Antonioni’s breakthrough masterpiece, L’Avventura, paints an austere picture of late modernity. If Stanley Cavell is correct to say that the cinematic apparatus delineates a world that transcends beyond the framed canvas of the traditional painted image (that is, we wonder what goes on beyond what we can see), Antonioni, at least superficially, does well to affirm that theory. In what seemingly begins as a mystery in search of a missing girl, Antonioni shifts his narrative in Rivette fashion by reframing his camera’s interest on a tale of troubled love when the woman’s fiancé matches up with her best friend; but yet all the while, Anna, the missing girl, never strays far from the spectator’s mind, and haunts the film’s central couple as a lingering burden of moral responsibility. Although, at one end, Antonioni’s ambivalent narrative construction plays into Cavell’s concept of an inclusive cinematic world in its own right, the auteur, on the other end, provides images that come closer to an artist’s masterful brush strokes than a filmmaker’s curious, cinematic gaze. In some respects, Antonioni’s camera is curious, but it is not one of a traditionally moving curiosity – instead, his camera is distant, still, and removed, and allows the beautiful Italian landscape to be pronounced through his wide-angle lens. He does this by capturing most of these images with still long shots rather than emphasizing cinematic montage or a hermetically moving camera so as to create the sense of motion in time.
Conversely, as it is often observed of Antonioni’s cinema, each shot of L’Avventura could be free-framed and appreciated as a work of art in its own right; thus, we might say, Antonioni meets Cavell’s extended frame with blurred edges rather than finite or infinite limits. It is important for Antonioni to manifest his imagery in such a still pictorialism so that he may complement the vacuous empty spaces of the terrain where his characters are often trapped or lost in a repressive foreground. The film’s central location for which it spends the better half of the first act is a perfect example of this austere imagery. As the search party backtracks frantically, the island itself emerges as a massive barren, desolate body, and as Gregory Solman of Senses of Cinema observes, a metaphor arises and lingers throughout the film – the “critique of men” living as “barren islands” – that is, ennui-traversing individuals that are spiritually, emotionally, and morally vacant. (1)
Antonioni humanizes his characters in a particularly grim fashion. Sandro and Caudia both long for something pure and authentic, but find themselves lost in a superficial, bourgeois reality that ultimately denies them a moral compass; where no longer can their identity be satisfied by traditional morals, and they are relegated to an existential malaise. Antonioni underscored this idea at the Cannes premiere when he famously declared to the world that “Eros is sick.” In his film, individuals struggle to make sense of themselves, searching for meaning and love in a world that has changed and continues to change before their eyes. Yet, Antonioni’s mastery lies in his ability to bring out the visual manifestation of their angst through his revolutionary technique rather than through traditional literary narrative mechanics. Philosopher and film scholar Gilles Deleuze writes, “It is noticeable that Antonioni’s objective images, which impersonally follow a becoming, that is, a development of consequences in a story, none the less are subject to rapid breaks, interpolations and ‘infinitesimal injections of a-temporality’.” (2) These “objective images,” “rapid breaks,” “interpolations,” and “infinitesimal injections of a-temporality” not only exist as a modernist’s self-reflexive expression and progressivism, but communicates, augments, and enrichens the fabric of the dramatic narrative detailing the existential alienation of Antonioni’s characters. In effect, these devices of temporal breaks, long takes, and objective distance become metaphorically synonymous with notions such as disillusionment, ennui, and despair, respectively. In both the presence and absence of narrative action, the meaning presents itself to us, and through this method, Antonioni has created through his cinema an eerie world and language (or for Deleuze, an a priori pre-language) of his own. If filmmaking has decided barriers and form, then Antonioni transcends.
1. Gregory Solman, “L’Avventura”, Senses of Cinema, 2004.
2. Gilles Deleuze. Cinema 2: The Time Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson & Robert Galeta. (London: The Athlone Press, 1989.). Italics added by me.