Criterion Sunday 98: L’avventura (1960)

Like a lot of filmmakers favoured by the Criterion Collection, Italian modernist auteur Michelangelo Antonioni has been through his critical ups and downs, but I think his minimalist dramatic style makes him more apt for modern reassessment than the carnivalesque spirit of his compatriot Fellini. For a long time, L’avventura was his quintessential work, and looking back on it around 55 years on, its shimmering monochrome has held up well. It still resists easy enjoyment though, primarily due to its still-radical narrative aporia (though perhaps less controversial than it was upon its release): not unlike the same year’s Psycho, it builds up a central character for the first half hour (in this case, Lea Massari’s Anna), only to have her disappear suddenly from the narrative. Antonioni doesn’t appear interested in why she disappears — it’s more of a narrative device than anything else — but in the way the remaining characters, Anna’s boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti), react to her disappearance and find solace in one another. I readily admit, though, that this is a simplistic assessment of the way things progress; this is no grand romance, so much as part of a game played by the bored bourgeois upper classes, reminiscent of the dissipated world of Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley (another almost contemporary story in its original form). In this sense, a character disappearing seems more like a statement of feelings (lost, disconnected from her friends), than a tragedy to be solved. Much of the emotional turmoil is rehearsed not through words but via formal means, using the carefully-controlled mise en scène, framing characters against landscapes and buildings, while others leave or re-enter the frame in a sort of choreography of passion. It’s wonderfully strange stuff, and is undoubtedly one of the finer and more classically-balanced achievements of a cinema starting to become obsessed instead (via various New Waves) with the energy and brashness of youth.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the commentary, there’s a 25 minute piece with Olivier Assayas gushing over the film, excitedly throwing out ideas in a quintessentially French way, illustrated with clips from the film. It’s quite informative and does suggest ways into what is a notoriously opaque and difficult film. There are also a couple of essays by Antonioni, one about the film and one about acting, which are read by Jack Nicholson, who also contributes his thoughts about working with him.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michelangelo Antonioni | Writers Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini and Tonino Guerra | Cinematographer Aldo Scavarda | Starring Monica Vitti, Gabriele Ferzetti, Lea Massari | Length 143 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 8 May 2016 (and previously on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, April 1998)

Advertisements

Zabriskie Point (1970)

RE-RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 27 October 2014 (and several times previously on VHS) || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© MGM

It’s fair to say that in the year 2014 one of the last things I expected to get a cinematic re-release would be a cleaned-up digital print of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. After decades of critical acclaim for his brand of existential non-thrillers made in his native Italy, this film was his pitch to the American market, getting on-board with such contemporary topics as student activism and free love. Needless to say, it was far from either a critical or commercial success at the time, and has at best a cult reputation now (largely due to its soundtrack album, I suspect). Yet in many ways it’s a fantastic film and a successor to Antonioni’s earlier works in its sense of characters adrift in vast threatening landscapes, as well as a film rightly critical of consumerism and rampant property development (themes which are still very much a part of the world 35 years on). I can’t in all good faith, however, recommend it to people who like strong dialogue and witty repartee: the flat line delivery, period affectations and (somehow typically Italian) use of imprecise post-synching can easily come across as lazy screenwriting. But these are not characters who are able to enunciate their issues with the world: on the one hand, there’s Mark (Frechette), angrily adrift at university, listening to articulate Black Power activists and witnessing his friends’ radicalisation, able only to offer cheap jokes (he gives his name to a cop as Karl Marx); on the other, Daria (Halprin) is a PA at a property developers’ office, where a succession of identikit men in beige suits delivers boardroom presentations so dull that even the camera seems to prefer losing focus, drifting away to off-centre framing, and frequently reflecting the discussion in mirrors and through other surfaces. As characters, these two uneasily inhabit their own respective worlds of words, but only meet in the centre of the film, as Mark buzzes over Daria’s car in a light plane he’s stolen for a joyride, out in the middle of the desert. The two make love in dusty Death Valley, at the Zabriskie Point of the film’s title, as their bodies hallucinatorily multiply, after which point they return to separate narrative strands. It’s here that Mark’s story, which has dominated the first half of the film, cedes to that of Daria, as she travels on to Phoenix for a conference with her bosses. It doesn’t always work perfectly — whether the actors’ jarringly disconcerting delivery of the script, the modish alienation effects, or the sometimes heavy-handed symbolism — but when it does, it just seems perfect. The pulsating psychedelic drone of the soundtrack, the dizzying procession of vapid billboards in Los Angeles, the subtly interwoven and interleaving narrative strands, the long takes, and of course that apocalyptic desert dream of an ending, in which a materialistic world is beautifully pulled apart in the most visceral way. These are all things I continue to love about this overlooked classic of the American cinema.


CREDITS || Director Michelangelo Antonioni | Writers Michelangelo Antonioni, Fred Gardner, Sam Shepard, Tonino Guerra and Clare Peploe | Cinematographer Alfio Contini | Starring Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin | Length 110 minutes