In ‘White Lotus,’ Beauty and Truth Are All Mixed Up

Early in the second season of “The White Lotus” — Mike White’s HBO satire of the leisure class, currently set in a five-star Sicilian resort — there’s a sequence that offers an overt, shot-for-shot homage to a scene in “L’Avventura,” from 1960, the first film in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Trilogy of Decadence.” Coolly removed and virtually plotless, Antonioni’s three films were intended as an indictment of the entropic passivity of wealth. All starred Monica Vitti, the glamorous Italian actress with whom Antonioni was romantically involved. In “L’Avventura,” she plays Claudia, a young woman whose best friend, Anna, disappears during a yacht trip off the coast of Sicily. As Claudia and Anna’s boyfriend, Sandro, search for the missing girl, they drift into an unconvincing relationship. When they arrive at the lone hotel in the town of Noto, Claudia, suddenly worried about facing her friend, tells Sandro to search inside without her.

The scene “The White Lotus” recreates takes place outside, in the piazza, where Claudia is accosted by a horde of leering men. The aesthetics are disconcerting: Antonioni uses the town’s baroque architecture to pile men around and atop Claudia. She looks afraid, for a moment, but then has a sort of detachment from reality. Walking slowly through the crowd, she seems to give herself over to the experience, allowing herself to become a spectacle, subject to the men’s (and the audience’s) scrutinizing, consuming gaze.

Welcoming You Back to ‘The White Lotus’

The second season of “The White Lotus,” Mike White’s incisive satire of privilege set in a luxury resort, begins on HBO on Oct. 30.

  • Michael Imperioli: The “Sopranos” star is enjoying a professional renaissance after years of procedurals and indies. In the new season of “The White Lotus” he tries his hand at comedy.
  • Season 1: The series scrutinized the interactions between guests and staff at a resort in Hawaii. “It’s vicious and a little sudsy and then, out of nowhere, sneakily uplifting,” our critic wrote
  • Unaware Villain: The actor Jake Lacy plays Shane, a wealthy and entitled 30-year-old on his honeymoon, in the first season. Here is what he said about bringing to life the unsavory character.
  • Emmys: The series scooped up five Primetime Emmys on Sept. 12, including for best TV movie, limited or anthology series, and best supporting actress for Jennifer Coolidge’s breakout performance.

Even before “The White Lotus” fully replicates this image, though, we see one character — a batty gazillionaire named Tanya McQuoid, played by Jennifer Coolidge — explicitly name-check Vitti. Describing her fantasy of a day in Italy to her husband, Greg, she stays resolutely on the surface: “First, I want to look just like Monica Vitti,” she says. “And then this man in a very slim-fitting suit, he comes over and he lights my cigarette. And it tastes really good. And then he takes me for a drive on his Vespa. Then, at sunset, we go down really close to the sea, to one of those really romantic spots. And then we drink lots of aperitivos and we eat big plates of pasta with giant clams. And we’re just really chic and happy. And we’re beautiful.” Greg obligingly rents a Vespa. But Tanya is not the character who will feature in the Antonioni homage.

“L’Avventura” is not the only film referenced in “The White Lotus,” which is positively haunted by movies and the fantasies they engender. As Tanya casts herself in her superficial version of an Italian film, Bert Di Grasso — a grandfather whose family trip to Sicily has been upended by the women in the family’s refusing to come — is exalting the ethos of “The Godfather,” in which he sees men who are free to do as they like. After her ill-fated Vitti cosplay leaves her alone and betrayed, Tanya takes up with Quentin, part of a group of “high-end gays,” as she calls them, who recast her as a tragic heroine. Quentin tells her about his own lost love, but it sounds like the plot of “Brokeback Mountain,” and he takes her to the opera to see “Madama Butterfly,” which, in this context, can’t help but call to mind “M. Butterfly,” and a very specific form of romantic deception. As the line blurs between stories and lies, the vibe shifts closer to “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” If the first season of “The White Lotus” was about the casual destructiveness of wealth, this one seems to be about its willful delusion — and how easily preyed upon people who evade reality can be.

In Antonioni’s film, Vitti’s wealth and beauty grant her character access to a world of glamour, but they also trap her in a lie, concealing a real world of rot and corruption. “L’Avventura” means “the adventure” — ironic, since nothing much happens in the movie, and its central mystery is never solved — but an “avventura” is also a term for an illicit affair, often one entered out of boredom, for kicks. This is precisely how everyone in this season of “The White Lotus” gets into trouble. For both show and film, “love” is a dance of deception and self-delusion, in which it’s hard to tell who’s the mark.

The only character who still clings to purity — the only innocent left to corrupt — is Harper Spiller, played by Aubrey Plaza. And she is the one who ends up in Noto, recreating the Monica Vitti scene in the piazza. Like Claudia, Harper has drifted here by accident — by virtue, another character observes, of being pretty. The newly rich wife of a tech founder, she has come on a luxury vacation at the invitation of his college roommate. Harper is suspicious of the whole endeavor: of getting rich quickly, of old friends who materialize suddenly after you get rich, of rich people who spend their lives disengaging from the world and drifting from one fantasy locale to the next. In Noto, she finds herself alone and surrounded by men, exactly like Vitti. Just as in the film, the scene feels over the top and surreal — part paranoid fantasy, part dissociative experience, and even stranger now that it’s 2022, not 1960, and Aubrey Plaza doesn’t cut quite so otherworldly and surprising (for Noto) a figure as the statuesque blonde Vitti did.

As we watch Harper drift through the crowd, what we are looking at is the experience of being looked at. Along with Tanya — who aims to imitate Vitti but is instead brutally compared, by a tactless hotel manager, to Peppa Pig — she offers a metaphor for how thoroughly we can give ourselves over to imposture.

Antonioni started working during the Italian neorealism movement, when films were shot on location, making use of nonactors, telling stories about working-class people and poverty and despair. But it was “L’Avventura,” with its focus on the alienation of the moneyed, that made him internationally famous. I know this because I took an Italian-neorealism class during a junior year abroad in Paris, and — not surprisingly, I suppose, for the kind of person who takes an Italian-neorealism class during a junior year in Paris — I, too, preferred Antonioni’s trilogy about disaffected rich people to the stuff that had come before: children stealing bicycles, Anna Magnani worrying about unpaid bills, that sort of thing. Struggle is hard to watch; it is much more pleasant to have our moral judgments projected into a world of aestheticized, escapist pleasure.

We carry a desire to inhabit images we’ve seen, reified symbols of love, glamour, happiness, success. The “White Lotus” scene in Noto is a perfect representation of this recursive fakery and its nightmarish endpoint. Like so many travelers in the Instagram age, the show’s characters drift through their adventures without any real purpose other than to reproduce the pretty scenes and special moments they’ve seen elsewhere, trying to locate themselves in endless reflections. Among them, it is only Harper who remains unaffected by visual culture. Her scene in Noto feels like an inflection point. It is easier than ever to mistake beauty for truth — or pretend to. Which, the show asks, will Harper choose?

Source photographs: HBO; Cino del Duca/PCE, Lyre.

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