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

In 'White Lotus,' Beauty and Truth Are All Mixed Up

“The Adventure” is not the only film referenced in “The White Lotus,” which is positively haunted by movies and the fantasies they spawn. 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 see 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 “ Mr. 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, Antonioni’s preferred 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.

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