SYDNEY: APRIL 29 → MAY 02, 2021







LE AMICHE/ THE GIRLFRIENDS



6:30PM, Friday April 02,
Randwick Ritz

Introduced by Jane Mills

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Country: Italy
Year: 1955
Runtime: 106 minutes
Black and White
Rating:


Tickets ⟶

“What makes [Le amiche] so bracing -- so sad and, sometimes, so funny -- is that its heroines are fallible, flawed, vain and powerful, each in her own way. They often make one another miserable, but their company is always a pleasure.” - A.O. Scott, New York Times

This major early achievement by Michelangelo Antonioni bears the first signs of the cinema-changing style for which he would soon be world-famous.

Le amiche (The Girlfriends) is a brilliantly observed, fragmentary depiction of modern bourgeois life, conveyed from the perspective of five Turinese women. As four of the friends try to make sense of the suicide attempt of the fifth, they find themselves examining their own troubled romantic lives. With suggestions of the theme of modern alienation and the fastidious visual abstraction that would define his later masterpieces such as L’avventura, L’eclisse, and Red Desert, Antonioni’s film is a devastating take on doomed love and fraught friendship.


Le amiche was restored by the Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata. Restoration funding provided by Gucci and The Film Foundation.








Film Notes by Jane Mills:


Michelangelo Antonioni
Antonioni was born in 1913 to a middle-class family in Ferrara in north-eastern Italy. His first tentative connection with cinema began in 1935 as a film critic for the local newspaper.

Moving to Rome in the late 1930s he wrote for the official Fascist film magazine edited by Mussolini’s son, Vittorio. Sacked after a few months, he briefly enrolled in the national film school established by Il Duce himself.  Here, Antonioni made a short film about a prostitute who blackmails a middle-class woman. He then collaborated on the screenplay for Roberto Rossellini’s patriotic drama, Un pilota ritorna (A Pilot Returns, 1941), a film of which neither felt proud.

While Antonioni’s filmic awakening coincided with the height of Italian neo-realism, he was never a neorealist. Rather, his inclination lay in the direction of poetic expressiveness. If  neorealism was obsessed with the visible, Antonioni was always at least as interested in the not-seenas in what is realistically there. From his very first feature film, Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair, 1950), we see his predilection for extreme long shots of empty spaces to convey emotion, expressive lighting, striking black-and-white compositions and a fascination for spiritual, emotional and moral alienation in modern society.

In the 1950s Antonioni made six feature films of which Le Amiche (1955) stands out for giving full rein to a developing aesthetic focusing on women who have lost their way amidst the anxieties of modern life.



The Film
Le amiche might come as a surprise to audiences aware only of Antonioni's celebrated films of the 1970s expecting his trademark extremely long takes, large empty spaces, massive architectural structures and long, deep focus shots in which characters, forever thwarted in their search for emotional and spiritual sustenance are dwarfed and alienated in soulless urban and rural landscapes. At first sight, apart from the main character, Clelia, (Eleonora Rossi Drago) who provides a moral centre and central viewpoint, what we see in Le amiche is a gaggle of wealthy, bourgeois, mostly mean, gossipy, amoral women, their husbands and lovers, whose concept of friendship is severely limited and whose interests and chatter rotate around love, sex, money, status and the latest fashion in couturier ball gowns. The film most certainly has melodrama and in recent years has been compared with the American romantic comedy television series Sex and the City. Which might sound like an almighty cultural put-down. But in fact, purveys precisely one of the films delights. 



Plot

The lovely, thirty something Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago), newly arrived from Rome to set up the local branch of a couture house in Turin where she was born. Preparing to take a bath in her hotel room, she is interrupted by a screaming maid who has discovered Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer) almost dead from a suicide attempt in the next room. This triggers a chain of events that will ultimately end in a successful suicide and Clelia’s decision to return to Rome. But first, Clelia is swept into the social swirl of restaurants and casinos, artists’ studios and parties of four wealthy and vapid, mean and gossipy women, the supposed friends of the unhappy Rosetta: Momina (Yvonne Furneaux), a wonderfully performed whirlwind of worldly cynicism; Nene, a talented but masochistic ceramicist; and Mariella (Anna Maria Pancani), a delightful boy-crazy airhead.

Why did Rosetta attempt suicide? What links her to her friends?  This is not, as one might expect, a simple case of melodramatic cherchez l’homme, although Nene’s partner, the faithless, not very talented painter Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti) certainlyplays a key role in bringing about the denouement. (Ferzetti will play a similar role in L’avventura). Rosetta’s unhappy affair (cynically encouraged by Momina, despite supposedly a good friend of Nene) and its aftermath, all anticipate L’avventura.

The film’s other significant male character, Carlo (Ettore Manni), is the handsome, working class assistant to the head architect, Cesare (Franco Fabrizi). Cesare is designing Clelia’s couturier salon - when, that is, he has time to spare from his affair with the married Momina whose husband we never meet and is the sort of woman who doesn’t mind whom she seduces as long - as they are wealthy and not working class. Apart from Clelia, Carlo is the only character with any integrity. It doesn’t do him any good.

Style

For Penelope Houston, this was his outstanding film of the 1950s and in it she finds many elements of Antonioni's visual grammar: “Already the elements of this fastidious craftsman's style were locked in place: the awareness of landscapes, usually melancholy, the sense of people drifting through time and space, but held always under the tightest control, the persistence of vision.”  Antonioni himself explained: “I need to follow my characters beyond the moments conventionally considered important, to show them even when everything appears to have been said.” According to Houston, this was partly what so annoyed the Cannes audience who booed when L’avventura was awarded the Critics Prize, along with that moral lethargy which seems to overpower his characters, blocking even the possibility of decisive action.

The neorealist strategy of using actual locations are lovingly filmed by Gianni Di Venanzo whose future credits would include  La notte and L'eclisse for Antonioni, La sfida (The Challenge) for Francesco Rosi, and and Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits) for Federico Fellini.

Screenplay  

Adapted from Cesare Pavese’s prize-winning novella, Tra donne sole (Among Women Only, 1949), suicide frames the film’s narrative: suicide had a significance for both writer and director. In 1953, Antonioni contributed a segment, Tentato suicidio (Attempted Suicide), to an anthology film, L’amore in città (Love in the City). The significance for Pavese was more devastating: a year after publication of this novella, he committed suicide, reportedly because of an unhappy love affair. This may explain why the screenwriters, Antonioni with Suso Cecchi D'Amico and Alba De Cespedes, decided to link Rosetta’s suicide to an unhappy affair rather than leave her motives unclear, as in the novel. Pavese’s suicide would undoubtedly affected Antonioni.

The relationship between the three screenplay writers is intriguing. De Cespedes (who gets a ‘collaboration’ credit) was a best-selling novelist and newspaper agony aunt whose only screenplay credit is for Le amiche. D’Amico was an experienced screenwriter whose credits include films for Franco Zeffirelli, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio de Sica and Francesco Rosi. The writing process was not a happy one. When D’Amico’s script was accused of sentimentalising Pavese’s novella, Antonioni retorted: “I wouldn’t say that D’Amico wrote the script. The script came out of a cooperation between me and [the] two women. D’Amico is not a great writer, but she’s a good writer, She knows the feminine mentality very well, But they hated each other, Suso and Alba, so they never talked together, I picked up some material from one and some more material from the other and then I did the script… the emotional and existential crises of the characters are the same kinds of crises you find in my other films.”

On an unpleasantly ironic note in light of the four women friends’ constant immoral and amoral gossip and innuendo, the Pavese’s suicide note read: “I forgive everyone and ask everyone's forgiveness. OK? Don't gossip too much."

Fashion

Fashion plays a large role in the film. It gives credibility and realism to Clelia as a professional, working woman and interestingly distinguishes her from the four wealthy and jobless women who are the customers of her salon’s designer gowns.  When the suicidal Rosetta sighs “Why should I go on living, to decide which dress I should wear? And when I have decided, what's left for me? Do you pity me?" Clelia replies: "Yes, I do pity you. I'm never sure about what I should say when I hear somebody reducing an entire life to choosing a dress. There are so many important things that make life worth living..."

The  gowns and fur coats in Clelia’s salon are fabulous. They were designed by the famed Fontana sisters, Zoe, Micol and Giovanna. The sisters were international celebrities, whose creations were widely admired and copied. The were best known for the wedding gown they designed for the Mexican model and actress model Linda Christian’s who married Hollywood star Tyrone Power in Rome in 1949. The wedding attracted thousands of fans and launched Italian fashion that challenged Paris’s status as designer capital of the world.

[A short break: Christian’s wedding dress really is dreamy concoction, a fairy tale princess gown in white satin, covered with embroidery and a with a five-yard train. See the newsreel footage at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iP3DOAj8k6k]



After the Christian-Power marriage, the three sisters designed for more Hollywood royalty including Ava Gardner to Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly, and they specialized in wedding gowns for celebrities such as  Margaret Truman (the US  President’s daughter), Janet Auchincloss (Jacqueline Kennedy's sister), Princess Maria Pia di Savoia (whose gown is now at the Museum of Art and Costume in Venice), and Angelita Trujillo, the daughter of the Santo Domingo dictator.

Whatever else the girlfriends in Le amichemay have lacked, they had exquisite taste in clothes. The film does not resile from relating wealth and taste to class. In a haunting sequence where Clelia revisits the districts of her working class childhood, introducing the “real” Clelia to Carlo, they bicker about what furniture she should buy for her salon. She begins to understand that her hesitation in giving up her job and status to marry Carlo involves differences in taste that can be ascribed to a gap in class status. Sadly, she tells him their relationship wouldn’t work:  "We would just fight about furniture."

Feminism

Clelia’s decision to not give up her newfound income and status to marry Carlo and her decision to retain her independence and career is just one sign of what is often thought to be Antonioni’s prescient regard for feminism. As A.O. Scott writes, Antonioni’s “fascination with women is inflected by a sympathy that might be called feminist. The main characters pursue their desires and ambitions under constraints imposed by custom and by the brute impossibility of men.”  Stephen Dalton concurs: “Viewed through 21st-century eyes, Antonioni’s grasp of gender politics … looks unusually advanced for his era. While he clearly had an eye for decorous young actresses, and often depicted women as stereotypically moody neurotics, his proto-feminist depiction of female characters is far from the leering male gaze of so many directors. Indeed, his golden decade of Italian dramas from Le amiche (1955) onwards is dominated by strong, smart, sexually independent women. Decades before cartoonist Alison Bechdel coined her famous measure of gender representation on screen, L’avventuraand L’eclisse would have passed the test

[My final commercial break: The Bechdel test, you will recall, is a witty measure of the representation of women that asks whether a film features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man and if the two women are actually named. See:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bechdel_test .}

Le amiche also passes the test.

Critical Reception

Le amiche was not a major commercial or critical success when released. It nevertheless won some awards in Italy:  Valentina Cortese won a couple of best actress prizes for her overwrought performance as the put-upon Nene. Antonioni won three Best Director awards including, as already mentioned, the Silver Lion at Venice.

Although largely dismissed when it briefly played in the USA Le amiche was admired by esteemed Village Voicecritics Jonas Mekas and Andrew Sarris, both observing that the film’s detached look at life among the rich and vapid anticipated L’avventura. They particularly admired what the film has too show and tell about women with Mekas commenting on “the subtle waves of feminine emotions, passions and loneliness” and Sarris admiring its portrayal of women “cast adrift in a sea of eroticism, a realm where men are always necessary but seldom sufficient and where women are always sufficient but not always necessary.”

Fine (The End)

…what makes this movie so enchanting and strange? It's not that deep emotions and profound meanings lurk beneath the surface of ordinary actions and encounters. It's rather that, in Antonioni's world, the superficial and the profound cannot quite be distinguished” Le amiche is, above all, impossible to stop watching.


Le amiche is, above all, impossible to stop watching.

...........................

I acknowledge the Bidgigal and the Gadigal peoples of the Eora nation, the traditional owners of the land on which I work and live. Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.

Jane Mills is an Honorary Associate Professor at UNSW, Associate Editor of the Cultural and Film Studies journals, Metro; Screen Education and Metro, Series Editor of Australian Screen Classics, a member of the Sydney Film Festival Advisory Panel and a guest programmer for the Antenna Documentary Festival.



The Restoration
Le amiche is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Supervised by film historian Carlo Di Carlo in 2008, this 2K restoration was undertaken by L’Immagine Ritrovata, with funding provided by Gucci and The Film Foundation, from the original 35mm original camera negative.  The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at L’Immagine Ritrovata from a 35mm optical soundtrack positive printed from the original soundtrack negative.


Contact us via email or facebook

Cinema Reborn would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of country throughout Australia and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.