L’Avventura (1960): The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Solipsist

Gabriele Ferzetti as Sandro and Monica Vitti as Claudia in Michelangelo Antonioni's "L'Avventura" (1960).

Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) begins with a benign enough premise: a group of wealthy Italians go on a boating trip and someone disappears from an island they stop on, she is searched for by her lover and her best friend. The plot seems uncomplicated and straight-forward. Antonioni, through his direction and manipulation of the film’s structure, subverts this conventional plot to expose the emotional vacancy and intense solipsism yawning beneath and through the lives of the upper class.

L’Avventura seems a complementary partner to Luis Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel (1962). Where Buñuel uses a scenario in which the upper class are sequestered together in a house and unable to leave to illustrate the falling away of their socially enforced behaviours and ideals, Antonioni gives his searchers free reign over all of Italy and employs the landscape and his own careful framing to communicate the illusory and superficial nature of their connections and facades of care. These are people who cannot transcend their own desires to truly come together; despite their wealth and social standing – and the freedom this allows – the individuals are ultimately isolated and hollow.

Anna orients the filmThe film begins with a tracking shot, following Anna (Lea Massari) as she walks toward her father; Anna is centered in the shot and the film follows this pattern even after her disappearance from the island. It is the ghost of Anna, the search for her presence, that shapes the rest of the film. That Anna is shown as isolated in the middle of the frame is also significant, as she herself, before disappearing, tells her lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) that she simply wants time to be alone, despite not being able to bear the thought of losing him.

It is Anna’s conversation with her father that foreshadows the subsequent demonstration of the deterioration of communication; he tells his daughter that he has been a diplomat for 30 years and has made a career of not telling the truth. Anna takes advantage of the relative ability of words to communicate truth when, while swimming off the island she will vanish from, she falsely claims to have seen a shark and causes everyone to swim back to the boat. Sandro, while later talking to Anna about what he can say or do to show her how he feels explicitly states, “Believe me Anna, words are becoming less and less necessary, they create misunderstandings.” Antonioni’s characters all demonstrate a mistrust of words, they lack faith in the ability of words to communicate to one another truth. Action becomes the medium through which intention and feeling is to be communicated.

Claudia and Sandro communicate in different directions.Antonioni also takes on the process of communicating his ideas through the visual aspect of his film over what the characters communicate; he often blocks his characters in frame such that their faces are angled perpendicular to one another while they speak. In essence Antonioni visually demonstrates the character’s lack of connection to one another by juxtaposing their alignment on screen. In the instances where characters speak with one another but are not at odds along the x and y axis of the frame they are often facing in the same direction, indicating that while they may be communicating towards the same goal, they are doing it without connecting to one another. In scenes where more than two people come together in communication one member of the party is often facing away from the camera, further solidifying the notion that people coming together completely as a group is impossible; the characters are too isolated in their own planes to physically share the same axis on screen. Antonioni’s use of space in this way underlines the alienation occuring between the characters even as they gesture towards connecting with one another in conversation.

Claudia watches the sun riseThat Antonioni’s script has the group go on an excursion to an island is a perfect visual explication of his metaphor for the isolation occurring in their lives. Each character is an island onto itself, set apart and disconnected from the rest of the group and the world; the group are also collectively isolated as the upper class as well,  insulated from the rest of the world by their wealth, marooned on an opulent social island. Antonioni also utilizes the visual landscape and space of the island to emphasize the alienation and isolation of his characters; the horizon lines involving the island are often skewed higher or lower in Antonioni’s shot, having the effect of either minimizing the characters against the expanse of the sea and sky or showing the character dwarfed by the barren and looming landscape of the island itself. In both instances the human aspect is shown to be small in relation to the natural world.

The theme of the characters having a tenuous relationship to history recurs throughout the film. While looking for Anna the group discovers an old vase under the ground which is promptly dropped and smashed by Raimond0 (Lelio Luttazzi) who expresses little concern for having destroyed a relic of the past. Later in the film, while looking at the architecture of a town, Sandro – who works speculating about the potential costs of a building – tells Claudia, “Who needs beautiful things nowadays, Claudia. How long will they last?” Where buildings were once designed to persist in time, now they are built to last an ever decreasing amount of time. Sandro’s professional life deals in quantifying and valuating the construction of buildings, but he has little time to design something beautiful. Indeed, later when he sees a sketch of an arch and its ornate carvings, Sandro purposely spills ink over the sketch, ruining it and demonstrating his own jealousy, being unable to create beauty himself.

Following Anna’s disappearance Sandro and her best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) set about searching for her across Italy. Before the group properly depart the island, in keeping with the irreverent attitude towards history,  Sandro has already kissed Claudia, Anna less than a day disappeared. Claudia resists Sandro’s intensely self-centered advance here, running away and later rejecting him on a train before returning back to the Italian upper class while Sandro attempts to track Anna down via rumours and newspaper reports.

Claudia regards herselfWhile Claudia is with the rest of the group at Corrado’s (James Addams) villa she is recruited by Giulia (Dominique Blanchar) to view a young royal’s paintings. Here Antonioni stages his maybe his most direct association between sex and the isolation of the individual. Guilia, wooed by the young man, finds herself in his embrace among his paintings, all of nude women; sex, the only consistent motivating factor among these bored upper class people, is shown to be generated among the representation of the other, an idealized and superficial portrait of the eroticized female form. Sex, for these people, is not an act between two people but between one person and the superficial representation of the other explicated by the artwork; in their alienated and isolated states even physical connection and intercourse is removed to an abstract interaction. The refraction of the individual, conscious of this, is represented by Antonioni’s repeated use of mirrors within his bedroom sets; Anna and Claudia both find themselves transfixed by their reflections, at once reinforcing their solipsism and their de-personalization.

Following this Claudia returns to Sandro and they continue to look for Anna, less because they hope to find her than to give the impression that they are doing what is expected of them. Claudia eventually relents to Sandro’s advances but not before the pair look for Anna in a hotel which they find completely empty, save for the echoes of Claudia’s voice as she shouts in through a window. Here, as before with Sandro’s assessment of the impermanence of buildings, the architecture takes on a representative level for the characters; the hotel, which once housed people, is empty and vacant now. If the building to to represent the relationships between people its vacancy gestures towards the impermanence of relations and, indeed, their commodified interchangeability; one tenant in a hotel is replaced by the next as nonchalantly as Sandro has moved from his infatuation with Anna to his infatuation with Claudia.

Sandro and Claudia eventually meet up with Patrizia (Esmerelda Ruspoli) and her husband – and Sandro’s employer – Ettore (Prof. Cucco) at a villa. The two get a room together and after falling asleep on clothes – demonstrating her absolute comfort with superficial ornament – Claudia retires to bed and Sandro gets dressed to socialize. Claudia wait sleeplessly for Sandro to return and when he does not she exits her room, near dawn, to look for him. She finds him on a couch kissing a beautiful young woman writer who was seen earlier in the film at the centre of a throng of frenzied admirers. Claudia exits and Sandro follows her, tossing money on the couch when the young woman asks for a souvenir to remember him by. This act by Sandro solidifies the relationship between his speculative real-estate business and his approach to sex and women: in both cases the structure is commodified and depersonalized, sex is as much a business transaction as projecting the cost of a school or church.

Sandro and Claudia at dawnSandro finds Claudia overlooking the ocean and sits, both of them pale in the new light of dawn. The pair first came together looking for Anna in the light of dawn on the island and the film ends with them together again in dawn, the ocean and an island in the distance insinuating itself into their lives, the journey closed, Anna still unfound.

By structuring the film without a resolution to the driving force of the plot Antonioni runs the risk of frustrating the conventional expectations of some viewers who would desire a resolution to the search for Anna. However, by not providing a clean resolution to the film Antonioni makes the film structurally adequate to the lives of his characters more than if some goal had been achieved. The solipsistic lives of the characters themselves lack any particular telos beyond their own immediate and transitory gratification; there is no destination for the characters other than themselves. L’Avventura expresses the particularly insular and directionless nature of its characters in its structure as well as its content, refusing to give the viewer a sense of closure unavailable to the alienated characters that it contains.

The fastidiousness with which Antonioni structures and shoots L’Avventura is pain-staking; each element of the plot and each shot serves to underscore the isolation of these characters from one another and, in many cases, from themselves. Each character is, in their own way, removing from the world in ways less literal than Anna’s complete and unsolvable disappearance; they recede into their own minds and selfish motivations. In the end the only acceptance is a small gesture, a hand on the back of a head after an indiscretion when Claudia has seen the truth of Sandro and the impermanence of his fidelity, a gesture that denotes that yes, we are alone with ourselves, but we are alone together.

3 Responses to “L’Avventura (1960): The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Solipsist”
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  1. […] in Antonioni’s trilogy of modern alienation and anomie (my review of L’Avventura is here) finds him again exploring the passionless and transitory nature of interpersonal relationships. […]

  2. […] of modern society on the ability of the individuals to connect in meaningful ways – films such as L’avventura and L’eclisse – deployed the lines and shadows of architecture, or its absence, to […]

  3. […] the element of Michelangelo Antonioni’s early 60s work – also L’Avventura and L’Eclisse – that strikes me most is the elegant manner that his films depict this […]

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