Saturday, June 28, 2008

[Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective] Le Amiche (The Girlfriends) (1955)

Sisters of the World

Lorenzo Codelli introduced this film as the only real literary adaptation by Michelangelo Antonioni, based on a short novel written by Cesare Pavese, whose short life but impressive career had a largely influential impact on Antonioni's works. It's a film about women (the literal translation of the title of the story "Tra Donne Sole" means "Between Women Only"), in today's context known as the career girls, and it's also interesting to note that the co-writers of the screenplay were both female, each on opposite ends of the literary spectrum, one a "low-brow" pulp novelist, the other a "high-brow" writer.

And I guess this pairing provided a very complete and enjoyable story which in today's contemporary context would classify if as a chick flick, only that this had plenty of intelligence and a lot of heart, and doesn't come across as a dumbed down condescending story with many cardboard characters thrown in just because. Opening with a sprightly tune, and set in Turn, La Amiche has plenty of insights into the female psyche, and I am quite surprised that it had stood the test of time (more than 50 years!) to be as relevant today just as it was back in the mid-50s.

The story follows Clelia (Eleonara Rossi Drago) from Rome, sent to Turin to supervise the setting up of a fashion boutique branch, and in her temporary stay at the city, befriends a group of high-society and debatably successful ladies through the attempted suicide of one of their clique members Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer), who was found in her adjoining hotel room. From there we examine all their love lives, their work attitudes, their relationships with one another, the entire spectrum which while presenting themselves as little gossipy episodes that women might be prone to (I'm readying myself to be pelted with rotten tomatoes with that statement), it always felt that each individual piece was a perfect contribution to the entirety of the movie, with nary a wasted scene, nor unnecessary subplots provided just to bloat the story.

Antonioni has proven his deftness at handling an ensemble of characters (much unlike his earlier movies, or his famed Trilogy where only a handful of characters get explored) like the de-facto leader of the group Momina De Stefani (Yvonne Fumeaux) whose rich husband being always away on business provides her with an avenue for affairs and the need for constant emotional connection, or what I thought was the more interesting of the lot, was between successful ceramics artist Nene (Valentina Cortese) and her less successful painter fiance Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti), who becomes romantically linked to Rosetta after painting her portrait, or rather, it was Rosetta who throws herself at him. Completing the group is Mariella (Anna Maria Pancani), a flighty flirty woman with a devil-may-care attitude.

For some reason I was concentrating on the Lorenzo-Nene-Rosetta story, because it was quite compelling to see how it played out and developed, having one of them throw the first salvo at attempted suicide. It also provided a platform to examine how relationships can be strained possibly through emotions like jealousy and one being envious of the other's success, and maybe taking it out on the person through other means, such as the breaking of hearts. Again like Story of a Love Affair (I have no idea why I keep going back to this) it was a similar situation presented, though more explicitly presented rather than leaving it to second guesses. The confrontational scene between Nene and Rosetta was the best in the movie in my opinion, and one of the best I have seen in movies where rival lovers have to confront each other on the truth of the situation, and you can hear the unbelievable groans of an audience upon its resolution, which was quite pathetic and awkwardly delivered, by today's standards. Which is what was intriguing, as it highlighted the perceived role of a woman back then, that the career first mindset was still a novelty, and standing behind your man was possibly the only acceptable societal norm.

And it is this forward-thinking presentation and exploration of modern day themes even by today's standards, that make La Amiche a winner, being still relevant and all. Having 5 girls presented allowed for some comparisons over how some choose love over career despite expected setbacks which come part and parcel with it, and how some choose career over love, where one can excel in without the distractions of disappointment from the heart. Included as well is work ethics, when one doesn't have money as a prime motivator, one would wonder how the other non-tangible benefits would appeal to workers who have to turn up at work everyday, versus coming and going as they please, which I have experienced for myself (as on the receiving end of having to manage the non-attendance of others).

Other moments in the film that were equally enjoyable, include the fashion runway type shows in the old days, without the runway of course, where models have to present the clothes up close and personal in a closed door, intimate setting within the fashion boutique. And what was probably a precursor to the beach scene in L'Avventura get played out here, though it was a location for the rich folks to just stand around and flirt, with no real plan for a weekend getaway. It's still amazing how this particular little setting seem to squeeze so much into it, providing a catalyst for future incidents to burst out from.

Le Amiche will go down in my books as a story starring women, about women and for women that is still highly relevant in today's society. It has withstood the test of time perfectly, and its exploration of women, their relationships, their attitudes that differ depending on either their single or married status, is an amalgamation of keen observations that make this an enjoyable a must-watch, peppered with good punctuations of humour throughout.

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