Le Amiche (Blu-ray Review)27 Jun, 2016 By: Mike Clark
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
In Italian with English subtitles.
Stars Eleonora Rossi Drago, Gabriele Ferzetti, Franco Fabrizi, Valentina Cortese.
When Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura had its 1961 U.S. opening amid triumphant survival following Cannes booing, it was a revelation — in part because not many Americans from even the cineaste hard core had had a chance to see his earlier works, which (earlier non-fiction works aside) commenced in 1950 with Story of a Love Affair. In relative terms only, these table-setters were slightly more conventional than the later and more languorous ones that inspired Andrew Sarris to coin the unforgettable term “Antonioniennui” (though make no mistake: I love the filmmaker’s angst-ridden middle period). But these career launchers are really proving to be personal revelations as I go through them in my current fogey state, and 1953’s The Lady Without Camelias (you need an All-Region player to enjoy its lush “Masters of Cinema” release from Eureka!) strikes me as one of the best movies ever about the downside of pursuing screen stardom.
Le Amiche, in contrast, has had a previous U.S. release from Image Entertainment, but so did, say, Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers long before its recent restoration as well, and no one will ever claim that either improved the quality of anyone’s day. In contrast, Antonioni’s third fictional feature (aka The Girlfriends — an ironic title, given some of the unfeeling cattiness occasionally on display) is pure Region A Criterion: super new print and good bonus section context that explores Italy’s societal changes and the rising importance of fashion (it, a kind of Antonioni trademark) following World War II. Adapted and somewhat altered from a novel by Cesar Pavese (who, for more irony, this time thematic, committed suicide in real life), it explores the kind of upscale life not many Italian women were able to enjoy in this period. These are not the transient laborers of Bitter Rice (also a recent Criterion release) or Anna Magnani looking all sweaty in just about anything.
This said, the 1955 film’s closest thing to a central character (Eleonora Rossi Drago’s “Clelia”) isn’t from the bourgeois class herself, though she sometimes dresses like one by virtue of her employment with an expanding fashion salon — expanding, in fact, to onetime hometown Turin. Now staying in much better digs than the ones from her formative years, she basically “falls” into the suicide attempt of a woman from her adjacent hotel room (Madeleine Fischer as “Rosetta”), eventually becoming something between an acquaintance and friend to members of the latter’s circle.
These women are upscale, with plenty of money (old money, you can bet) and sexually liberated for their time with the power that can sometimes go with that. True, Rosetta’s suicide attempt is over a man (said to have been a motivational change from the novel), so she came out on the bottom part of the deal. But some of the other women seem to be calling their shots: Anna Maria Pancani’s “Mariella” (hottest of the bunch but something of a twit) sleeps with anyone she damned well chooses, while Yvonne Furneaux’s “Momina” has what looks to be an open marriage, a gift of which she takes full advantage. Were she a combat soldier, cosmetically impressive Momina is not a person with whom one would want to be in a foxhole because she’s really in it for herself. More sympathetic is Valentina Cortese’s “Nina” — married to an artist with less talent but willing to submerge her own career for his. (Well, it was the early part of the mid-’50s.)
The best known performers to U.S. audiences are probably L’Avventura lead Gabriele Ferzetti (who died at the end of last year); Day for Night Oscar nominee Cortese, who had a brief Hollywood run, including a major role in Jules Dassin’s minor classic Thieves’ Highway; and Furneaux (Hammer’s The Mummy, then La Dolce Vita and then Repulsion — though I liked her as a kid and still do in Republic’s Lisbon, where she became Ray Milland’s alternative to the shadier Maureen O’Hara. Still, Rossi Drago is the dominant focus trying to straddle two worlds: will she take up with an architect’s assistant to who she’s attracted even though he’s marginally below her class — or will she give her all to a career that has gotten her out of a humble Turin upbringing? Through it all, Antonioni’s blocking of actors and camera movements are typically exquisite; one beach scene of a group outing offers the kind of visual symphony we almost never see in current movies.
Strengthening the backgrounders we get in the bonus interviews is an essay by film scholar Tony Pipolo, to whom I’ll always be grateful for inviting me and a friend over in the early ’70s to see a staggeringly great Dreyer double bill in 16mm of Day of Wrath and Ordet when we were all in NYU’s Graduate School of Cinema. Regarding the on-camera interviews, it’s Eugenia Paulicelli on fashion (why am I so interested in fashion when I always dress in “modified Woody Guthrie”?) — and also David Forgacs and Karen Pinkus on an array of germane subjects. The latter joint interview notes that Turin (not a locale in too many films) boasted a humungous Fiat factory that looks so large in the accompanying old photo we see that it’s almost impossible to imagine any residents who didn’t work there. But factory working isn’t what the film’s time-on-their-hands types have on their minds, which is one reason seems so modern today despite the frivolous nature of at least a couple of them (or maybe because).