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The Influence of ‘L’Avventura’ on ‘Spring Breakers,’ ‘The Bling Ring,’ ‘To the Wonder,’ & ‘Upstream Color’

Written by on July 19, 2013 

Any narrative of film history is, inevitably, peppered with simplifications — a through line designed to connect the canonical works while ignoring complicated industry, economic, and social forces which have shaped the medium — but one simply cannot deny the power that L’Avventura exerted upon its premiere at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival. Though greeted to cheers and boos at the time, Michelangelo Antonioni’s epochal epic has been continually cited as a primary influence by major filmmakers of the second half of the 20th century.

It’s a work that remains challenging for many viewers, but the impact remains palpable: seemingly every “New Wave” across the planet would borrow elements until these unique gestures were forever ingrained in film language. Even this year — right as it’s being toured by Janus Films in a stunning new 35mm print — one can see the film’s visual, textual, and cultural ideas percolating through works in the United States. Although I’d be hard-pressed to declare these “direct citations,” it is hard not to detect a subconscious undertaking of Antonioni’s work in these films, titles that could, themselves, be considered a refraction.

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)

Harmony Korine’s neon-fueled gaze into the teenage wasteland of America could easily seem like the opposite of Antonioni’s reflective, disinterested vision, but Spring Breakers takes one key element from L’Avventura: abandoning the apparent protagonist halfway through. The narrative’s individual use of this element is quite stark, however, in both methods and merit. Breakers’s Faith (Selena Gomez) forms the moral center of the film — a naïve girl who acts as something of an outsider to the group, reflecting a surrogate audience member by keeping us in check with reality. Korine makes an ambitious gambit by throwing her out of the narrative and forcing his audience down a stranger rabbit hole, but it’s also where the film loses its power: there is no longer a place of tension, nor a chance that the film can return to the status quo. It becomes about the journey downward — the pushing of boundaries — more than anything else.

Compare that to Antonioni’s structure, in which the disappearance of Anna (Lea Massari) — handled via the pure means of cinema: she fades out by dissolve — always haunts the romance of Claudia (Monica Vitti) and Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), marking a past mistake neither can forget. While the narrative advances via their “search for Anna,” its end point seems arbitrary; do they really believe that, somehow, she’s magically waiting for them at the end of so many scattered rumors? Most likely not. Yet the fear of what actually happened to Anna always breeds tension as Claudia falls for Sandro — she might be missing from the narrative, but she’s always there. Where it ends, then, is tragedy: as Claudia’s hand reaches out — even though she knows all of what Sandro represents — one cannot help but think that Anna’s story is likely to repeat itself.

The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola)

Sofia Coppola has cited Antonioni as a major influence on many of her works, and one could easily imagine the angry discussions of “privilege” which have dogged her works being applied to the class depiction in L’Avventura. In both cases, they often come without qualification and are unjustified. What both filmmakers do share, however, is a touch for class psychology. Kent Jones writes about the specificity of The Bling Ring, which he argues is about confronting the viewer  “with the raw facts of this kind of absurdity and this kind of sadness under these particular circumstance.” The class depictions in L’Avventura are right up that same alley, and more than anything else, are the unspoken element of the film that circulates through every decision made therein. Part of what works so neatly is how Antonioni suggests Claudia’s working-class background and, thus, her outsider status — that wig she tries to fit in suggests how distanced she is from the others.

One sequence sees her left alone at the family estate, mirroring her observance of passing cars with a maid above and perpetually an ancillary figure in this social class. Antonioni reveals the possessive and unsettling elements of this psychology in subtle ways — the manner in which Anna’s father (first framed behind a cathedral) stares at Claudia once he realizes she is wearing one of her daughter’s shirts; the suspected and racist treatment of the Sicilians; or Sandro’s jealous provocation of spilling the ink of the artist outside the cathedral, just because he can. Much like the young protagonists of The Bling Ring, Antonioni’s characters posses both objects and each other in an almost ingrained sense of “typical” behavior; the one break, thanks to Claudia’s presence, is the oft-forgotten (but very funny) interlude with Giulia’s seduction of the painter. Whether Coppola is successful through her nods to Antonioni depends on one’s willingness to go along with her narratives. Coppola’s material is harder to see without the distance 53 years may grant us. Gucci, iPhones, Facebook profiles fill up these lives, but there are questions about what Coppola’s class critique amounts to that doesn’t feel apparent from the opening moment; In L’Avventura, the extent of Sandro’s possessiveness isn’t truly confirmed until Claudia discovers him near the end of the film. At this moment, his ability to take whatever he desires reaches its most brutal conclusion.

See the film’s influence on To the Wonder and Upstream Color >>

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