L'Avventura at Cannes

By Kieron Corless and Chris Darke | May 15, 2009
L'Avventura at Cannes - LEADPHOTO

Cannes is the world’s most important film festival, but why? In an extract from their Faber & Faber book Cannes: Inside the World's Premier Film Festival, Kieron Corless and Chris Darke use the example of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura to explain why.

Monica Vitti in L'Avventura

Monica Vitti in L'Avventura

Why is Cannes the best film festival in the world?

In their book about the festival, Kieron Corless and Chris Darke talk about why Cannes is so prized by filmmakers.

It's May 15, 1960 and Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (running time 145 minutes) has received an incredibly hostile reception at its screening:

"One British critic phlegmatically reported that Antonioni had 'apparently overestimated the patience of his audience'. If so, they let him know in no uncertain terms by unleashing a chorus of boos and hisses that reduced the director to tears. The reaction galvanized a group of film-makers and critics to leap to his defense, including Roberto Rossellini, producer Anatole Dauman, critic Georges Sadoul and Nelly Kaplan, then assistant to Abel Gance. The festival newspaper of 17 May carried a short declaration in which 26 signatories announced themselves 'shocked by the display of hostility' and thoroughly in favor of a work of 'exceptional importance. In fact, L'Avventura was awarded a special Jury Prize for it's 'remarkable contribution to the search for a new cinematic language'. French critic Robert Benayoun claimed it to be 'the most important film since World War II after Citizen Kane.' 

What was it about L'Avventura that provoked such disparate responses?

The story concerns a group of well-off idlers who take a boat trip.  Among them are Anna and her lover Sandro and her less upper-class friend Claudia. When the group visits a barren volcanic island, Anna disappears and Sandro and Claudia go looking for her. The set-up of Anna's disappearance holds out the promise of a suspense narrative and an explanation as to how and why she vanished.  But we never learn the answer to either of these questions. Antonioni lets this absence grow until it becomes the focus of the film as expressed through the uneasy and inauthentic relationship between Claudia and Anna's former lover Sandro.

Director Michelangelo Antonioni shows Vitti his special jury prize at Cannes in 1960

Director Michelangelo Antonioni shows Vitti
his special jury prize at Cannes in 1960

One of the possible explanations for the audience's hostility is that their emotional and psychological investment in the film's story was not simply unsatisfied, but actively denied by the narration.  Along with the film's leisurely rhythm, it's 'dead times', and the lingering expressive shots of landscape and environment, Antonioni's approach to story-telling was part of the reason why L'Avventura was deemed to be a revolutionary work.

Antonioni would be seen as one of the key figures in what English speakers came to call 'art cinema', but 'art cinema' has an unfortunate ring to it and now seems both irredeemably dated and hopelessly imprecise.  The French came up with a more practical way of describing the same sort of films that emphasized the newness of their conventions, rather than the exclusivity of their appeal: le cinema moderne.  One could say that L'Avventura represents a split between old and new cinema in the way that it handles the audience expectations created by Anna's disappearance.  The usual conventions of film narrative are not simply subverted but instead, like Anna, they go missing.

So, then: a cast of penguin-suited philistines in a paroxysmal flap at the spectacle of  'modern cinema', The sensitive Italian maestro and his blonde muse Monica Vitti weeping in despair as their traumatically conceived masterpiece is traduced before their eyes. Then sweet vindication. Which is not to say that Antonioni did not have a lot riding on the screening.  It was his first feature selected to compete in Cannes and his so far rocky career had increasingly depended on recognition by French cine-savants.

But what if the screening had passed without incident? What if the film had solicited no catcalls, no supportive petitions and possibly no prizes? Would L'Avventura still have been seen as the benchmark work it is today?  And its troubled reception was as important for the festival as it was for the film.  The adventure of L'Avventura at Cannes in 1960 meant that the festival could henceforth lay claim to the crucial attribute of being a place where new tendencies in film language and new waves of film production could be discovered and defended.

The idea of the festival as promoter of ' a certain idea of cinema' was being born."

Extract from Cannes: Inside the World's Premier Film Festival (Faber & Faber, 2007)

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