cast: Lucia Bose, Andrea Checchi, and Gino Cervi
director: Michelangelo Antonioni
105 minutes (PG) 1953
Eureka DVD Region 2
review by Jonathan McCalmont
La signora senza camelie
In 1852, Alexandre Dumas (no, not that one… his son) wrote a novel entitled La dame aux camélias. Hugely successful upon its release, the novel was transformed into a play before being immortalised in the form of an opera by Giuseppe Verdi titled La traviata. Both the novel and the opera owe their fame to the fact that their story of a beautiful courtesan who falls in love with a rich man, only for a happy life to slip through her fingers, seemed to perfectly capture what it was like to be a woman in the mid-19th century. For women born into poverty in this era, beauty was the only way out. If they were lucky, they would attract a wealthy husband who would pluck them from the gutter and support them for the rest of their lives. Those women lucky enough to escape poverty did so not on their own terms but on the terms of the husbands upon whom they would be forever dependent. A hundred years later and the position of women in Italian society had undeniably changed, and Antonioni’s film La signora senza camelie is an attempt to follow Dumas and Verdi in capturing the spirit of the age and articulating what it was like to be a woman in the 1950s.
Clara Manni (Lucia Bose) is the next big thing. Plucked from obscurity by an ambitious film producer working out of Italy’s world famous Cinecitta studios, she received rave reviews in her first feature film. Compared to the great American starlets of the period, La Manni seems poised to take the world by storm until the producer who ‘saved’ her from a job selling fabric tricks her into marrying him by presenting their engagement as a fait-accompli to Clara’s parents. Unwilling to let her parents down by making a scene and denying her engagement to Gianni (Andrea Checchi), Clara allows herself to be marched down the aisle only to discover that Gianni is far too jealous to allow her a career as an actress.
His male pride under pressure, Gianni informs his old friend Ercolino (Gino Cervi) that La Manni will no longer be appearing in any of his romantic comedies or titillating romantic epics, La Manni will play the virgin Joan of Arc in a film he will direct himself. When the film turns out to be both a financial and creative disaster, Clara leaps into an ill-advised affair with a married man and turns her back on her nascent film career in order to become a serious actress, but none of the men in her life will employ her as a serious actress and so she finds herself stuck between two worlds: on the one hand, Clara is deemed to be an independent woman and, as such, she is expected to have both financial and artistic ambition. However, on the other hand, because Clara is a woman, her employment depends upon the whims of men who pressure her to become something she is not and then punish her for daring to attempt to live up to those standards.
Aside from later classics such as Blow-Up (1966), and Zabriskie Point (1970), Michelangelo Antonioni is perhaps best known for his hugely influential L’Avventura (1960) a film whose modernist cinematography, deconstructed narrative and bleakly existential tone forged the mould in which many art house films continue to be cast today. Because of the immense influence of Antonioni on 1960s’ cinema, there is a tendency to treat his earlier works as being predominantly of historical influence. Indeed, in his engaging and erudite introduction to the film, Gabe Klinger suggests that much of its artistic interest lies in its use of techniques that would later become central not only to the ‘look’ of Antonioni’s films but also to that of art house cinema as a whole. There is, undeniably, some truth in this.
The first thing that strikes you about La signora senza camelie is that it is made up of a series of very long takes. This was evidently intended by Antonioni as a means of making it as difficult as possible for producers and studio bosses to interfere with the plot or structure of the film. The second thing that strikes you about La signora senza camelie is that, while the film is made up mostly of very long single-take shots, this stylistic tic has in no way encouraged Antonioni to rely upon the sort of easily shot and easily blocked sequences that minimise the chances of actor error and so make long takes easier to film. In fact, Antonioni responds to the challenge of using long takes by coming up with a series of fiendishly complex scenes in which people waltz in and out of shot, and conversations weave in and out of earshot, in ways that seem almost impossible to stage let alone shoot as a series of long takes.
Indeed, pay attention to the early scene in which people shake hands and say hello to each other as they exit a cinema and you will be floored by the complexity of their movements and the grace of their gestures. All of these are not only perfectly staged; they are also shot with immaculate composition.
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La signora senza camelie is effectively made up of a series of long takes, each as impressively staged and beautifully composed as the nightclub scene in Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), or the opening scene of Welles’ Touch Of Evil (1958) it is a master class in the role of director as ‘metteur-en-scène’.
However, look beyond such technical considerations and you will find not only a fascinating glimpse into the state of female emancipation in 1950s’ Italy but also an absolutely vicious indictment of the Italian studio system at the time. Bose’s Clara is something of a cold fish. For the first half hour or so, she drifts through the film in a state of complete passivity. Accepting whatever boons and injustices life heaps upon her with nothing more than a forced smile or an anguished frown. She says nothing and does little. Initially, this seems a little off-putting and hypocritical on Antonioni’s part as it seems to follow in Dumas and Verdi’s footsteps by suggesting that women are somehow inherently lacking in agency.
Later in the film it becomes clear that this passivity is quite intentional as Clara is supposed to be a modern woman who is coaxed from 19th century passivity into a more modern desire to become her own woman with her own ambitions and her own desires. Indeed, Clara’s tragedy is that she becomes her own woman at the behest of the men that surround her only to be destroyed by the fact that none of these men really want a woman with her own ideas and desires. While not as obviously sexist as the idea of a 1950s’ woman who lacks anything approaching agency, Clara does remain a politically problematic character who is only partly redeemed by the absolutely merciless manner in which Antonioni depicts the men in her life. Clara may well be a ninny but her men are all unrelentingly selfish bastards. Of course, Antonioni’s lack of mercy is made that much easier by the fact that the men in Clara’s life tend to come from the Italian film industry.
Cinecitta, Antonioni suggests, is a place where supine directors fawn and scrape as witless producers tinker with their films while they are in production. With little attention paid to coherence of narrative, producers will happily drop characters, change plot-lines and rewrite dialogue while on set in a woolly-headed pursuit of the lowest common denominator. For Antonioni, to be an actor is to be used and to be a director is to be complicit as great ideas are mangled, deformed and butchered by men only too eager to take credit for other people’s successes whilst blaming others for their failures. Far from being a creative industry, 1950s’ Italian cinema is a world in which creativity takes place in the shadows of stupidity, greed and malevolence. Nowhere is this more evident than in Antonioni’s depiction of the Venice film festival as a dismal rained-out wasteland populated only by industry insiders and a few disappointed punters who never get the films they want.
As is traditional with masters of cinema releases, La signora senza camelie comes with some fascinating DVD extras and a lengthy booklet of critical pieces. The masters of cinema collection continues to be a model of how to release a film in a way that not only befits its standing but also ensures that the audience will be able to make the most of it. Lovely stuff…