The plot is minimal. A group of friends embarks on a cruise. Anna (Lea Massari) is engaged to Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), but she has gotten used to the distance between them; she has become accustomed to being alone. When they land on an island to explore, Anna disappears without a trace. It is almost as if she never existed at all. And the existence of the other characters is equally nebulous.
Sandro and Claudia (Monica Vitti), Anna's best friend, spend the rest of the film hopelessly in pursuit of her. By the end, their journey is devoid of purpose, as they realize that they do not wish to find her anymore. Claudia says:
Sandro and Claudia have fallen in love, but their love is just as empty as the one previously shared by Sandro and Anna.Just several days ago, the thought of Anna being dead would have made me sick.
And now, I don't even cry, I'm afraid she might be alive.
It is pretty well acknowledged that this film is a criticism of the idle upper class, a group of people who care so little about anything that they spend the entirety of the film wandering around, becoming engulfed by their surroundings and ricocheting off of each other without true connection. They are incapable of true connection. In one scene, Claudia and Sandro are on top of a church, playing with the ropes that set the bells ringing. When they begin to ring loudly, the lovers hear more ringing off in the distance, seeming to answer them. It is more likely though, that what they are hearing is simply an echo, and not a real communication at all.
Before this, the only Antonioni I had seen was Blow-Up, which I have now seen several times. What actually made me finally track down L'avventura was reading Vinyl is Heavy, and their obsession over there with Monica Vitti. Any obsession with this woman is well-founded. You can't take your eyes off of her, and considering that half of what she does in this film is wander aimlessly through streets and scenery, this is a pretty spectacular feat. Her graceful body language and her heavy-lidded eyes own the camera's gaze. Partly, this is Antonioni's doing, and this is one thing that makes me suspect that there is more going on here than bourgeoisie ennui. Over and over Claudia becomes objectified by the male gaze, as do many of the other women. In particular, Claudia is consistently trapped by the framing, making her seem caged.
The gaze is prominent here, in a scene showing Giulia's (Dominique Blancher) puerile romp with a young painter who depicts only the female body in his art.
The above scene is interesting, because it is one of the several examples in this film of the revelation of an "establishing shot" following the entrance to the scene, rather than at the beginning. Here you see Claudia leaning against a stone wall, then the camera provides a wider shot, showing her as the center of a captive male audience. Perhaps we are being implicated in this gaze as well. Maybe Claudia, like Anna, exists solely as an object of the gaze. Anna disappears when she decides that she does not want this gaze to define her. Much later, Claudia despairs when she fears she has lost Sandro's attention. The woman are surfaces, and not much more. They are figments struggling against their tenuous relationship to reality.
When the film ends, one senses that it is beginning all over again.