This article was originally published by “Cteq: Annotations on Film” when it appeared in Metro, no. 117 (1998). It is republished here with permission and includes some minor additions and corrections.

Gilles Deleuze has claimed that Antonioni’s oeuvre is a cinema of wandering, of characters who and cameras which saunter through space and time opening up the range of what the cinema, and explicit narratives, might offer.1 It is thus a cinema of the encounter, grounded abstraction and expressive expansiveness (surprising things arrive and come into view in Antonioni’s films that are rarely seen and heard in other movies). La signora senza camelie is an early work, just Antonioni’s third feature, and it illustrates what would go on to become the filmmaker’s characteristic stylistic and narrative concerns only intermittently. The opening sequence, in which Clara (Lucia Bosè), the film star protagonist, wanders in and out of frame, then walks along a street and into a cinema showing her first film, is a perfect encapsulation of this nascent style – later extended to almost breaking point in the endless wanderings of a film like La note (1961) – where space is constantly opened up and where the film becomes more entranced by the walls, cars, posters and road-markings caught by the mobile frame of the camera than its more conventional human subjects.

A characteristic notion of disembodiment arises out of this (for us and for the characters). As Clara sees herself onscreen, she observes, separates and divides herself, recognising her body but also marking herself off from her own image. This division and dissolving of the self is serialised throughout the film (and such serialised repetitions which never fully “repeat” are found throughout Antonioni’s cinema, especially in later films like Zabriskie Point [1970]). This mirroring of images, the investigation of their lack of clarity and defined borders, along with the examination and documentation of the space between the self (character) and image (star) abounds in Antonioni’s cinema. Though understandably less fully realised here than in the Blow-Up (1966) and The Passenger (1975), La signora senza camelie uses its milieu – the Italian studio system of the early 1950s – to justify its conflation of realism and artifice, signifier and signified, fiction and documentary.

Essentially, and this is an aspect often misunderstood by critics and audiences looking for conventional narrative, themes of morality or even abstract pleasures, Antonioni’s cinema is one of fascinations, of using the stuff of narrative to explore other textures, possibilities, images and dimensions. This narrative is never an excuse or an afterthought but an opportunity, a necessary framework to help facilitate a truly exploratory audio-visual style. In this sense, Antonioni’s cinema is also explicitly sociological, grounding characters in a space, place and time that are the equal the subject (thematically, visually and literally) of the film. For example, La signora senza camelie’s examination of the varied relations of different classes to the cinema, its exploration of Venice as a place as well as the space of the movie set, carry equal weight. In essence, Antonioni’s cinema is profoundly open, ambiguous and balanced, qualities that frustrate some viewers who wish the films to get on with the stuff of story, character development, motivation, theme and even abstraction. There is no such thing as a backdrop, setting, prop or extra here.

As in most Antonioni films questions about the identity of film, event, image and character are tantamount. La signora senza camelie examines the dissolving identity of Clara as she is pushed into various roles (sex symbol, star, wife, lover, sacrifice), genres and types of cinema – she is rapidly exhausted by both popular and art cinema – and seems to belong to none of them. Everything happens too quickly as she appears unable to settle into any role or persona: ingenue; popular sex symbol; anguished art-film actor; rapidly fading star making an ill-fated comeback. In the process, many of the conventions of the film-on-film genre are collapsed into a perfunctory and unmotivated framework. The films traces and references this genre and yet it also separates itself from it.2 The genre’s common situations and themes – for example, the battle between art and commerce, the profound jealousy of a star’s producer husband – and clear character motivation are only brushed against, falling away due to the muteness of their execution. As a result, Antonioni’s film is both abstract and pictorial, macro and micro, fiction and the quotation of that fiction.

Much more “happens” in this film than will become typical of Antonioni’s work and yet the drama is still de-emphasised, and its episodic nature insisted upon. The film lacks transitions, motivations and is constantly curious and mercurial in terms of what it chooses to light upon. It reveals much about the Italian film industry of the period and yet it also expresses a detachment from the train of gossip, in-jokes and insider detail it parlays. But this is a formative work in numerous ways. Antonioni’s endlessly developing modernist style erupts locally, and the film industry itself seems stranded between different modes and eras of production. La signora senza camelie is, in no way, a paean to the end of neorealism, a critique of the vapidity of popular genres, or a celebration of the free expressivity of art cinema. Rather, Antonioni uses the images, ideas and worlds these cinemas throw up to recontextualise, recombine and investigate other possibilities. He displays a peculiarly modernist sensibility that never resides in any one camp and that sees these varied opportunities – of performance, narrative and visual style – as what they are: possibilities.

La signora senza camelie is probably a more straightforward film than I have suggested here. It is often somewhat abstract and fascinated by unconventional elements, but it also tells its story chronologically and to the end, follows established forms of narrative and genre, and gives a distanced but detailed account of the Italian film industry of the period. It also has gaps in all of these areas, and it is these fissures and lines of flight that Antonioni’s cinema will go on to define and explore.3

La signora senza camelie (1953 Italy 101 mins)

Prod Co: Produzioni D. Forges Davanzati/ENIC Prod: Domenico Forges Davanzati Dir: Michelangelo Antonioni Scr: Michelangelo Antonioni, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Francesco Maselli, P. M. Pasinetti Phot: Enzo Serafin Ed: Eraldo Da Roma Prod Des: Gianni Polidori Mus: Giovanni Fusco

Cast: Lucia Bosè, Gino Cervi, Andrea Checchi, Ivan Desny, Alain Cluny, Monica Clay


  1. See Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), pp. 4-8.
  2. This film needs to be examined alongside other Italian films dealing with the filmmaking process and film industry in the 1950s and 1960s. Most famously, these include Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima (1951), Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) and the French-Italian-American-German co-production, Jean-Luc Godard’s Le mépris (1963).
  3. Many of the ways of thinking about Antonioni’s work suggested in this article have their origins in an extraordinary course on the director taught by Sam Rohdie at La Trobe University in 1991. I dedicate this piece to the memory of Sam.

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Media in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell) and American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave).

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