Discovering Carl Dreyer helped to broaden my horizons a bit – I found myself enjoying films like Michael and Gertrud in ways I hadn’t experienced before. (I’ve had a similar revelation in the last couple of years while getting into Rivette. When there are no more of these discoveries to be made, I’ll know it’s time to die.) So I borrowed L’avventura from my university’s library, and watched it on a tiny CRT set while laid out with a bad back and suffering from depression. It turned out to be the perfect way to experience this film for the first time!
From the beginning, I was drawn in by the unassuming beauty of Antonioni’s images, not just the individual compositions but the way they flowed into each other. He’s a master of imbuing images, sounds, and later on colours, with a rhythm and dynamism. It’s sometimes said that every frame in his films could work well in its own right as a still photograph, which is true, but that frame would also lose most of the power it had in its original context. When it came to the sequence where we see the characters spreading out over the island in search of Anna, I was practically gasping in wonder – not just at the sheer aesthetic beauty of the images, but also at the emotional depths contained in them. Not to get too maudlin, but loneliness has always been the dominant factor in my experience of life – especially the kind where you become most deeply aware of solitude while in the company of people you’re supposed to feel connected to – and those shots of the island seemed to express something about the loneliness of the human condition that I had never seen expressed before, and that could never be expressed in words. There are lots of moments like that in the film: I think of Sandro running to leap onto the train, and then that long desolate station he gets off at a few minutes later; or that creepy deserted town he and Claudia visit, and that famous dolly shot through the alley towards the church as they drive away; the disorienting close-ups of couples making love, first Anna and Sandro, then Claudia and Sandro. When I saw Blow-Up for the first time, I had a similar reaction to the shots of David Hemmings creeping between the trees in the park as he photographed Vanessa Redgrave. In a scene apparently drained of any emotional resonance, those high-angle shots were weirdly moving. It was as if some previously hidden truth about how people fail to connect with each other had been captured on film. I’ve loved films all my life, but I never knew they could do this kind of thing.
If you described moments like these, or the use of the trees in the final scene of La notte, to someone who hadn’t seen the films, they would sound ham-fistedly symbolic, but again there is something very unassuming about the way Antonioni composes these images. Bergman used to plan his camera placements the night before shooting, and then discuss them in detail with his cinematographer in the morning. Antonioni would deliberately not think about the scene in advance, arrive on the set in the morning and just spend time there on his own for half an hour, getting a feel for the place, and then compose his shots in a careful but largely instinctive way. I was kind of surprised to learn how much, by his own account anyway, Antonioni worked from ‘gut feeling’ when putting together these seemingly studied compositions, but it also helped to explain why these images had had such an emotional impact on me, in a way that Bergman’s – for all that I adore his films and find them very beautiful – had not.
I’d never heard about how good Antonioni was at observing people and relationships, or about how good the acting was in his films (at least at this point in his career). The world of L’avventura, and the relations between the people and objects in it, feel richly and carefully crafted, but at the same time profoundly authentic (however ‘heightened’ they may be at times), in a way that I would compare to William Wyler. Like Antonioni’s, Wyler’s films can sometimes seem cold at first glance, but the more attention you pay them, the more deeply rewarding they become, until even a very quiet, inconsequential moment between two characters becomes enormously powerful. When you watch Anna with Claudia, Sandro with Anna, and later Claudia with Sandro, you can feel how much work has been invested into getting these interactions right. It’s easy to criticise Antonioni for ‘over-directing’ actors and treating them like objects to be moved around the frame, but this process is only de-humanising when it’s appropriate for it to be so. As domino says, the film is exploring recognisably human anxieties (including anxieties about being de-humanised), and Antonioni can afford to be this controlling because he understands these anxieties deeply. He just knows, miraculously, how to embody them through a story, through images, and through the movements of the actors.
Knives’ comparison with Bergman above is very interesting, and in many ways I agree – yes, Bergman’s films feel nakedly egocentric / autobiographical much of the time, unflinching in their exploration of intense emotions. And yes, Antonioni is often a kind of ‘archaeologist’ when it comes to these same emotions. Mr Sausage’s Dante/Shakespeare comparison is very apt. But as with those two authors, I feel like the more ‘detached’ one is also the less ‘cerebral’ in some ways, and better at actually eliciting an emotional response from his audience. Bergman’s characters talk and talk and talk, and the talk is wonderful if you can keep up with it, but I think this is part of what stops me from feeling deeply moved by most of Bergman’s films. They make me think about emotions and relationships, and other themes that also concern Antonioni, like perception, reality, creativity, truth and so on. But Antonioni makes me feel something about these issues first and foremost; the thinking tends to come afterwards. His characters are not so talkative, nor so articulate, and in a way are therefore more recognisably human. I know lots of people who are a bit like them – I know none at all who are like the characters in Bergman (though I sort of wish I did).
Consider two similar moments (some very oblique spoilers for Winter Light and Red Desert here):
While we’re on the subject of Bergman, it’s worth mentioning that he wasn’t always so negative about L’avventura. In one interview – I think it’s on Criterion’s Persona release – he talks about the necessity, for an artist, of having something to say. If you have nothing to say, don’t try and invent something; if you do have something to say, do anything necessary in order to say it. He cites the example of L’avventura, refers to the incredible difficulties Antonioni had in getting it made, but speaks admiringly of the end result, which expresses what its maker intended. I think that’s the same interview where he says he would usually rather watch a James Bond film than Antonioni, but still...