There is a freshness to Le Amiche that will always surprise new generations of moviegoers. An early feature by Michelangelo Antonioni, it introduces us to many of the key elements and themes explored in the director’s later, more prestigious works. The search for Anna in L’avventura (1960) is a cinematic scheme to present the emptiness of her searchers, all of them unaware of the real nature of this character who is tortured by the dilemma of being or not being. Anticipating such a barren display of the soul, we witness, in Le Amiche, the traps of the maze of love, a motif tenderly exteriorised in the walk that Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago) and Tony (Luciano Volpato) take around the furniture shops of Torino. As in the novels of Stendahl, class and economics condition love.
Antonioni’s mastery in Le Amiche is embodied by the harrowing performances of Madeleine Fischer (Rosetta) and Valentina Cortese (Nene). Brought up on the philosophy of the Enlightenment, Rosetta is a woman tortured by false conceptions of happiness, a figure who is very much unable to cope with solitude and disdain. In contrast, Nene is a practical girl who accepts that other women are more beautiful than her, with patience and suffering being her only obvious charms. There is also a poignant note on friendship contained in the brief snippets of dialogue sustained by the pair: for example, one of them declares “I’ll help you by leaving him. I’ll be strong.” But Antonioni’s genius is more evident in his elaborated and yet casual mise en scène. This is demonstrated in the sequence where Clelia recriminates the vanity of the richest woman in the group while various characters enter and leave the frame. The smoothness of Antonioni’s camera works imperceptibly. He plays with the spectator’s gaze until he is able to carve the right memorable image, such as when Clelia and Tony walk away from one another, leaving us in an open space with several blocks of derelict houses as depth-of-field.
Antonioni was a passionate reader of Césare Pavese, the writer of Tra donne sole (1949), a short novel from which the director and his co-writers adapted their screenplay. Pointedly, Pavese, a poet who committed suicide, concluded his last diary entry with: “No more words, only a gesture”. In Le Amiche we sit before a film that is not merely a rhapsody of words, but an overall aesthetic gesture written in the form of a three-act suicide note. The opening shot of Torino introduces us to the life of a group of characters where love has no place. Clelia bluntly declares the film’s core premise in the seemingly idyllic scene on the train: “Very few people can really be self-sufficient. We can’t do without others. It’s no use thinking you can.” But such words only apply to the weak, as Lorenzo tragically points out in his excluding, yet very cruel: “I don’t need anyone”.
The dialogue is concise and spontaneous throughout Le Amiche. There are also lines that define characters in terms of an unbearable lightness; when Nene asks Mariella (Anna Maria Pancani) “and what talents do you have?” she answers, “ Me? Ask the guys.” There are other lines in the film that seem to contain an entire relationship: “I fell in love with you while you painted my portrait…. You painted my face and it felt like you were caressing me.” Lorenzo, indeed, has fallen in love with Rosetta’s image, whereas she is instead focused on the finest fibre of his nature, that region reserved for anger and inspiration.
As in L’avventura and L’eclisse (1962), Antonioni’s skepticism about love is outlined in four stages: flirting, lovemaking, doubt and jealousy. But we don’t know whether Rosetta intends to commit suicide because of the failure of love or blunt loneliness. “Being” itself is, in fact, the real sickness that afflicts all of Antonioni’s main characters. They are never connected to their lovers. They are aboard themselves, as Colombian novelist Eduardo Zalamea Borda put it in another context (1). Le Amiche’s Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti) is a mediocre artist who finds a lover to support him; Mariella, a shallow girl who seeks many men, longing for the attention of both those who are immediately present and those just beyond her reach, stating, for example, “tell me if there is a woman prettier than me in the next room?”.
But the most intriguing character in this exceptional film is Momina (Yvonne Furneaux), a beautiful woman separated from her rich husband. A pre-incarnation of the most cynical of characters in La dolce vita (Federico Fellini, 1960), she is cleverly summed up by Clelia towards the end of the film: “You play with the emotions of the others as if they were of your kind. You, who don’t even know the nature of emotions.”
Le Amiche/The Girlfriends (1955 Italy 104 mins)
Prod Co: Trionfalcine Prod: Giovanni Addessi Dir: Michelangelo Antonioni Scr: Michelangelo Antonioni, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Alba De Cespedes, from the novel Tra donne sole by Césare Pavese Phot: Gianni Di Venanzo Ed: Eraldo Da Roma Prod Des: Gianni Polidori Mus: Giovanni Fusco
Cast: Eleonora Rossi Drago, Gabriele Ferzetti, Franco Fabrizi, Valentina Cortese, Yvonne Furneaux, Madeleine Fischer, Anna Maria Pancani, Luciano Volpato