L’avventura

October 30, 2013

Michelangelo Antonioni’s film of 1960:  one critic said of it that no film has subverted expectations and conventions so elegantly as this one. I guess that’s why it received boos at its first showing in Cannes, although it was later awarded a jury prize.  I first saw it in college – I loved the images – but I wasn’t sure I understood what it was all about.  Is it about anything?  Of course, there’s Monica Vitti!!

In short, some rich parasites who lack social grace take a boat trip to a Mediterranean volcanic island.  One of their party, Anna, goes missing:  nobody seems overly concerned.  They do the right thing and get the authorities, but, well, maybe she was just bored, and ran off somehow.  The story centers on Sandro, Anna’s boyfriend, and Claudia, her best friend along for the ride.  They have an affair.  Seems pretty weird, doesn’t it?  After all, Sandro and Anna were to be … married, weren’t they?

Before the boat trip, Sandro goes to get Anna.  She takes him upstairs to make love.  “Your friend is waiting,” he says.  “Let her wait!”  That’s Claudia through the window.  The characters, and the audience, will do a lot of waiting in this film.

Monica Vitti’s presence dominates the film.  She became a superstar after its release.  Here, she waits, while her friends make love upstairs.

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Anna is a mercurial type.  She ends a pleasant dip in the sea by the boat when she claims to have seen a shark.  Is there something between these two ladies?

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They go ashore on a dramatic little island.  Sandro and Anna argue. The stupid boat passengers pick among the rocks.

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Time to leave, and no Anna.  They all go searching.  The scenery is awe-inspiring.

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Still, guys like this are barely affected by the beauty around them.  He just goes on making fun of his scatter-brained wife and everything else in the world.  Not an endearing portrait of the denizens of la dolce vita. As a critic remarked, in Fellini’s film they at least seem to be having fun:  these people are just bored by everything.

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Claudia and Sandro are of this group, but outsiders in a way.  We learn that he was an aspiring architect at one point, with ideas, and that as a boy he wanted to be a diplomat or a romantic, starving genius.  Now, he’s just rich, with houses in Milan and Rome.  Claudia remarks at one point that she had a “sensible” childhood, that is “without any money.”  Sandro found his way into this circle of decayed noblemen and parasites through business, but we have no clue about Claudia.  I guess being so beautiful might open a few doors, especially in a totally sexist society.

Claudia is genuinely distraught over Anna’s disappearance while Sandro seems to take it all very calmly.  Moreover, he seems uncomfortably interested in Claudia…  And she is not comfortable with her own attraction to him…

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An encounter on the boat before they set off for the mainland to deal with the police and continue the search for Anna: Claudia doing her hair…

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…Sandro coming aboard for his suitcase…

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He makes his move…impulsive…”Yes, absurd…so what?”  He has all the existentialist crap for excuses to her objections that it is just not right, not now…

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He follows her onto a train to try and convince her to go away with him.  She overhears a young provincial coming on like gangbusters to a pretty country girl, and she laughs at the crudeness of his attempts at seduction.  She begs Sandro to leave her be, and he does.  But they get together not long afterwards, continuing their desultory search for Anna.

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Not much to value between men and women.  Here, one of the boat passengers, now in a palace in Sicily, flirts with a young prince to make her husband jealous, a futile endeavor.  The guy’s artwork, simply a device to get women, is utter junk.

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Claudia is rather disgusted by the whole business…

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We may wonder why a sensible and beautiful woman like Claudia hangs out with these creeps, but it’s 1960, and what was her upbringing..?  She is a strong female character, but in a world hostile to women.  In the most powerful, terrifying in a way, scenes of the film, she waits for Sandro while he makes inquiries in a hotel.  Suddenly, she realizes that as a woman unescorted by a male, she is open game for anything with pants.  They eye her like a whore strutting her stuff in a bordello.

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Sandro has his own emotional issues.  He wants to view a church interior, but the town is not set up for tourists.  A local man informs him that “they got a few French here, but they just wanted to go to the beach,” and the locals told them they were not welcome.  Presumably, they were not properly dressed.  Nobody cares about architecture…

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Except for one young man doing a sketch in the piazza…  Hmm…not bad.

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Not bad at all.  Too bad it got ink knocked all over it…  The young man confronts Sandro, but a friend intervenes.  Such is the generosity and spiritual fullness of Sandro’s inner life.

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The school lets out and a stream of young boys in black… some see it as the equivalent of the ink on the paper.  Is that what ruined Sandro’s psychology?  Or is that a better way, now ignored?

Who knows?  Who cares?  Should we care..?  Well, the film is stunning to watch even if we don’t like the people much.

Poor Claudia.  She’s tired, so she doesn’t go down to enjoy an evening of schmoozing with the glitterati at the hotel they pitch up in, but Sandro goes, and stays late.  Claudia goes in search of him through the now-empty rooms, littered with party junk.  He is engaged with a young woman (aspiring actress?  prostitute?  both?) on a couch.  Claudia is shocked and disgusted.  Should she be surprised?

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She runs outside, and Sandro follows.  He sits on a bench and weeps. The film ends with a depressing chord, and Claudia taking his hair in her hand in a gesture of comfort.  This is what she is stuck with, I guess. Pretty sad for all of them.

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Stalin’s Girl

August 19, 2010

Ninotchka (1939) is a fairy tale about the transformation of a political animal into a full-bodied woman.  As a slave to the Garbo gaze, I can’t help but like this film.  I saw it as a boy after hearing my mother talk about the tag line used by the studio, “Garbo laughs!” Laugh she does, and the film is witty and entertaining, with some very strange dark notes for us post-WWII viewers.

The story begins with some hapless Russians, bumbling diplomats charged by the Soviet government with the task of selling off some jewels confiscated during the Revolution.  The USSR needs hard currency badly because its harvests are so bad.  The three bumblers are seduced by the pleasures of Paris and fail miserably in their job.  Garbo’s no-nonsense, hard as nails character is sent to remedy the situation.

Waiting to meet their superior, whom they do not know, at the train station, and expecting a man, the diplomats at first follow a likely fellow who looks the part.  Nope, he’s a Nazi.  Finally, they realize the dour Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, aka Ninotchka, waiting on the platform, is the one.  How are things in Moscow, comarade?  Very good!  The latest mass trial was a great success.  There will be fewer but better Russians now! Black humor indeed!

Ninotchka asks for some cigarettes while meeting with her team, and they ring up the maids.  The lovely staff, thinking they are in for a repeat of the previous night’s orgy rushes up to oblige.  Ninotchka is no fool, and she quickly sizes up the situation.  Comrades, you must have been smoking a lot!

Melvyn Douglas plays a smooth character, Count Leon d’Algout,who meets Nitnotchka by chance outside her hotel.  He also happens to be the lover of the émigré noblewoman whose confiscated jewels are the subject of the bumblers’ mission, but that comes out later.  Leon attempts to charm Ms. Soviet but can’t penetrate her caricatured facade of rationality, logic, statistics, and 30′s stlye political correctness.  Viewing the city from the Eiffel Tower she remarks that it’s beautiful, but a waste of electricity.  Nevertheless, no slave to convention, and ever eager to study the natives of the decadent west, she goes to his apartment.  She is honest and self-aware enough to admit that they have a great chemical attraction to one another.

He asks her just what kind of girl is she?  Just what you see.  A tiny cog in the great wheel of evolution. He avers that she is the most beautiful tiny cog he has ever seen.

In the hotel lobby, she is surprised and disgusted by a hat for sale.  So impractical and frivolous, not to mention expensive.  She could probably by a few cows for what that hat costs!  It’s an odd style, but I guess on fashion’s leading edge at the time.

After their mutual interest in the jewels is revealed, Ninotchka puts off Leon, but he persists and follows her into a working class bistro for lunch.  He makes a funny show of trying to convince her that he always eats here, and loves the company of workers.  Vowing to drag a laugh out of her, he starts on a series of jokes, all of which meet with utter failure.

The explosion comes by accident.  He is exasperated, moves away, and falls off his chair.  She laughs.

They laugh together.  It’s wonderful.

Transformed by her love for Leon, she notices that the weather is fine, there are birds outside while snow is still on the ground in Moscow.  We have the high ideals, but they have the climate, comrades. Stuck in Paris for two weeks until the dispute over the jewels can be settled, what shall they do?  One fellow suggests a visit to the sewers, most instructive.

She goes and buys that hat and puts it on after ridding herself of her underlings.  Woman confronts fashion…and herself.  In Wilde’s story, The Birthday of the Infante, a dwarf jester dies of a broken heart after being scorned by the spoiled princess and then seeing himself in a mirror for the first time in his life.  He realizes he is truly ugly, and the princess is so beautiful.  Here, Ninotchka sees herself in the mirror, and seems to see herself for the first time, and she is beautiful.  No longer a cog in the inevitable triumph of Marxist-Leninism, she sees herself as a woman.  Of course, a woman in love with a man.

She’s really quite forward – she knocks on Leon’s door.  Those Bolsheviks have a point about doing away with the old traditions.

After a late night and far too much champagne, Ninotchka pours out her heart to Leon.  She’s so happy, surely she will be punished for it.  Nobody can be so happy and not suffer for it.  It’s her Russian soul speaking, and perhaps a intuition of what awaits her back in the USSR.

She tells Leon she knows what her punishment should be.  She should be stood up against a wall…  Leon obliges.  Blindfolds her, raises it for a kiss, and then goes to get his weapon of execution.  Quite a titillating scene if you choose to read it that way.  With the sound of the cork popping off, she starts as if shot and sinks to the floor.  Now I’ve had my punishment.  Let’s go on with the party she declares!

This is Hollywood romatic comedy, and Leon is a gentleman, so after she collapses into a heap, he carries her to her bedroom and gives her a kiss while Lenin looks on.  Will they make a loving couple, or must they be a bourgeois-Marxist ménage à trois ?

Ninotchka is forced to return to Russia without Leon.  He tries to write to her and to get her out.  Life is pretty grim in the Socialist Paradise.

No worries.  It’s just a Hollywood backlot.


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