Director/Coscreenwriter: Michelangelo Antonioni
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Le Amiche (The Girlfriends) is an interesting early Antonioni that shows the master starting to refine his focus. Presaging his mature themes of ennui and the alienating effects of modernity, this tale of the Italian way of loving strikes a surprising feminist chord that shows the trap women can fall into by embracing the false notion that work and relationship must be mutually exclusive pursuits.
The opening introduces us to the main point of audience identification, Clelia (Eleanora Rossi Drago), who is running a bath in her hotel room when she is interrupted by a maid who cannot get into the adjoining room through the hall door and wishes to use the pass-through door in her room instead. Clelia obliges and starts to dress only to be called next door by the maid’s scream. Decked out in a frothy evening dress, a young woman we will learn is Rosetta Savoni (Madeleine Fischer) is laying unconscious and near death on the bed from a deliberate overdose. Clelia calls for a doctor. Soon, Rosetta’s friend Momina (Yvonne Furneaux), puzzled why Rosetta is not answering her call from the lobby, goes up, and stunned to learn her friend is on her way to the hospital, prevails upon Clelia to accompany her. Clelia, who is in Turin, her native city, to open a branch of a Rome clothing atelier, goes as far as the shop that is being refurbished for that purpose, but Momina and her group of idle rich friends will draw her into their circle, initially because she dresses more smartly than working women usually do. Clelia jumps at the chance to make friends with her future clientele, but she will soon grow disenchanted with their aimless, shallow lives and casual cruelty to each other—particularly toward the fragile Rosetta—as they begin and end flirtations, love affairs, and marriages in almost random fashion.
Antonioni was from a prosperous family whose patriarch was a self-made millionaire. The director admitted a feeling of simpatico with the working classes, especially its women, and apprenticed as a filmmaker on neorealist films. His turn to domestic dramas among the people in his social sphere—artists and the wealthy—might have been his version of “write what you know,” but his acute eye for the hollowness of upward mobility seems a kind of longing for the simple pleasures of simply doing work that has some immediate utility and living in close communality with family, friends, and neighbors.
One scene that shows what a chasm the social gap can be is when Carlo (Ettore Manni), a building foreman with whom Clelia is having a stress-reducing dalliance, takes Clelia shopping for furniture. He wants her to look at some office furniture at a dealer he likes, but she refuses to even climb the stairs of the shop, saying her tastes run to a more elegant 18th century style. “I want to create an atmosphere,” she says to the practical-minded Carlo, a place where she and her clientele can reside in luxurious nostalgia. They walk through their old neighborhood in Turin and talk about what would have happened had they met each other when they were young; Clelia thinks they might have married and stayed in the neighborhood instead of being as they are now—separated by class, though she pretends the difference is only a matter of taste.
But what awaits Clelia should her assimilation become complete? Momina lives apart from her husband—a marriage of financial convenience for her, it seems—and dallies with Cesare (Franco Fabrizi), the architect on Clelia’s project. Mariella (Anna Maria Pancani) is boy-crazy and has a make-out session with Cesare during a beach outing to spite Momina; she later decides to marry her boyfriend because she wants to buy a wedding dress shown during the opening fashion show at the atelier. Rosetta fell in love with Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti), a second-rate painter, while he was composing her portrait because his close gaze during their sittings gave her some reality. Nene (Valentina Cortese), a successful ceramics artist married to the envious Lorenzo, thinks letting her husband do anything he wants and sacrificing her success are ways to show she loves him, thus abdicating her responsibility to enter into a real relationship with him.
When the inevitable happens, Clelia strikes out at Momina at the atelier for pretending to be Rosetta’s friend, declaring self-righteously that she did more for the woman by trying to get her involved in life by offering her a job—though Rosetta’s repeated failure to show up for work she doesn’t need indicates that Clelia had even less of a clue about how to help Rosetta. Sure she has lost her job, Clelia reaches out to Carlo, thinking that she can fall back on marriage. However, when her career-woman boss (Maria Gambarelli) offers to send her back to work in Rome, she books a train ticket immediately and lets Carlo down perfunctorily. Clelia hasn’t any more use for love than her clientele has; she has cashed in her feelings to “make it,” though her career is in commerce outright rather than in the social commerce of her betters.
Antonioni’s work to create his symbols and compositions are a bit obvious, showing up most glaringly in several continuity errors. For example, when Clelia accepts a ride from Momina to the shop, she is coatless; when she steps into the shop, she is wearing an enormous ocelot fur coat, as though mere exposure to the materialistic Momina were enough to transform her into a predator. In another scene, the friends go slumming, blocking a narrow street fronting a dive trattoria with their big cars. When Lorenzo leaves the trattoria after instigating a fight with Cesare, Rosetta follows him into the dark street, where the cars have vanished, the better to create the composition Antonioni wanted. The director’s use of mirrors to suggest the insubstantiality of his women is effective, but a bit overdone. In fact, this entire film is a whole lot of “too much,” particularly when compared with his mature works, and can be seen as him throwing everything he wants to say on the wall and then starting to remove the unnecessary, a film at a time.
The restored 35mm print I saw allows the viewer to really appreciate Antonioni’s brilliance with light and shadow and in capturing the human face and form. The girlfriends pose with the self-conscious awareness of their allure that the models at the atelier assume when showing a clothing line. Women as young as these are still trying on identities, and this is something that can’t be avoided by any person. We grow into ourselves, and the tragedy is that we sometimes get stuck in one of our poses like a real mannequin in a window. The final scene suggests that Clelia might be heading south in more ways than one. l