Billy Wilder’s “Avanti!” (1972)

As a director who valued the primacy of writing over all else, Billy Wilder often used stage plays as the source material for his feature-length film projects.  While he was looking for a project to work on following the disappointing reception of 1970’s THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, Wilder was contacted by the agent who had earlier sold Wilder on adapting 1955’s THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH regarding a new play by Samuel Taylor called “Avanti!”.  The play had achieved only a modest, short-lived success on Broadway, but the material provided Wilder with an avenue to indulge his desire to tell, in his words, “a bittersweet love story” in the vein of David Lean’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945) (1).  His screenwriting partner, I.A.L. Diamond, initially proved unavailable to join him on this new venture, so he recruited screenwriters Julius J. Epstein and Norman Krasna to collaborate with him on the script.  Fortunately for Wilder, his eventual dissatisfaction with their work coincided with the timing of Diamond’s availability opening back up, and he was able to bring his longtime partner back on to the project.  Shot abroad on the Italian mainland as well as the island of Capri, AVANTI! (1972) continues Wilder’s long string of well-crafted European romance comedies even as the ends of said string have frayed to reveal some heavy wear and tear.  

AVANTI! puts a distinct spin on the conventional sex farce picture, setting it within the buttoned-up and sexually-chaste climate of Roman Catholic Italy.  The fun begins in Baltimore, where the high-powered business tycoon Wendell Armbruster Jr (frequent Wilder headliner Jack Lemmon) receives word that his father has been killed in a car accident while on his annual solo trip to the Italian island of Ischia.  Wendell catches a last minute flight to Rome, and after some comic hijinks at customs, makes the journey by train and then by sea to the remote Mediterranean island.  Going on his fifth appearance in Wilder’s filmography, Lemmon turns in a dependably charming performance as the curmudgeonly capitalist at the center of the story.  As Wendell checks into the same motel that his father stayed at during his past vacations over the last ten years and begins the process of recovering the body, Clive Revill’s stuffy hotel director, Carlo Carlucci, divulges a shocking revelation: Wendell’s father wasn’t alone when he died– he was with his longtime secret mistress!  It’s then that he meets the mistress’s daughter, a sweet British woman named Pamela Piggoff and played by Juliet Mills, who reportedly was told by Wilder to gain twenty-five pounds for the role.  Together, they grapple with Italy’s sleepy work ethic to retrieve the bodies, even as they inevitably fall into the same kind of extramarital romance their parents once enjoyed.

AVANTI! finds Wilder working with an entirely new set of technical collaborators behind the camera, namely cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller, production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, and editor Ralph E. Winters.  Kuveiller was selected by Wilder chiefly because of his work on Elio Petri’s A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY (1969)(1), and more or less replicates the director’s utilitarian visual aesthetic.  Considering the picturesque Old World setting, AVANTI!’s cinematography isn’t exactly lush or vibrant.  The 35mm film canvas renders Wilder’s simple setups in swaths of cool neutral tones, peppered with warm splashes of red and orange.  While the 1.85:1 compositions and classical camerawork arguably fail to assert themselves as inspired or artistic choices, Wilder’s decades of experience behind the camera nonetheless makes for effective storytelling.

Wilder’s signature barbed wit finds many instances to insert itself into AVANTI!, even if the edges have dulled and crusted over with age.  The film continues a trend that has developed over the course of his most recent features– an increasing reliance on exaggerated physical comedy.  For instance, the entire opening sequence in which Lemmon switches outfits with a fellow passenger on his flight unfolds without a single line of dialogue, relying instead on manic gestures and overzealous facial expressions.  This emphasis on physical comedy establishes something of a cartoonish vibe to the film, further evidencing Wilder’s aesthetic migration from the subtle to the overt.  Many other ideas and images mark AVANTI! as a product of Wilder’s particular vision: the usage of mirrors and reflections as compositional devices, the visual shorthand of uniform as an occupational and cultural identifying device (like the robes of the cardinals and the habits of the nuns alluding to the sexually-repressed nature of Roman Catholicism), and the comic exploration of class dynamics in its telling of the love story between a millionaire businessman with his own private jet and a modest woman who values the simple things in life– like lying nude on a rock out in the middle of a lagoon to soak up the sun.  

Indeed, AVANTI! marks something of a culmination in Wilder’s career-long pursuit of increasingly-provocative subject matter by featuring nudity for the first time in his work.  In keeping with his own wry outlook on the human condition, however, the nudity glimpsed in AVANTI! isn’t meant to be particularly titillating or arousing; the pasty skin on display belongs to a female character with a self-proclaimed weight problem and a male performer who carved out a respected career for himself by displaying a wholesome, squeaky-clean image.  The sight of Lemmon’s bare ass seems like some kind of unholy transgression, and Wilder is well aware this.  At the same time, there’s an emotional distance in the way that Wilder stages these moments of sexual playfulness, giving the distinct impression that, in his advanced age, Wilder’s taste for sexual provocativeness is being eclipsed by the tastes of his own audience.  The British network Channel 4’s review of the film perhaps said it best:

Taken at face value, it’s simply a travel comedy about funny foreigners and love in the Mediterranean. Yet what stands out is how uncomfortable Wilder seems to be with making a sex comedy in the 1970s. Forced to take on board the aftershocks of the summer of love but saddled with an old man’s attitude and an old man’s cast, Wilder seems perilously out of his depth. As Lemmon and Mills strip off to reveal pale white skin and flabby fat, you can’t help feeling that the resolutely misanthropic director is somewhat appalled by the realities of his characters’ bedroom antics.”” (2)

Owing to Wilder’s supreme professionalism as a filmmaker, AVANTI! wrapped on schedule and $100,000 under budget (1), but that kind of technical economy unfortunately would not lead to financial or critical reward.  At 2 ½ hours, most critics cited the length of AVANTI! as a major liability, despite a modestly charming story and cast.  Wilder’s efforts would result in several Golden Globe nominations come awards season, but the perennial Academy favorite would find no Oscar love this time.  He ultimately grew disappointed with the final product, frustrated by the audience’s refusal to agree with his conviction that AVANTI! was his edgiest film to date.  Indeed, the sexual revolution that Wilder had helped to usher in was fast outpacing his own gender politics, saddling AVANTI! with an inherently geriatric worldview.  

What Wilder loses in edginess, however, he gains in poignancy.  The film’s beautifully bittersweet ending, in which Armbruster and Piggoff decide to bury their respective parents side by side atop a picturesque ocean cliff side instead of burying them under the auspices of the separate lives they led back home, feels authentically sweet because it comes from a place of true, heartfelt sentiment on Wilder’s part.  Here is a highly-acclaimed director looking back on the life he’s led as he nears its end, rejecting the masquerade of modern society and its values in favor of something real and honest.  He had built his career on chronicling the inherent absurdity of the Twentieth Century, applying a misanthropic viewpoint to his narrative of the new society that emerged from the ashes of World War II to establish the world we inhabit today.  AVANTI! isn’t particularly edgy or provocative in its depiction of this brave new world, feeling very much like the work of an old man who has nothing to prove.  However, with age comes wisdom, and the simple poignancy of Wilder’s storytelling makes for an authentically emotional experience that will resonate for generations to come.

AVANTI! Is currently available on standard definition DVD from MGM.

Credits:

Produced by: Billy Wilder

Written by: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond

Director of Photography: Luigi Kuveiller

Production Designer: Ferdinando Scarfiotti

Editor:  Ralph E. Winters

Music Arrangement: Carlo Rustichelli

 

References:

  1. (Via Wikipedia)  Chandler, Charlotte, Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster 2002. ISBN 0-7432-1709-8, pp. 274-277
  2. (Via Wikipedia): Channel 4 Review
  3. IMDB Trivia Page