performances from his past underscore how transformative it was. 1958-1960 might have been a cosmic moment where seasoned and young filmmakers tapped into the same ennui…
Landon: That’s a good point – that there’s something important about the “new language” being something simply marked by difference from what filmmakers have done and what audiences have expected in the past. This quiet movie, no matter what it adds up to in the end, is a daring and stark departure from the norms of narrative filmmaking. The frustration isn’t only with the situation depicted, but perhaps a stagnant place of filmmaking itself that Antonioni was trying to tear himself, and others, out of.
Scott: But at the same time, it reminded me a lot of The Rules of the Game. High stakes, plot inertia and a climax with a clever shrug.
And, wait. Didn’t people throw chairs when that played?
Landon: There were riots around Rules of the Game. I’m starting to think that that’s just how people used to watch movies.
Scott: Seriously. Maybe cinema is more like soccer in Europe. Bad result = riot. Good result = riot.
Landon: But maybe that’s part of it. Between the bourgeois characters and the Hitchcockian elements, this, despite its deliberate pacing, at least initially resembles a typical film of the time. It’s not like Antonioni went full avant-garde. It’s his use of familiar and unfamiliar elements that’s pretty brilliant here. And it’s hardly a cheap provocation.
Scott: And that’s my personal beef. If someone makes something completely avant-garde, it can often be celebrated because people don’t fully understand it but want to appear cultured or smart. Here, Antonioni has made a gorgeous film that plays greatly by the rules while proving he knows them well enough to subvert them, and people got angry.
Both the short term disdain and the long term success make sense.
Landon: What’s important here in those terms is that, even though this is the film that put Antonioni on the map, L’Avventura was hardly his first film. It was his sixth (which surprised me, as I know nothing of his career before this). But if he attempted to make a film like this first go-round, it would have ended his career: the terrible shooting conditions would have killed the film, or even if he completed it, he may not have been subsequently praised.
Scott: Unless he made it in 1934…
Landon: Haha, yes, there is a bit of Vigo here too, but I think I speak for both of us when I say I prefer this boat ride.
And seriously, these shooting conditions were Apocalypse Now-level bad. Cast and crew slept on the island without pay, were sometimes stranded for days without food. The angst people must have felt during shooting seems to have worked in the film’s favor.
Scott: Wow. I didn’t realize that. It’s funny how sometimes the general mood of a production works its way into the finished story.
Hard to imagine a tortured crew making something like Ace Ventura. And speaking of which, you should congratulate me on resisting the urge to make the L’Avventura: Pet Detective joke thus far.
Landon: Congratulations for not making that joke. I’m glad our readers will never have to read you making that joke,
Scott: But the ultimate question is this. If this is truly anti-Hitchcock, (and despite the angry Cannes reaction) how is it that both anti-Hitch and Hitch had films in 1960 that rose to incredible prominence? Were they both tapping into something? Is there room in this one-horse town for both of them?
Landon: This could be a good question to visit further when we get to Psycho (I just realized that all 4 1960 films I mentioned are on this list), but I think so. There’s been plenty of writing done about L’Avventura as an exploration of the crisis of modern life, how it represents characters who no longer see value in monogamy or sentiment. Something similar could be said about Psycho in that a person’s identity is no longer their own. But ultimately, I see two directors (one a veteran, the other a rising star) who were simply no longer satisfied with the status quo of filmmaking, with attending to audience expectations, with supposed rules. One wanted to subvert the rules of Hollywood, the other of European art cinema. That they both pulled it off in the same year, with pretty different styles (despite both getting rid of a main character early on), is astonishing.
I think we tend to suppose that film history moves slowly, that changes happen eventually. But sometimes change happens very quickly. And 1960 is one of the years in which that happened.
Scott: Very well said. Is there anything else unusual about this film’s success?
Landon: There’s at least one more thing: this movie, after being booed at Cannes, ended up on the Sight & Sound list two years later. Since the most recent movies on the current list are more than 10 years old, there’s definitely no equivalent of that (which is, in part, because this list can be really predictable). But I guess people knew they had seen something unique.
Let’s wrap up this way: Where do you think Anna ended up?
Scott: Clearly she changed her last name to Smith, posed for Playboy and led an otherwise tragic life fueled by a shared addiction between her and her public.
Landon: Too bad Antonioni never got to that sequel.
Scott: L’Avventura 2: When Nature Calls?
Landon: Okay. I’m going on a boat ride and never coming back.