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DF: L’avventura/The Passenger

Deep Focus: In the Mind of One, & Into the Skin of Another:
An analysis of the themes of alienation and escapism in selected works of Michelangelo Antonioni.

Shaped by his visually powerful aesthetic techniques and complemented by a unique quality in the cinematic treatment of the environmental surroundings in his pictures, with particular emphasis and depth of meaning found in the images of his films, the works from director Michelangelo Antonioni employ a distinctive filmmaking sense in which to process a window of the world. With his particular filmic method, “Antonioni’s early interpreters saw his films primarily as an expression of ‘existential angst’ or ‘alienation’” , and some audiences saw a certain ambiguity in his films, this in turn alienated some of the viewers. In his body of work, Antonioni gives an entire ‘non-traditional’ discourse on the human condition and overtly details observations found in human behavior, the result is a language of cinema where images voice many themes.

After having closely analyzed the cinematic form and filmic discourse in L’avventura (1960) and in The Passenger (1975), I propose to demonstrate how Antonioni employs his modern voice and auteur-driven filmmaking style to communicate themes of alienation’ and ‘escapism’ through the symbolic and metaphoric language in his visuals, the cinematic text found in the narrative function of setting and through character interpretations/motivations to express the Antonionian viewpoint on the subject of the human condition and it’s personal struggle within exterior surroundings and internal impasse.

L’avventura

In his celebrated tetralogy of films, the characters certainly embodied characteristics of “narcissism, egoism, self-absorption, ennui, distraction, neurosis, existential anxiety ” and in L’avventura, the three principle characters come to represent ‘ideas’ for these themes. The theme of alienation is perhaps more apparent in the persona of Claudia (Monica Vitti), where as the idea of escapism, especially in a sexual confusion Freudian sense is noticeable in Anna (Lea Massari) and an amalgamation of the two themes is present in the character of Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). The early half of L’avventura is dedicated to character of Anna,-who is clearly shown in a splendor of unhappiness. There is an evident sense of fear and frustration on her part which comes across in the ‘arms-crossed’ facial expressions. Antonioni captures her gaze into empty-space stares which shows how far removed she is from the sexual attention in the initial encounter with Sandro and it also conveys a nonchalance for her waiting friend, Claudia. The alienated part of Anna’s identity is found in her complex sexual relationship with Sandro, unsatisfied, her deliberate fabled shark-attack lie gives us the sense that she wants a specific kind of attention from him. In a series of framed two shots, Antonioni shows the non-communication between the two, showing backs turned to one another and he also frames the characters in such a manner that we see a literal distance between the players. In her final appearance of the film, the persona of Anna embodies the theme of escapism, where it is not only suggested in her balking-away attitude towards the idea of marriage, but it is later metaphorically identified by a three second, which sees a boat departing from the island.

Prior to the scenes of the search for Anna, there is not much of a concern for the character of Claudia, whose importance is lessened by Antonioni with a window curtain shot that frames the character as this minuscule and unimportant person of social stature. Symbolically what Antonioni does here is create the notion that this character is somewhat alienated by the fact that she belongs to ‘less’ of a cultural class, but he also shows the contrast of behaviors between the two women with the removed character Claudia and her friend who craves for constant attention. Claudia’s loneliness is fully apparent when inside a social group of people whose own concerns are predominated by healthy egos. In L’avventura, the filmmaker is more focused on the transgressional process of this character and with her eventual makeover into the shoes of her lost friend. The first symbolic blending of identities comes with both female figures’ naked backs towards the camera where Antonioni frames them in such a way that the characters look identical, an idea that Antonioni would later revisit in The Passenger.

Perhaps like Locke, Claudia‘s ‘switch’ (in blouses) is the stepping-stone to a new identity, which is perhaps a lot easier than searching for one’s self. Claudia’s new ‘adventure’ commences when, as French Critic Pascal Bonitzer sites “the disappearance of the disappearance of Anna” occurs. As she assumes her new identity she receives the same attention that Anna had received, which would later be mirrored by the sequence that sees a whole town obsessed by her presence a la Gloria Perkins. ‘Escaping’ into another character is elaborated with the signifier of having the character put on a black wig strengthens this blending of personality notion which is then further symbolized by how she assimilates herself into the absentminded trajectory of Sandro, in a sequence that has her singing inside the hotel room after newspapers are thrown onto the streets like confetti and rice of a wedding of which is echoed by the beginning of the film shot of Sandro throwing newspaper into the sea.

As the male protagonist or film’s antagonist, the persona of Sandro is best described as emotionally violent and irrationality driven by the need to fill up the voids in his life or mask his feelings of discontentment with himself. The character is narratively presented as a person who is in dire need of the female presence in order to respond to some sort of existence, and as a womanizer he forgets about his own issues thus neglecting to be held accountable for the damage he cause to others. For the better part of the picture, Antonioni demonstrates Sandro’s shallowness by initially having the character make a pass at Claudia and his willingness to seduce Claudia and suppress her rejection is shown in the his pursuit of her from one train stop onto the next city. Once he conquers her and the amorous tug-of-war is settled by the symbolic pulling of the ropes of the church bell sequence, he becomes distant, de-attached to her foreshadowed by the shot of him tipping over the ink jar, which ruins the portrait and also describes the emotional impact of his actions.

In the films of Antonioni the architecture found in the landscapes and the contextual surroundings function as elements to further illustrate the character’s psyche. In L’avventura, the constant switch in locations gives a sense of escapism since the characters pursue a changing set of personal desires, but yet at the same time the settings also act as indicators about the tension found in the alienating surroundings. Commencing with an Alfa Romeo escape from the monotone reality of life and into the luxurious yacht, Antonioni transports the story to the jagged rock island. In here, Antonioni places his characters at opposing ends of the frame and pans or tilts the camera shots into the rough terrain of the surroundings. The interpretation here is that at first this location is an escape from the dimmer realities left behind, but then after the disappearance it is a place that boxes people into a trap of sorts which is thus witnessed by the relationship of Sandro and Claudia, an entrapment which is later re-imagined in the small city of Italy where she feels imprisoned by the wall of men. In contrast, when the film is positioned in higher plains, the romance flourishes giving a sense of their emotions getting ‘higher’ as captured in the beautiful embrace on the grassy fields. The further alienation of Claudia occurs when Sandro is ‘distracted’, but there is a sense that they are freeing themselves from searching for themselves once they are in literally ‘lifeless’ places and vacant spaces found on the island and such places as the dead town with all the shutters closed. Where Antonioni diverges from this idea is by continually framing the character of Sandro with the old ruined architecture backdrops of the city, thus creating a personal angst for the architect who he himself is worn out and symbolically represents that the ways of the Italian matador are with the passing of time very much old-fashion and shows the “emotional sickness-the overburdening of love-resulting from the disintegration of old institutions”.

The Passenger

Such as the psychological shift in behavior found in the character of Claudia, The Passenger’s (a.k.a Professione: Reporter) David Locke goes through a similar process, where Antonioni communicates a kind of ‘social’ alienation followed by a psychological and physical escape. Jack Nicholson portrays a journalist who, over the course of the unfolding narrative takes on an almost erroneous perception of reality, this in part due to symbolic nature of the character’s actions and motivations. Thematically speaking, the world of journalism (which has placed him in this out-of-place desert) and the constant pursuit of attaining a ‘reality’ by reporting the news have alienated him not only from his profession, but from his own physical self as well. Thus, the idea of removing oneself from the world is symbolically referred to when the literal switch in personalities occurs with the visually played out scene that sees the back of what we originally think to be the silhouette of Nicholson’s character only to dismiss this theory once Locke enters the frame to co-join Robertson on the balcony view. The theme of escapism flourishes once Locke is in the process of entering the skin of a dead man, which is easily done in a hotel where the employees are oblivious to the identity of their customers. The character’s action of transferring the picture from one passport to another confirms the process of ‘changed’ personas and Antonioni juxtaposes this with the conversation tape-recording which is meant to put us inside the character’s frame of mind. This montage of scenes and the sequence where he finds himself in a church-fittingly a location that accentuates the notion of ‘birth’, ‘rebirth’, and perhaps life after ‘death’ all operate as this transformation in persona and act as a preliminary source for the film’s eventually lead up to a more outward comment on the theme of escapism.

Antonioni’s discourse on Locke’s state of alienation and his physiological escapism state of mind are aided by the additional presence of two polar-opposite female characters. The role of his wife Rachel Locke (Jenny Runacre) is presented as an alienating force as well as ‘something’ or ‘someone’ to escape from. As it is suggested from the back-story episodes and/or flashbacks of her elicited affair or by the fire in the back yard, there is some sort of dissatisfaction in the relationship from both sides-basically his married life is far from being rosy. Several scenes before the hotel lobby sequence where we are witness to his desperate attempts of getting away from his former life and wife; we have Antonioni insert an interesting shot within a shot scene where the alienating and recluse world of the protagonist in the form of documentary footage is shown inside the alienating medium of television.

The girl without a name (Maria Schneider) assists him in getting rid of his former life with her convenient no questions, no problem attitude. The fact that he doesn’t have any real connection to her or any purpose for her is confirmed by the lack of authentic dialogue between the two and by the fact that even if they are shown together in the same frame they are often far apart from one another. In her own way she is an illusionary type of individual as well, and it is only when David himself is a lifeless corpse do the two women find out who he really is or who he was and the end result is “ la radiographie pessimiste de l’impossibilité pour quiconque de changer sa propre destinée individuelle et de l’impossibilité pour tous de saisir le sens de cet emprisonnement et de la fuite inutile ” .

Antonioni establishes the narrative in a rather dry, lifeless and desolate environment. Having the film commence in the desert stresses the alienating context for the stranger in a foreign land and furthermore the concept of ‘foreign’ is included in the protagonist’s initial encounters with the locals where his interactions with them basically consists of questions getting stonewall responses. Antonioni’s further elaborates the sense of ‘distance’ and ‘alienation’ found in such a setting, explored in two mise-en-scenes where Locke is positioned in this process of isolation within the emptiness of the desert. One sees a long-shot of a man on camel peering in the distance, who eventually walks into the foreground of the frame only to exist it surprises the character and the viewer for its lack of communication and by vaguely acknowledging the presence of the white man’s wave of hello. The other shot a little later on in the narrative sees Locke’s screams of despair with a truck stuck in the sand and the camera pans into the empty space of the desert simply enlarges this thematic idea of man being alone in the world. The sense of space and isolation is then elaborated in the enclosed space of the very empty hotel room walls (which is symbolically revisited in the film’s closing moment). Once Locke trades this confinement for the alternative- the shoes of Robertson, he can not run out into any direction or else he will lose his identity. Catching up with him are the notion of time and a sense of danger in the form of police car chases, traffic lords and his wife. As the film comes to an end, the two themes are put into evidence, with the single shot camera sequence that sees the camera penetrate the otherwise blocked window of the prison-like bars ‘escaping’ into the outside showing the viewer a catastrophic result of loneliness.

Conclusion

When analyzing the theme of alienation inside the characters of Antonioni’s work, Kevin Z. Moore states that “to be alienated in an Antonioni film is to be resentfully situated in an overly-industrialized, capital-intensive world that fails to provide a nurturing environment in which emotions might flourish” . The film protagonist’s failure to ‘achieve’ this leads to a “disenchantment with the world and retreats into himself ” where he is subsequently disconnected from common goals.

The theme of escapism in this pair of films, acts as a voluntary or involuntary recourse to loneliness, where characters who belong to these solitary worlds find alternative methods to confronting these social issues. The ‘search for self’ is symbolically and metaphorically juxtaposed into thematic and filmic discussion by Antonioni and ultimately, the co-relation between these two pictures almost 15 years apart is that both films are about ‘missing people’. In The Passenger and L’avventura we have determined and examined how the signifier of death as in the disappearance of Anna and the disposal of Locke for Robertson is a prelude to a transformation to be witnessed in the gesticulation of motions found in the protagonist and we could also conclude that the complexity of heterosexual relationships are causes for alienation and escapism within the characters and as a result the Antonionian language of cinema makes a link between narrative discourse and cinematic form in order to manifest a better understanding of the complicated journey that occurs in the human condition.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Articles & Books

Brunette, Peter. The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Cambridge, Mass. : Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Chatman, Seymour. Antonioni: or, the Surface of the World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Micciche, Lino. “Inutile est la fuite hors de sa propre prison.” Ecran, No.361 (Mai 1975). pp. 32-35.

Moore, Kevin Z. “Eclipsing the Commanplace: The Logic of Alienation in Antonioni’s Cinema.” Film Quarterly, Vol.48 (Summer 1995). pp. 22-34.

Film

L’avventura, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni (1960)

The Passenger, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni (1975)

Web reference

Peranson, Mark. “Antonioni: Fanfare for the Modern Man.”
http://www.varsity.utoronto.ca/archives/118/jan22/review/Antonioni.html

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist, and critic at IONCINEMA.com, established in 2000. A regular at Sundance, Cannes, and Venice, Eric holds a BFA in film studies from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013, he served on the narrative competition jury at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson’s "This Teacher" (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022, he was a New Flesh Juror for Best First Feature at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Current top films for 2023 include The Zone of Interest (Glazer), Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An), Totem (Lila Avilés), La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher), All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson).

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