Sunday, June 22, 2008

[Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective] La Signora Senza Camelie (The Lady Without Camelias) (1953)

My Trophy Wife

While this is the third feature film of Michelangelo Antonioni, it would mark the second time that Lucia Bose had starred in his film, the first being Antonioni's debut feature Story of a Love Affair. As Lorenzo Codelli pointed out, Antonioni's The Vanquished had made its debut at the Venice International Film Festival, and in this movie, it contains scenes from the Festival, thereby giving it a somewhat documentary feel as it serves as a backdrop. It tells the story of a fictional star, charting the meteoric rise and fall of her career, and made quite a statement on the Italian film industry of the time, which was producing more than 300 features annually.

Again, the female of the species turn out to be quite strong in character, while the male counterparts continue the trend of being rather meek, and lacking some alpha-male qualities befitting of a leading character status. Here, we have Lucia Bose's Clara Manni, a shopgirl from Milan who was talent spotted and brought to prominence on celluloid by film producer Dr Gianni Franchi, who together with the film world, fell in love with the dazzling beauty (Bose herself was crowed Miss Italia once before). In today's context, this would be akin to continued casting calls for any scream queen/sex siren/teenage starlet to be typecast in a role in their respective blockbusters, with nary an opportunity for them to venture out of the tried and tested, all in the name of profit.

Being rushed into marriage in the middle of a film production, we see how Gianni turns into a green-eyed monster, possessive of his trophy wife and chiding her for wanting to go along with the norm in getting herself casted in roles that require the revelation of some flesh, be it in steamy love scenes or in seductive poses in glossy magazine spreads. Granted, his idea of marriage is to have her become a homemaker given his wealth to provide her a more than comfortable life, but to Clara, it's akin to being imprisoned. So one will come to expect the usual marital woes that befall couples as fools who rush in, and find themselves smashing head on toward a rocky time.

In today's blockbuster world, I guess it's obvious that sex and violence sells. In those days, as explained by the producer character Ercole (Gino Cervi), sex, religion and politics in movies put bums on seats, which accounts for why scantily clad women could have been considered a de-facto "must-have" in order to appeal to the lowest denominator amongst audiences. To Gianni, in his good intent to want to elevate his wife's status to drama-mama, decided to make an arthouse Joan of Arc (which we are spared the torture of watching, only provided glimpses of it), much against the common grain of filmmaking, and with Clara being bored to tears, decided to go along with the project.

With her Joan of Arc being both a critical and commercial failure, Clara becomes vulnerable. But here's where her character got interesting. Like Eve, she's fully aware of the forbidden apple, but yet found herself weak to resist the advances from a fan. She conscienitously knows of the destructive path she'll be walking down, both in reputation and personal life should she embark on an affair, but I guess the appeal that Mr Nardo (Ivan Desny) had, was being the wedge at the right point in time when she was emotionally at her weakest. Again, Nardo is a slimy male character that one would love to hate, given his motive of personal satisfaction in having to conquer a famous actress. However, you must salute his thick-skinned persistence and his great pretension, well hidden behind a suave demeanour.

The saddest character here remains Gianni Franchi. You'll realize that while he has the best of intentions for his wife, life would have it that her reaction to his concern would go unappreciated most of the time. And pride would come in the way when someone who had broken your heart once, come knocking on your door for an opportunity. As Clara's character develops, she slowly learns about her naiveness, and becomes more aware of the business side of the industry. Here's where the film becomes a critical mouthpiece of the state of Italian cinema at the time, which led to potential Claras dropping their willingness to star in the film lest they offend industry folks.

It makes comparisons and draws parallels between the exploitation of an actress's good looks, versus grooming them into serious thespians, and through Clara's bold reinvention of herself, one would have thought she would have learnt a valuable lesson to apply, given an about turn with her new found understanding and strength. But as it turns out, there's this invisible glass ceiling in place.

I thought the ending was one of the most powerful ones, and a definite heart-wrencher, seen thus far. It has a resignation to Fate, that no matter how hard one tried, the outcome has already been pre-determined by the stars, and try as you might, you just cannot effect any change. The streaming of tears down the eye, while masking it as tears of joy and forcing a smile, probably reflects Clara's greatest acting moment to date, smiling to mask some extreme unhappiness toward her life and career choices, that she became nothing more than a train on a railroad, following the tracks laid out in front of her. The absolute last frame that lingers, is well worth a ticketed admission, for the fact that Clara finally got to act.

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