L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)

There is a (ever-dwindling) list of movies even I am shocked that I haven’t seen, as someone who is (relatively) serious about film. Until the other day, L’avventura was on it. I love, loooooove Antonioni’s work, particularly his work with the amazing Monica Vitti, but this had somehow slipped by me. Never again! I’m starting to learn that some things are standards because they are, indeed, awesome.

The film, shot seemingly entirely from behind Monica Vitti, is pretty clearly delineated into two halves. In the first half, Anna (Lea Massari) and her BFF Claudia (Vitti) go on a boat trip with Anna’s boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), and some of his questionable rich friends. Anna spends most of the time in the midst of an existential panic, and, after fighting with Sandro, disappears off the face of a tiny island. Claudia and Sandro spend all their time looking for Anna; for a few days, at least. In the second half, which takes place only a few days after the incident, they seem to have forgotten Anna altogether, and are embarking on an affair of their own. Claudia is torn between passion and guilt, between lust and reason, between right and wrong. Anna is barely mentioned in the second half of the film, and the mystery goes completely unsolved.

There’s an eerie 3 Women quality to the film (I know this predates the Altman considerably, but go with me here). In some of the final moments before she goes missing, Anna gives Claudia one of her blouses that she no longer wants; when Anna’s father shows up at the island after her disappearance, Claudia is wearing the shirt, which clearly freaks him out. Claudia’s relationship with Sandro seems to go into borderline-obsessive territory. Although we never saw what either woman was like before the events of the film started, they both took a half-obsessive, half-disdainful stance to being Sandro’s lover. For his part, he’s basically a scumbag. At first he’s concerned with Anna’s disappearance, then he’s not (Claudia seems to be the only one who remembers her, and even then, only vaguely), and while at first he begs Claudia for her love, once she gives it to him, he becomes markedly less interested. It’s as if Sandro is the bridge between these two women.

A few visual techniques really stood out for me in the film. As I mentioned above, it seems that during most of the film (particularly the first half), the camera is pointed at the characters’ backs. I love this! It’s really amazing; the audience gets to join Claudia and Sandro in their search for Anna, we get to see the hopelessness of actually finding the woman, and the vast stretches of nature that expand out in front of the characters. One of my favorite Antonioni visual tropes is the “small humans vs. vast nature” thing, and he’s really doing some remarkable stuff with that here. Plus, we don’t get to see Claudia’s face as she looks for Anna, so we have no idea what she’s really thinking. Antonioni forces us to extrapolate onto her. So good!

Another reoccuring visual motif is that of half-indoor, half-outdoor space. We see it in the film time and time again, where someone (usually Claudia) is inside, staring out the window, and we can see that expanse of nature in front of the character, within reach, but the other half of the frame reminds us that we’re still indoors. Trapped, if you will. Antonioni’s visualization of the struggle between heart and head usually has Claudia trapped inside, looking out. Until the last shot of the film.

After he has betrayed her, Claudia seemingly makes the choice to embrace Sandro anyway (and, in the process, Anna’s ghost?). They stand outside, still staring into the distance, still looking for Anna (maybe), but this time, a building half-obscures the view. Even when Claudia chooses love, the clarity she’s hoping for is denied her. That damn building is still in the way.

My favorite Antonioni, and one of my favorite films of all time, is Red Desert, and I was pleasantly shocked to see just how many similarities the two films have. It’s as if Red Desert‘s Guilana is Claudia, aged a few years and thoroughly disappointed by her life with Sandro. I’ll be doing a frame comparison of the two films within the next few days (get excited); for now, have a sexy Monica Vitti face for your patience.

October Horrorfest: The Revenge

To round out our month-long horror celebration, Darren and I decided to each curate a night of films for one another. While we still haven’t gotten around to Darren’s picks (we’ve been busy, so tomorrow is unofficially October 33rd), we plowed through my choices on Sunday night. In order to be able to even narrow down “horror movies I want to watch with Darren” to four movies, I went with my favorites of the past ten years; partly because there have been some downright amazing horror films produced in the last ten years, and partly because I knew Darren’s knowledge of current horror cinema isn’t as vast as for those produced before 1980. So without further ado, here’s what we watched.

Them (2006) is, in my opinion, one of the most overlooked horror films of the past decade. Made in France in the middle of the New French Extremity, Them offers very little (if any) blood; instead, it relies on the terror of solitude and the unknown to unsettle the viewer. Clementine and Lucas are French expatriates in Romania; Clementine works at a French school, and Lucas is (sort of) writing a book. They live in the middle of nowhere, in a huge rented house. Clementine comes home for the weekend, they hang out some, and go to bed. Then, they start hearing noises. And her car disappears (and the Romanian police are very unhelpful). And the lights go out. And then it’s a solid 40 minutes of intense action. The movie is a sparse 77 minutes; I really appreciate that, as they cut the fat out completely. I don’t care about Clementine and Lucas’ relationship, really. All I care about is them getting terrorized. I am a huge fan of movies where intruders come to your house and try to kill you for no reason (except Funny Games, which I fucking abhor), and an even bigger fan of creepy Eastern European houses with giant attics. Them is a good, quick scare, a perfect start for the night.

As Them ends with a bit of underground claustrophobic panic, The Descent (2005) was logically up next. The first time I ever saw this film was my senior year of college; I had ordered a Region 2 DVD of the film, because I was so excited about it, and it wasn’t due to come out in the States for another few months (I also protected myself from the terrible American edit this way). After a late, late party night, I came home wired, and decided to pop the movie into my computer to fall asleep to. Bad idea. I ended up terrified, up until 8am with my muscles tensed, afraid cave monsters were going to eat me. It’s that intensity that I love about the film. So, you think it’s about women getting stuck two miles underground in a secret cave? Well, it’s also about blind, cannibalistic cave monsters. And then the women start turning on each other. Every time Neil Marshall ramps up the panic on one scenario, he adds another. Darren apparently didn’t love the film the first time he saw it (he didn’t appreciate the gratuitous jump out of your seat moments), but I’m glad he gave it a second chance, as he appreciated it much more the second time around. I love the jump out of your seat moments: even after seeing it several times, even when I knew a monster was going to be around that corner, I still was startled. I love even more the subtlety that Marshall gives the characters. They’re a group of women with personalities that exist outside their relationships with men, virtually unheard of in horror film. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t know why you’re still at the computer.

Carrying on the theme of “horrific car crashes will kill everyone you love,” Inside was next. I have a personal interest in films, particularly horror films, about the terror of motherhood. I read about it, I write about it, I absolutely love to watch it. So while I do wish that Inside was a little more than it turns out to be, it’s still a film I greatly appreciate and love. Like Them, Inside cuts the fat and basically gets right to the story: after her husband/boyfriend dies in a car crash, Sarah sulks. She’s going to have her baby on Christmas (heavy-handed, yes), so on Christmas Eve, she makes plans for her boss to take her to the hospital tomorrow, and settles in for the night. Then a woman knocks on the door, who knows all about her. She seems to leave after the police arrive, but she definitely hasn’t. Then, there’s bloodshed. Lots and lots of bloodshed. Even the blood lake in The Descent really can’t compare with the body count in Inside. Beatrice Dalle, one of my all-time favorite actresses for her ballsiness and willingness to do absolutely anything (see also: Trouble Every Day, which I considered watching in this “program”), and that gap in her teeth, plays the unnamed woman who wants Sarah’s baby and will do anything to get it. There’s a lot of stuff happening here, all in the dark, claustrophobic setting of Sarah’s house. It gets a little silly towards the end, and I really didn’t need any CGI shots of the baby, much less all of them, but it’s incredibly effective in unsettling the viewer and satisfying any bloodlust.

My final choice (which we unfortunately didn’t finish – it was late by this time!) is probably my personal favorite horror film of the past decade, Ti West’s The House of the Devil (2009). I wanted to be sure to get an American film in – which goes to show you how strong European horror has been recently – and this fit perfectly. I liked having a “strong lady” vibe going, plus the black mass in this film is not to be missed. Every performance is awesome: Jocelin Donahue is pitch-perfect as Samantha, and Tom Noonan is equally amazing – his creepy phone voice gets me every time. Plus, it’s great to see Greta Gerwig (my biggest ladycrush) in just about anything. The movie delves into 80s horror tropes and mimics them exactly, without ever slipping into self-referentiality or mockery. West clearly loves horror, and it shows. The House of the Devil is slow, and not a lot actually happens, but isn’t that what great horror is about: the waiting?