I had seen this in high school—I had this teacher who would bring in all these art movies, and I would dutifully go, sitting through them and often not understanding a darn thing. So I finally decided I needed to re-face this film as an adult, since it is somewhat legendary both for being a great film and also for being stupefyingly boring. All right, let’s gear up for some boredom!
We open with this woman, Anna, coming out of her house to be picked up by her friend. They are going away on a boat trip, Anna with her fiancé, Sandro, and her father isn’t very happy about any of it. Her friend is the blonde and gorgeous Claudia, played by Monica Vitti. Anna confides to Claudia that she’d like to break it off with Sandro, but he comes out before she gets a chance to run off, as she’d like to do. They go upstairs and make out, but Anna is clearly not engaged. So they’re all vaguely annoyed at each other, and off they go on their boat trip.
Anna goes for a swim on the way to this island, and comes back in saying there was a shark in the water. She soon after confides to Claudia that there was no shark. They arrive at the island, and all parties [there are more people on the boat] spread out. Anna makes a few attempts to explain her reservations about the relationship to Sandro, but he just won’t listen, all he wants to do is make out or have sex. Eventually it’s time to go back, and Anna is missing. They look all over the island for her, but there isn’t a trace. Sandro, Claudia and another man spend the night on the island, and the next day a larger search party arrives, but no Anna. At one point, Sandro makes a pass at Claudia, who can’t believe he’s coming on to her when his girlfriend vanished hours before.
Soon Claudia and Sandro are on a train together, and he is coming on to her HARD. She likes him, but resists, not knowing if Anna will show up again, and also out of plain respect for her friend. They part, but he shows up again where Claudia is staying. Sometimes people in the group will catch themselves laughing or making jokes, and have to remind themselves to feel guilty over Anna’s disappearance. But they are gradually returning to their own little concerns.
There are a few odd episodes in here that I can’t necessarily tie to anything. In one, Claudia is forced to attend another woman as she flirts and finally makes love with a 19 year old painter. In another, a woman said to be a whore comes to town to drum up business. Sandro sees her, and is told that she commands fifty thousand to sleep with her.
SPOILERS > > >
Finally Claudia gives in to Sandro. They go together searching for Anna, and end up at a large, fancy hotel. One night Claudia is tired and wants to go to sleep, but Sandro is keyed up and wants to go out. In the morning, Claudia wakes and searches for him—finding him in the arms of the call girl from earlier. He is what we today might call a sexual compulsive, and she realizes that there’s not much to him but this constant, compulsive need to seek the next sexual thrill. She runs out, and he runs after him. He sits on a bench, kind of exposed and defeated, and she piteously strokes the back of his head, like a mother. The final shot is a composition divided down the middle, a blank brick wall on his side, a distant mountain on hers.
< < < SPOILERS END
So here, from what I understand, is the deal. This movie was booed at Cannes, but ended up receiving a special jury prize for inventing a new cinematic language. And what is that language? Well, as you’re watching, you might notice that for the most part, everything, distant or close, is in focus. This is because Antonioni is using the backgrounds expressively, to expand on or comment on what is happening in the foreground. Therefore sometimes when Claudia’s mind is troubled, the rest of the frame is filled with restlessly rustling leaves, or someone might be standing in front of old architecture to express that they represent the ideals of an time past. One of the clearest examples is the final shot, with Sandro’s side being filled by a blank brick wall just a few feet in front of him, expressing how he doesn’t see very far and is essentially blank and vacant inside, while in front of Claudia in the distant mountain, showing her depth of feeling, and also, I feel, that she herself is a little distant and vague. So throughout the movie the backgrounds are being used to expand upon the story, comment on the action or express the states of mind of the characters.
As far as the story proper is concerned, we are to understand—in the popular interpretation—that the characters’ lives are full of idleness and luxury and are ultimately rather empty. This didn’t strike me so much, but I suspect this may be because contemporary American life is so full of idleness and luxury and is ultimately rather empty! They go here and there, begin affairs and drop them, looking for some kind of new thrill, finding nothing exciting. Something genuine happens—their friend vanishes—but soon enough they forget about her, slide back into their trivial concerns and empty affairs, and continue to seek new thrills. That’s life!
On a more personal level you have Anna, who struck the guy who delivered the disc commentary as a woman who feels very deeply and is the most centered of the group, while she struck me as an emotionally disturbed, manipulative little monster. Regardless, it’s clear that Sandro has no idea what she’s talking about when she mentions any kind of thought or emotion, or anything that might deviate from his image of himself as some kind of sizzlin’ playboy. The life of the mind is something he has no familiarity with. Claudia is thoughtful and sensitive—we often see her looking at things or observing scenes—and has a sense of the past; she alone retains the memory of Anna and has a sense of her as a person. She puts Sandro off because it isn’t proper to engage in an affair so soon after Anna’s disappearance [and who’s to say she won’t show up again?], but also seemed a little envious of Anna, and is excited to take up with the attractive Sandro. But it turns out to be the old situation of “Well, if he was cheating on his wife with YOU….”
The commentary is worth listening to, as it will explain the whole MO and way to read the movie, but after a while it turns into the ever-familiar movie star trivia and I started skipping forward to key scenes. I would say that the commenter is also a little prone to over-interpretation, trying to piece together the meaning of every single background and nuance, and after a while you start to think maybe these things exist only in his own mind. Nevertheless, it is a way into a movie that, without it, can seem entirely obtuse and boring. He says, and I believe him, that this film can be boring the first time through, because you don’t know what’s going to happen and thus don’t know the significance of what you’re seeing. He says on repeated viewings, it’s riveting. This seems reasonable, although I didn’t go back and re-watch it just yet to prove conclusively that he’s right.
Anyway, a film that’s good for you to see, and one that rewards a lot of study, however, not necessarily a blast to sit through. If you’re a casual viewer and don’t really care to see the historical landmarks of cinema, you can skip it. If you are interested in seeing major important works, you pretty much have to see it. No one is promised a rollicking good time, but you know, you have to eat oatmeal sometimes to keep your system healthy.
PS: Now it's a few months later and I look back on this film fondly, and recall it as being emotional and very moving. So while it may not thrill you while it's going on, it does very much improve with time and one is very glad one saw it.
If you are interested in seeing the major works of cinema, you sure should.