After watching Billy Wilder’s wonderfully sublime late period romantic comedy “Avanti”, I felt as if I just escaped to a wonderful paradise and left the worries of the world behind. That’s part of what magical Hollywood film making can do to us, they can lift us onto a different plain into a fantasy we sometimes hesitate to leave, even after the credits roll. I felt this way after watching “Avanti”, I was soaked into the wonderful world of Italy, humming the lovely theme music to myself afterwards, and having the kind of contentment only the best movies can put you in.
It’s almost as if the film knows the kind of person to attract, in the presence of the lead protagonist Wendell Armbrewster Jr, played here by Wilder regular Jack Lemmon. Armbrewster Jr. is an uptight American industrialist who is inconvenienced when he hears of his father Armbrewster Sr. has died in a car accident while visiting a small Island in Naples. For the past ten years, Armbrewster Sr had been going to this Island for one month out of the year, and staying at the same resort allegedly for the therapeutic mud baths for his bad back. It isn’t until Armbrewster Jr. comes to claim the body, that he discovers his old man had been carrying on a ten-year affair with another woman who died along with him in the same car. This puts a damper in Wendell’s plan to collect the body right away and deliver him to a funeral in Baltimore which will be a televised event as Armbrewster Sr. was a very important businessman in America.
Wendell must now go through a series of red tape to release the body, try to hide the fact that his father was a philanderer, as well as deal with Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills), the British daughter of the deceased lover, who is there to collect her mother’s body at the same time. Being that this film works partly as a farce, things don’t go according to plan, as pretty soon, the two bodies are stolen by a local family looking to extort money from Wendell after their family vineyard was damaged by the car accident. There is also a bell boy, who was deported from America for criminal activities, but tries to bribe Wendell into giving him a passport after he passes along incriminating photos of his father and lover together. Meanwhile Pamela Piggott, a slightly plumpish woman concerned about her weight begins falling in love with the lovely Island of Naples just as her humble mother would have been, and soon enough Wendell falls for her charms.
Most romantic comedies can be considered predictable, especially when a man and woman meet, and at first they don’t like each other, it’s only a matter of time before they connect in some way. Here it’s when the hard-edged, rude American antics of Wendell are softened by the gentle, often sad and insecure Pamela. When the pairing happens it’s hard to resist. It’s to Jack Lemmon’s credit that he can come off as unlikable to the extreme, especially towards Pamela calling her a “fat ass” , along with being rude and impatient to the friendly locals, only to turn around and be able to find his humanity within the Italian paradise. Juliet Mills as Pamela is simply glowing in the film, in the way most movie stars should. Her character begins as lonely and sad, yet she has the right amount of sentiment that never feels forced, and it’s a revelation to see her come alive within the romance of the world, it’s easy to see Wendell fall in love with her.
The fact that “Avanti” never feels chaste like some lesser romantic comedies feel is a testament to the material. Sex is prevalent throughout the film, and being that this was released in 1972, Wilder didn’t have to succumb to the idea of suggestion like he had to with his classics like “Some Like it Hot” or “The Apartment”. Here we see Wendell and Pamela in bed together, swimming naked in the ocean, but none of it is for shock value, but rather a gesture to let go of ones inhibitions. Wilder still has playful ways to suggest sex, such as in the title itself. Avanti is the Italian word for “enter” or to “Come in”. It is a recurring phrase uttered in, of all places a hotel where servants ask to enter a room. It is uttered by Wendell when Pamela asks to enter his room, and then in a very sly, charming moment, Pamela says it to Wendell, when they consummate their relationship.
The use of this word could be thought of as a tip of the hat to Wilder’s mentor and contemporary Ernst Lubitsch, who basically invented the romantic comedy. Lubitsch had fun with sexual innuendo better than anyone particularly when it came to hotel rooms and key holes, all used as a rather bigger metaphor for what was going on beyond those doors. It’s safe to say, Wilder became Lubitsch’s heir to this kind of comedy, and oh how perfect it feels when he pulls it off.
“Avanti” was written by Wilder along with his constant collaborator I.A.L Diamond, as the two wrote exclusively together with every film since “Some Like it Hot”. As in all of their films, they are able to punch up terrific one liners, and create wonderful supporting characters, albeit not all that believable. One such character is Carlo Carlucci, the hotel manager played with comic gusto by character actor Clive Revill. Carlo becomes Lemmon’s sidekick, and guide throughout the Island, always able to help out when it comes to finding coffins for the dead bodies, and cleaning up a hotel room, when a chambermaid happens to shoot her lover when he threatens to walk out on her. Carlo is the type of guy Friday who adds to the film’s magic, along with a quip or two along the way.
But underneath all this romance and charm, there is a bit of an indictment by Wilder. He never finishes a film without a bite of cynicism, which finishes the film off as bittersweet. It’s safe to say with a European backdrop such as this, the people who come off the worst are the Americans. Although Wendell redeems himself in the end, he is almost a caricature at the beginning of how Americans are perceived in other countries. At one point Pamela calls out American behaviour as “childish, playing golf on the moon like you own the place.”
This criticism of American culture is brought to a head in the climax of the film when a representative of the U.S. State Department swoops in almost like a Deus ex machina to recover the body of Wendell’s father without any red tape, however it’s at this point, Wendell is not ready to leave just yet. The film was made in 1972 during Richard Nixon’s second term and right before Watergate. Nixon himself was a bit of a blowhard, who along with other dehumanizing policies, turned America in the world’s biggest eyesore. Today, we are bombarded with American foreign policies, rude, agitated, and impatient government talking heads, from the left and the right, it’s hard to escape from it. With “Avanti”, Wilder builds something that feels like an escape, and a reminder that in some places, America doesn’t rule the world, and there is pleasure in that. Wilder himself, was a European like most directors who Immigrated to Hollywood before the War in Germany. I have always valued an outsiders opinion of what America represents, it’s hardly ever gushing. But Wilder never dwells on this cynicism, especially when he’s preoccupied with making romance with his characters who are just looking for happiness. “Avanti” is like a vacation, you will not want to leave, but what’s beautiful about it is once it leaves you, it stays with you, as if you’ve just fallen in love.