Antonioni’s L’avventura and Deleuze’s Time-image
by Hamish Ford
Hamish Ford is a writer, filmmaker and musician who teaches cinema studies at UTS and UNSW in Sydney, where he is completing a PhD on European modernist cinema of the 1960s.
What is it about L’avventura that causes such a difficult relationship between Antonioni’s cinema and viewers from different eras and cultural contexts? One important theoretical response to Antonioni’s work that can help to explicate what is both difficult and valuable in the films can be found in Gilles Deleuze’s two books on the cinema, Cinema 1: The movement-image and Cinema 2: The time-image (2). Drawing on Deleuze’s concept of the “time-image” in particular, I will focus on the qualities that seem most central to the intense responses, both positive and negative, which a film like L’avventura elicits from viewers and critics: its rendering of time and space – as seen, felt and thought.
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Antonioni once described his 1957 film Il grido as “neorealism without the bicycle”. Deleuze responds to this idea, saying: “Bicycle-less neo-realism replaces the last quest involving movement (the trip) with a specific weight of time operating inside characters and excavating them from within” (3). While L’avventura is a kind of road movie, the classical ideals of action as means to successful and morally unambiguous subjective mastery and bringing about of narrative events become eclipsed in this “adventure” by the radically foregrounded power of temporal and spatial affectivity.
The “trip” here forces difficult time and space inside the characters, “excavating” their presumed agency and distinctiveness as subjects. Characters and viewers alike feel the sheer duration of on-screen events, the meanings of which are initially opaque, so that the subject is given too much time, and too much open space, in which to look and think. This process leads to a painful reflexive awareness of bodies and their ties to a universe in which time, allied to the materiality of the immanent world, reigns supreme in all its unpredictability.
Deleuze describes a perfect “double composition” in Antonioni’s work between a cinema of the body and a cinema of the brain, showing their different speeds, so that we keep revolutionising our brain, while neglecting to update our body and its “feelings”. Deleuze highlights the importance in his theoretical response to cinema of Antonioni’s work – its rendering of the body as it moves within, generating, and as filled by, time. No longer the instrument of action, the body “becomes rather the developer of time” (4). This body which is “never in the present”, containing “the before and the after”, generates and expresses moral and perceptual anxiety, says Deleuze, something which is written on the body as it moves through space:
Tiredness and waiting, even despair are the attitudes of the body. No one has gone further in this direction than Antonioni. His method: the interior through behavior, no longer experience, but “what remains of past experiences”, “what comes afterwards, when everything has been said”, such a method necessarily proceeds via the attitudes and postures of the body (5). With Antonioni’s time-image cinema, we are not actually allowed to see time. Unlike in Citizen Kane, here the viewer is denied clear flashbacks, memories or temporal markers indicating how much time has passed since the last shot or scene; but we are also without images of more unstable temporal fragments, like we see in Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961) or 8½ (Federico Fellini, 1963). Instead, the viewer is forced to observe the temporalised body in L’avventura, as it experiences and emanates a heavy kind of moment-by-moment duree – a sense of relentless, barely moving time that hangs and hollows out the subject from within, without any refreshment from clearly marked recollection-images or intimations of oneiric temporality. We face a special and radical kind of time-image here and in other Antonioni films, but especially also perhaps La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962). It is the manifestations of relentless, non-teleological time that are seen and felt, not through expressionistic images or dialogue, but through the camera’s observing of subjects in the geographical reality of their exterior life within a very immanent spatial and temporal real.