Whether you consider its title intelligently subtle or simply misleading, L'avventura (The Adventure, with a slangy innuendo equivalent to what we'd call a sexual fling) both challenged and expanded the expectations of audiences who looked to the cinema as a mirror of what goes on in ordinary human relationships. Awarded a special jury prize at Cannes for it's "remarkable contribution to the search for a new cinematic language," L'avventura clearly stood out from the pack in an era when other ambitious and talented directors were creating films destined to make a lasting impression on future generations of film lovers. Think of The 400 Blows, Breathless, and Shadows as impressive breakthrough debuts, or Peeping Tom, Pickpocket, Eyes Without a Face or Le Trou as definitive works from more experienced directors that went on to establish new ground rules across a range of genres. Psycho and La Dolce Vita, two non-Criterion films released contemporaneously, also stand out as landmarks worth including in this list of perennial benchmarks. While it may be harder to fully appreciate L'avventura's revolutionary innovations without some intentional effort to compare it to these and other films of that era, the visual and narrative spell it casts continues to exert a hold on those patient and perceptive enough for Michelangelo Antonioni's long takes and meticulous compositions sink in and alter their cinematic conscience.
As one of the most written-about and minutely analyzed films of its time, maybe even of all time, there's probably not much that I have to say that hasn't been hashed out by learned scribes more deeply versed in Antonioniana than I ever figure to be. I've been watching it over the past two weeks now, my usual blogging routine of one review per week slowing to a crawl due to the distractions of postseason baseball (I'm a big fan of the Detroit Tigers) and the usual sense of responsibility I feel whenever my work on this timeline of Criterion classics confronts me with a venerable art house milestone. I'd seen L'avventura a couple times before in years past, considered it sufficiently interesting and impressive to warrant its reputation, but it wasn't until this more recent, much closer go-round of viewing the film multiple times, with commentary and in a nice big widescreen presentation, that its majesty fully registered. My first impressions in years past focused mainly on the famous switcheroo, as the mystery of Anna's disappearance from the rocky Aeolian island disturbingly fades to irrelevance while Sandro and Claudia pursue their shallow, vain and ill-fated relationship. As sidebars to all that, we have scattered examples of the dismal pettiness of the idly self-indulgent Italian upper class, magnificent shots of timeless landscapes and impressively meaningful architecture (both classical and modern) and, of course, the lovely visage and exquisitely tousled, wind-blown blondeness of Monica Vitti. That, and the textbook course in atmospherically cool aesthetics, is the conventional surface reading of the film, and even at that level, L'avventura provides ample rewards.
Where one goes with this film from that point probably depends a lot on just how one sees its content relating to personal daily life. My reading of various reviews shows a lot of analysis that meanders into cliches about "ennui" and "alienation," as if invoking those terms provides a sufficient summary of what L'avventura is about or what Antonioni is trying to say. Perhaps there was once some merit to be found in debating those topics and how they reflect on the decline of Western social values or our ability to sincerely invest in romantic/erotic relationships. But let's face it, we've been living in a post-L'avventura world for over 50 years now, and what I find most interesting about Sandro and Claudia isn't how shallow or empty they are as negative role models but simply how emblematic they became as prototypes for future male-female relationships and the sexual currency deployed over the course of subsequent decades.
Physically, they are a gorgeous couple, impeccably dressed, irresistibly drawn to each other after the briefest period of awkward resistance on Claudia's part, in response to the abrupt disappearance of her friend and the initial shock of Sandro's unyielding advance. Undoubtedly, raw erotic attraction plays a part in their coupling, though the emphasis falls more on the male's restless eye for conquerable women - Claudia being just the latest, until the very end, though a more appropriate "steady" due to her compatible class affiliation and cleaner reputation than the attention-grabbing slut he's caught hooking up with in an empty hotel lobby. Claudia is a vivacious young woman with drives and desires of her own, some sexual, others emotional, and Sandro, as it turns out, seems to possess the qualities she's looking for, at least during the brief span of time in which we view their relationship. My pet notion about the arc that Sandro and Claudia's emotional bond will travel past the end of the film is that its ascension into a quasi-committed relationship is roughly similar to the trajectory experienced by Sandro and Anna - we just see them at the very tail end of the inevitable descent.
Does that imply then that I believe Claudia herself will eventually find herself as petulantly resentful toward Sandro, the man who "vilifies everything," as Anna came to regard him? Will she wind up pulling her own disappearing act one of these days? No, not likely. Claudia and Anna are two different women, after all, and their response to the disillusionment that a man like Sandro is bound to put them through will not be identical. Some women see the warning signs and dump the creep as quickly as they can manage, while others sense a need for them to hang in there with the weak and vulnerable man who, despite his manipulations and treachery, still requires and in some way deserves their on-going love and support.
However one might categorize the various reactions of different "types" of women to such disappointments and unavoidable wounds arising from their entanglement with such men, their mutual experience gives them a common bond. The controversies and questions touched on in L'avventura about the foundations and uncertain durability of committed male-female relationships are approached from a perspective sympathetic to then-emerging strands of feminist thought. Sandro's worm-like, childish sobbing, after he's caught in flagrante delicto on the sofa with Gloria Perkins, is such a remarkably poignant demonstration of a man's confused blend of sincere remorse and blatantly manipulative self-pity that it ought to be studied by just about any culturally literate couple that finds itself in counseling due to a crisis of infidelity by the dominant partner. Here's the clip, unfortunately in lower resolution than it deserves - get the DVD, and let's hope for a Blu-ray of this exquisitely shot film soon! - but still quite resonant as long as your fairly in touch with the two hours of "adventure" that preceded it.