The Film and Performance:
Love is a multi-layered concept in writer/director Billy Wilder’s film, Avanti! As the film represents, love isn’t merely what is seen on the surface, but is what it also represents deep inside one’s heart. Despite the film’s timeless message, Avanti! is typically one of Billy Wilder’s lesser known films primarily because of the film’s somewhat unconventional narrative style. Avanti! isn’t a dense or even much of a profound film. To an extent, the film mirrors what could be a real-life circumstance with some interjections of comedy relief scattered throughout its plot. As a result, the film’s plot just-is, which obviously was off-putting to critics and audiences upon the film’s initial release in 1972. Avanti! doesn’t aim to be a groundbreaking movie or one with a ah-ha moment of personal realization. Instead, the film is a slice-of-life within a clearly established love letter aimed at the landscape and culture of Italy. Billy Wilder, himself, expressed disappointment about the film, but perhaps he even failed to see the excellence of simplicity that the film provides.
The heart of the film is the interaction between Wendell Armbruster, Jr. (Jack Lemmon) and Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills), two individuals who are clashed together merely due to chance. They both are in Italy to collect the bodies of their parent; Wendell for his father, Pamela for her mother. Unbeknownst to Wendell, his father has been engaging in a ten-year affair with Pamela’s mother, both of them traveling to Italy each summer to the Grand Hotel Excelsior in the island of Ischia on the Bay of Naples, Italy. What begins as a tense connection with Pamela over Wendell’s personal revelation about his father ultimately transitions into a quirky friendship as they come to appreciate the culture and environment of Italy.
The film’s quirkiness begins with the realization that the entire foundation of the film is centered around the deaths of two individuals. While the film emphasizes the passing of these two persons, never once is their death portrayed as devastating or depressing. Instead, Avanti! frames these deaths as somewhat romantic: two individuals who were engaged in forbidden love finally being at rest together. This is juxtaposed with Jack Lemmon’s Wendell Armbruster, whose mentality is that of punctuality and efficiency, while Juliet Mills’ Pamela Piggott is a woman who believes she is not good enough for anyone and attributes her weight as the reason. These differing personalities in a overtly romantic environment makes them both seem glaringly out of place. With the initial introduction of these characters in a city that is overtly jovial and relaxed, this is actually appropriate for the film.
The surprising component of the film that is oddly effective is that the Italian country is what alters these two characters, not their interactions with each other. In fact, both Wendell and Pamela are bland characters in an exciting setting. Neither character truly has anything at stake. They are represented as two ordinary people who react in ordinary ways. The screwball comedy of the film, which often felt out-of-place, stems from the characters who surround them. Various subplots are introduced throughout the film as complications, yet they never truly infringe on the overall plot of the film. These issues typically self-corrected themselves, which inadvertently made the film feel like it meandered sometimes. That is because the primary focus of the film is the evolving relationship between Wendell and Pamela. These subplots provided nothing other than the quirkiness of their environment, which slightly depreciates the wonderful connectedness that slowly occurs between Wendell and Pamela.
It is evident Billy Wilder felt that elements of screwball comedy were necessary within the film in order to keep audiences interested. Even with the film’s advertising, Avanti! was represented as a comedic farce, which would have undoubtedly disappointed audiences considering the film is not that in the slightest. Avanti!, at its core, is a drama. Therefore, when the film is solely focused on the drama between Wendell and Pamela, the film excels in a special way. Their appreciation for each other is not achieved in the typical Hollywood method, but rather in an organic progression of emotional respect. They go from hating each other, to misunderstanding each other, to enjoying each other’s company, and ultimately falling in love. Some who watch this film may argue that this progression is lethargic, but the pacing of the film doesn’t diminish the impact of the overall story. Like the leisurely pace of Italy within the film, Avanti! takes its time in establishing its story and leaves the audience craving more by the film’s conclusion.
In that regard, Avanti! is somewhat of a under-appreciated gem that deserves to be watched at least once. It isn’t a film that guarantees entertainment, but it is one that will remind us all of the timelessness and profound nature of love.
*Jack Lemmon won a Golden Globe in the Best Actor – Comedy/Musical category for his performance as Wendell Armbruster, Jr. in this film.