Tag Archives: Lea Massari

L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1960)

l'avventura

The day after I first saw L’Avventura, I woke up thinking of art, complexity, ambiguity, the iconicity of a face and the complexity of a touch. As the film starts, two women – Anna (Lea Massari) and Claudia (Monica Vitti) are setting off on a café society cruise around the coast of Sicily with a group of the louche and the bored, including Anna’s boyfriend, a flash society architect called Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). Anna’s father, an elegant slightly weary former ambassador (Renzo Riccci), urges her not to go; Sandro is unworthy and is never going to marry her, he tells her. She, however, insists. He seems accepting of the fact that they might be sleeping together but is sad about it, as if he both mourns and is resigned to the degradation of the daughter he loves.

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Anna is in love. But it’s a long distance relationship. She’s not getting enough attention from Sandro when they are together and the lack of attention makes her doubt his love. Once on the yacht, she first jumps in the ocean — which leads him to jump in after her — and then lies about being in danger from sharks, which gets everyone’s attention. However, when she actually does disappear on the island, it takes her friends a while to discover it.

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The people on the cruise are jaded aristocrats for whom the superficial is a shield from oblivion. They’re attentive to spaces in which to quote Oscar Wilde quips, busy only with trying to fend off boredom, and clutching at sensation as a means of keeping being in constant tension with nothingness. Even the possible death of one of them doesn’t really exercise them. They’re afraid of wasting time but what have they to do? After tired and half-hearted attempts to search for Anna, they all go back to more exciting places to be bored. Only Sandro and Claudia persist in their search. In so doing, they’re thrown together and begin to fall for each other. There’s a wonderful moment in the train where Claudia, who has already begged him to leave her alone, emotionally articulates the moral morass of their engaging in a relationship when Ana’s only been missing for a few days and whilst her whereabouts remain unknown, no matter that they’re each now in love with the other. He, however, can’t resist following her onto the train to continue with the chase. Why should he sacrifice himself? He thinks it an idiocy. Why? And for whom? He doesn’t meant to sound cynical but isn’t it better that they face things as they are, i.e. Ana’s no longer there, he no longer cares for his previous love. He’s only interested in his new one. He wants his pleasure. It’s all he can ever think of. Now. Why doesn’t she?

As she flees Sandro, the camera cuts to a the waves crashing onto the shore, the camera indicating the inevitability of Claudia’s involvement with Sandro by panning through the relentless waves and settling onto Anna’s face (see clip below). On the soundtrack we then hear a young man courting a young woman in a compartment as Sandro re-enters the shot and gets close to Claudia. Clearly this young working class couple is being aligned and juxtaposed to Claudia and Sandro. The young man knows somebody that works with the young girl and has heard she’s sensible. He has a Chinese transistor radio. Does she like music? She does? And what does she think is more important music or love? She thinks music; he opts for love first.

Claudia’s involvement with Sandro is now inevitable. Our new couple is surrounded by extra-diegetic music, soft but dissonant and adding to the alienation evident even in their moment of connection. She soon begins to act as needy as her friend. Anna’s absence is a structuring one. Claudia and Sandro might momentarily forget that their love is founded on a disappearance, an absence, possibly a death. When the absence becomes felt — which it does, first intermittently, then more insistently — this new adventure, so full of promise, is already over. Or is it? The one human moment of connection comes in the very last shot. She’s caught him cheating, he cries, he can’t help himself; dissolute, unfocussed, undisciplined, he’s no more able to be faithful than he was to choose art over a house in Milan AND one in Rome. But does she accept this?

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L’Avventura has to have some of the most beautiful compositions in the history of cinema. The seas are raging but the compositions are elegant, classic, balanced; the images they contain are also extraordinary; modernity in the foreground with Balenciaga dresses and sixties kitten heels, Roman ruins and imposing palaces and churches, or simply the natural sublime as background. The images in motion evoke process, tension, a spark of contradiction, which the beauty of the compositions then contains, fixes, naturalises. When Monica Vitti runs in search of her lover, the echoing click of her heels alone evokes a displacement, an alienation, a longing for which the virgin in the background is no help and one that dissipates into solitude even as her heels clack their presence onto parquet.

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There are niggles: the scene with men chasing after Gloria Perkins (Gloria de Poliolo), the celebrity with the torn dress working publicly in journalism but privately whoring herself to whomever can pay. The threat of the old, the poor, the male and the South as presented by the men gather around Monica Vitti in the extraordinary scene in Palermo. Is the North being patronising to the South? Are the filmmakers crudely commodifying the working class, peasants, Southerners? Is Antonioni being critical or making a crude self-serving nod to neo-realist traditions. I don’t know. What I am sure of is that L’Avventura is very great film by a truly great filmmaker.

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Days after I saw it I kept thinking about the beauty of its images and of how mesmeric and impactful Vitti’s final strokes of Ferzetti’s head are. I can’t imagine what its effects would be like on a small screen, though the Criterion transfer is a gorgeous one indeed. See it on as big a screen as you can; it’s worth it even if only for the added pleasure of seeing Monica Vitti’s unforgettable face in as large as size as possible.

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José Arroyo

Les choses de la vie/ The Things of Life (Claude Sautet, France, 1970)

Les choses de la vie
Les choses de la vie

The original trailer for the French release in 1970 promised that Les choses de la vie/ The Things of Life would be ‘about people, people like you, people to whom things happen, things of life: beautiful, sweet, stupid; things of life that make life worth living’. If the ‘you’ referred to is an ideal ‘you’ – richer, more glamorous, more beautiful – then, the film delivers on that promise.

What might have been.
What might have been.

Les choses de la vie begins with an image of the wheel of a car in a field. We realise that a car has crashed in a rural motorway. Inside the car is Pierre (Michel Piccoli), a successful architect. As he drifts in an out of consciousness, we find out what his life has amounted to, what has been important to him: Catherine (Lea Massari), his wife, whom he’s separated from but  who he still has unresolved feelings for; Helène (Romy Schneider), the mistress who adores him but whom he finds a bit clingy and demanding; the son, suddenly grown-up and growing more distant by the day; his parents; the problems with his job; the things he did wrong and might never get a chance to fix; flashes of joy experienced whilst sailing with his family or kissing his mistress in a meadow.

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Les choses de la vie could so easily be soap opera; could so easily have become what its American re-make, Intersections (Mark Rydell, USA, 1994), turned out to be: a glossy, glamorous melodrama with people one couldn’t relate to and that remained at one remove, as if the pretty-ness of the image was a glass barrier to feeling. Yet, Sautet’s film is something else: even more exquisite to look, but here the look providing a lens through which to see a complex life in a way that is  much deeper, much finer.

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It’s a poetic film, sad, with an emphasis on feeling and on thought rather than on action; where things are felt but hidden, half-said, mis-articulated; where the narrative shows all the complexities that the characters cannot themselves express, may not yet know, may in fact be trying to hide; a film where things are expressed visually and aurally, as befits a film.

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The film is structured around the car-crash, spectacularly choreographed by Gérard Streiff and shown in a variety of ways depending on the mood the film is intent on conveying when it returns to it, as it does throughout the film; it’s the event that anchors the narrative and permits it to drift off in fragments whilst still being experienced as linear; it works as memory, as drifting thought, but it at all times makes sense to the viewer.

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We sometimes see it in slow motion, or with the film speeded up, or even with the film being run backward; and when we return to the accident, we sometimes cut to the witnesses of the crash, sometimes to an event in Pierre’s life; sometimes just to his point-of-view as he’s trying to make sense of what’s happened to him. In one instance we see a shiny black boot, stepping on a gorgeous ground of green grass, poppies and little blue flowers. As Pierre tries to focus, and at the very moment in which he realizes he might die, he can still see beauty amongst the black.

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One can understand why Sautet thought Jacqueline Thiédot, chief editor, important enough to come first at the end credits. The film is a masterpiece of editing. But really, the film is a masterpiece for many reasons.

Helène talks about love
Helène talks about love

It’s full of wonderful moments: the two scenes where Pierre and Helène discuss their relationship, first in the elevator and then in the car, where the shadows as the elevator ascends through floors, or the lime yellow of passing traffic, create a murkiness, a lack of clarity, that symbolizes all of the mis-communication, the pain of Helène’s honest and vulnerable expression in the light, or lack of light, of Pierre’s inability to express his own emotions, in the light, or lack of light, of his silence.

Pierre feels as strongly but cannot speak about what he feels.
Pierre feels as strongly but cannot speak about what he feels.

Or the wonderful close-up of Romy Schneider at the auction (see clip below), where one can see exactly why Pierre fell in love with her; or those moments of bliss sailing, never to be repeated, already in the past as the image fades to white; or the exquisite pan around the wedding banquet where the dream of what might have been suddenly turns into the nightmarish realization of what actually is in one sweeping camera movement.  This is the work of a truly great director.

Sautet here also enjoys the collaboration of  an extraordinary team. Not only the aforementioned Thiédot but also an intricate screenplay based on the novel by Paul Guimard which Sautet superbly knitted together  with Guimard, Sandro Continenza and Jean-Loup Dabadie, who would later write at least dialogue for many of Sautet’s other films (including the marvellous César et Rosalie). Jean Boffety is director of photography and responsible for very beautiful and  evocative images with a lighting design that signifies; one in which, things are half shown as they are half-spoken, capable of great beauty in that wonderful Eastman colour that picks up primary colours and makes them almost shine (sadly it is also the process most prone to fade and turn to red ). Also the camera renders the space almost sculptural in the way that it frames all that happens as spaces of changeable feeling and meaning; all this greatly aided by Phillipe Sarde’s very beautiful score (the film itself is almost structured as a fugue).

Romy is dressed by Courrèges
Romy is dressed by Courrèges

A popular success, Les choses de la vie was the 8th highest earning film of its year with 2,959, 682 admissions. It won the Louis Delluc Prize for Best Film in 1970. It was also nominated for Golden Palm at 1970 Cannes Film Festival. The film would revitalise the careers of Sautet and Schneider and lead to many future collaborations between them, including Max et les ferrailleurs/ Max and the Junkmen and César et Rosalie, both superb. Les choses de la vie was remade in Hollywood  as Intersections directed by Mark Rydell and with Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, Lolita Davidovitch. It might be worth noting that the performances of Piccoli, Schneider and Masari are so great they completely eclipse any memory of the American actors, which I saw first. Courrèges did Romy’s chic, career-girl A-line mini-dresses. Lovely.

To my knowledge, Les choses de la vie is not available in the UK or the US with English sub-titles. I hope someone does something about it soon. It’s only a matter of time before Sautet’s great works are re-disovered. Les choses de la vie is one of them.

José Arroyo