The Nature of the Irresolute
Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura was famously booed at its premiere screening at Cannes. Here we have wealthy Italians pursuing listless lives of luxury, with spite, malice and put-downs frequent, and their reaction to one of their member's disappearance an irritation half-forgotten within a matter of days. We also have the ambiguousness of this vanishing. The film never tells us what happened to Anna after she goes missing: when Anna (Lea Massari), her partner Sandro (Gabrielle Ferzetti), her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti), and others visit an isolated island while sailing on Anna's father's yacht. We also then have what seems the film's most sympathetic character, Claudia, losing a lot of that sympathy when she so promptly embarks upon, or perhaps even continues, an affair with Sandro within a day or two of Anna's absence.
Yet Antonioni's genius isn't just to create a dispiriting aesthetic experience, with the director a truculent auteur determined to empty auditoriums. He instead seeks a different type of viewer so that cinemas can be filled again by an audience with a different set of expectations. Bert Cardullo goes so far as to say that Antonioni managed to deviate from many dramatic precepts: "For Western society, theistically based and ideologically organized, the concepts of drama that derived substantially from Aristotle had sufficed for centuries." (Soundings) There is some truth to this claim however hyperbolic Cardullo's tone, and we can do worse than look at a few of those expectations and how Antonioni counters them, without himself being no more than a contrarian. If we accept that Antonioni is resistant to moral behaviour and narrative throughlines, and insists on uncertainty, vagueness and equivocation, then we need both to say how he counters those expectations and why he feels the necessity to do so.
First, we can think of what Aristotle called the enthymeme, which Arthur C. Danto sees as an important part of aesthetic purpose. "An enthymeme is a truncated syllogism, with a missing premiss or a missing conclusion, and it yields a valid syllogism when, in addition to meeting the usual conditions of syllogistic validity, the missing line is an obvious truth: something anybody can be expected to accept without special further effort..." (The Transfiguration of the Common Place) A syllogism is unequivocal: all men are mortal; Socrates is a man, and thus must be mortal. If we accept the premise, we must allow for the certitude of its conclusion. But with an enthymeme conclusions can be drawn but with an assumption rather than a categorical certitude. When someone offers a rhetorical question we infer the answer but we cannot know it, even if the inference is clear. Is it a good idea to eat babies might be the question, and we are expected to know with some confidence it isn't. Irony is often in this sense an enthymeme as we are expected to conclude the opposite of what has been said. For Danto, this is a vital aspect of aesthetics, but if Cardullo is right, then central to Antonioni's work is the opening up of the material so that we cannot fish out the meaning that is inferred. Indeed, like irony, sub-text often works like this, with the viewer aware of what the meaning happens to be even if the characters themselves are unaware of it, or at least refuse to express it. When in Casablanca, Rick asks his pianist not to play 'As Time Goes By', we aren't supposed to think it is a song he doesn't like; it is a tune he clearly can't bare for emotional reasons. It isn't a bad piece of music. Casablanca is a classic film playing fair to the sort of conventions Antonioni resists as we wait to find out very specifically why Rick can't listen to the song.
But Antonioni replaces the enthymeme, which has served dramatists for a couple of thousand years, with a sort of symptomatic narratology, as though the rhetorical question becomes an open one, and where the answer seems to have multiple causes and where the question itself cannot be asked with confidence. If we wonder, why does Anna kill herself, we might say that she thought Sandro wouldn't finally marry her, because he is too busy with his work, that he is a philanderer, and even that he has been pursuing an affair with her best friend behind her back. Yet even the question itself needs to contain ambiguity. Has Anna killed herself? She may have fallen into the sea accidentally; perhaps has found some way to escape, we cannot know. Rather than a clear question that would seem to have only one answer that is withheld from the viewer, Antonioni keeps multiplying the possible questions and the possible answers. One wouldn't want to simplify great, classical literature and theatre, but we can still say for sure that Anna Karenina throws herself in front of the train, doing so because she loves a man who is not her husband and that disgrace has fallen upon her. There is immense nuance in Tolstoy's novel of the same name but nobody can claim that Tolstoy's Anna doesn't fall under the train. We are left wondering exactly why, but the reasons are very understandable given the culture she finds herself in, and the feelings she has for Vronsky, whom she reckons is seeing other women.
If the viewer doesn't know what has happened to Anna in L'avventura, then this isn't because Antonioni films are, according to Stephen Dalton, "jealously guarding their secrets." (BFI) but more that Antonioni would say he doesn't know the meaning of the disappearance. Speaking of a scene that he cut from the film, Antonioni says "Claudia...is with other friends on the island. They are making all possible speculations about the disappearance of the girl. But there are no answers. After a moment of silence, one says 'maybe she simply drowned. Claudia suddenly turns to him: 'Simply?' They all look at each other dismayed. This is it. This dismay is the meaning of the film." (The Architecture of Vision) Dalton may note that Blow-Up could have been a less mysterious work than it turned out to be but we would be inclined to think that Antonioni's cinema resists conclusiveness. Dalton says, "according to co-star Ronan O'Casey, more scenes were originally planned that explained the story as an infidelity murder plot, but they were dropped for budget reasons." (BFI) Yet most of Antonioni's films contain enigmas that demand speculation rather than resolving themselves in narrative assertion. Is Locke killed or does he commit suicide at the end of The Passenger; why don't the two leading characters turn up for an assignation at the end of The Eclipse?
When Antonioni talks of the dismay as the meaning of the film, then we might see in such a term a variation of existential anxiety, even if Antonioni is finally more a phenomenological filmmaker rather than an existential one. What we mean by this is no more than that while an existentially inflected film would be concerned with choice, Antonioni is preoccupied with perception. Gilberto Perez reckons that "film is an art of absence, of partial views, an art that hides more than it shows. Usually, however, a film will satisfy our expectations of presence, much as a child in his game would return into view what he caused to disappear." (The Material Ghost) Antonioni not only doesn't allow what has disappeared to once again appear, he doesn't explain to us what has disappeared either. When someone says in The Passenger that people disappear all the time "every time someone leaves the room" it captures this phenomenological anxiety that runs through the director's work. It isn't the narrative mystery that should concern us but the anxiety that the story Antonioni generates can access. Anna's disappearance isn't chiefly a plot point we resolve for ourselves, though we may choose to do so. It is an opportunity to access anxious states through perceptual indeterminacy. At one moment on the island, after Anna disappears, Claudia sees someone in the distance and the viewer too may wonder if this is Anna. Instead, it is one of the other women in their group, and the disappointment is palpable as we and Claudia, at the same time, see that it is someone else who only very superficially resembles the missing woman.
Yet we might also wonder how distraught Claudia may be over Anna's disappearance. It is while they are still at the island, on the boat, when Sandro starts kissing Claudia and her resistance seems moral rather than dispassionate. Have they been having an affair thus far, which seems unlikely, or has there been an attraction between them that can now begin to be acknowledged, even if Sandro shows himself too hasty? While the director's first film The Story of a Love Affair was much more noirish in its triangulation of desire, in looking at motives behind given deeds, by 1960 Antonioni was interested in making films that would allow motivation much more tenuousness, all the better to make the meaning ambiguous and the symptoms of despair accumulate: to reveal the dismay.
It is partly why we agree with Cardullo even if his claims might appear so strong. Speaking of Blow-Up he says, "if anything, Antonioni's stranger's eye on London provided him with the perspective of strategic navet, with the freedom from any complacent conviction of knowledge, and the anti-sophistication that he needed to be able to set about his real business." (Soundings) Antonioni shows us worlds with vivid attention to detail, often researching in-depth the environment he films for example, on Blow-Up, interviewing various fashion photographers and asking very specific questions about their lives. But that doesn't mean he understands the meaning of these milieux. Whether it is swinging London in Blow-Up, the industrial landscape of Ravenna in Red Desert, or the decadent lives of the Milanese in La notte, Antonioni wants to capture the surface of a life not because he is superficial, but that the assumption of depth, the certitude of meaning and motive, would be a greater shallowness still. One may find the ending of L'avventura devastating but not quite know why. It might just be that one disapproves of Sandro immensely and believe Claudia isn't much better if she is willing to love a man who had no compunction about taking up with her so soon after her friend's vanishing, and just after she has found him canoodling on the couch with a nineteen-year-old starlet. But our judgement would be as hasty as Claudia's momentary belief that she saw Anna when in fact it was someone else, or the hastiness Sandro shows in trying to kiss Claudia just after Anna's disappearance. Antonioni is inclined to ask us to mull over his images and fret over the situations he creates, but a-too-assured reckoning, a-too-quick understanding, would be to misunderstand a director who seeks provisional comprehension; one that inquires into the nature of the irresolute.
© Tony McKibbin