The Price of Mastering Ennui
This is the third post in my Blindspot review series. I will be publishing one like it each month for the rest of 2015.
Despite its elevated cultural status, I found Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura rather boring. The phenomenon of the dull art film is hardly a rarity – I’m sure we can all think of a title whose aesthetic achievements arrive at the cost of viewer enjoyment – but Antonioni’s critique of upper-class malaise is unique in that its slow, monotonous quality is intentional and thematically relevant. In this I am reminded of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere and David Michôd’s The Rover, two movies that subsume their characters’ sense of indirection into the storytelling, crafting cinematic projects that are simultaneously rich with artistic vision and often quite tedious to watch. Turns out, Antonioni had mastered this style half a century earlier.
On paper, the concept is stellar: An Agatha Christie-esque missing persons plot point that leads us astray before the movie’s true focal point is revealed: the spiritual vacuum that is Italian high society in the mid-twentieth century. The film’s entire production critiques this lifestyle by embodying the ennui as its own. The lethargic, two-and-a-half hour pace keeps in step with the characters’ restless indirection; the tinny, overtly trivial dialogue functions to mock the speech patterns of the social elite; the static quality of the narrative mimics lives that might as well be stillborn. You could comb through L’Avventura frame by frame and find masterful moments of filmmaking, but for me, the experience of watching the movie was less fulfilling. As a viewer, I felt that all those carefully calibrated, meticulously imagined cinematic details were too perfect an evocation of the listlessness of the film’s characters, to the point where the film itself felt dull and lifeless. Perhaps the movie makes a statement by having us feel what its characters feel. The problem is, I was too bored to care very much about any of it.
I’m not sure if there’s a formula for successfully embodying dullness without being dull yourself (one example that comes to mind is Edward Yang’s The Terrorizers, but this case is somewhat different, as the film’s navigation of three different subplots generates tension by harnessing our desire to see how they will or won’t intersect). Maybe embodying isn’t the answer in this case, at least not a total embodiment. Then again, maybe L’Avventura is the kind of movie you can only appreciate after the fact, like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Maybe Antonioni’s film is the aloof cousin of the Scorsese mob picture that takes you on a rollercoaster of vice-filled fun with its characters only to ultimately implicate our enjoyment through their downfall. In many ways, the Antonioni formula is much the same as Scorsese’s – criticism by way of viewer identification. But whereas Scorsese’s pictures, while not necessarily better, are full of robust storytelling and the dangerous, thrilling dialectic between satire and glorification, Antonioni offers little in terms of experience except a one-note emotional deadzone. Scorsese allows us to get pulled in before distancing us by exposing the hazardous reality of his characters’ lifestyles. Antonioni offers little outside of emotional gulfs, spiritual deserts, and all-consuming alienation – both between the characters themselves and between us and the film.
Once again, this discrepancy is reflective of the films’ psychological alignment with two very different kinds of characters: shameless hedonists in Scorsese’s case, disillusioned hedonists in Antonioni’s. Take away the initial thrill of the unsuppressed id and you’re left with vacant gestures and a frozen soul. In conjuring this reality, Antonioni has undoubtedly engineered quite the compelling film, and as I am writing this, I can’t help but wonder whether my words are too harsh, too prematurely judgmental. Indeed, on a purely cinematic level, L’Avventura achieves multitudes. Its atmosphere of disquiet, for instance, or the luminous performance by Monica Vitti, who unites restraint with melodrama. Most stunning of all is Aldo Scavarda’s cinematography, which at points manages to feel both claustrophobic and agoraphobic, by turns trapping the characters amid the objects of their own materialistic environment and framing them within vast, open spaces that evoke their loneliness. And yet, although my brain was alert to the movie’s skill, my heart was numb. Only time and repeated viewings will tell how I negotiate the relationship between appreciating the film and failing to enjoy it. All I know is I really, really wanted to like L’Avventura, but for now, I think I’ve had my fill of the weary dreary world of Antonioni’s paradoxically good-bad masterpiece.