Le amiche Review
Michelangelo Antonioni makes suicide, adultery and social interaction of any sort rather gloomy in his 1955 film Le amiche (The Girlfriends). Aside from its focus on an ensemble cast, Le amiche shares much more with his '60s films than La signora senza camelie or Il grido. The main characters are not of the proletariat, but instead well off and troubled by things other than money. And they are indeed troubled, with the stifled, inert feeling taken from the film making it reminiscent of the Antonioni works that would follow just a few years later.
The women featured all register as deeply, sometimes desperately, unhappy, and for reasons generally assumed rather than explicitly explored. Young Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer) becomes the connective tissue when, as the film begins, she's found unconscious having overdosed on sleeping pills. Her hotel room is next to that of Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago), who is in Turin from Rome to set up a dressmaker's shop. Though Clelia and Rosetta do not yet know each other, the latter's suicide attempt and recovery establishes the former in a circle of friends that also includes Momina (Yvonne Furneaux). Married artists Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti) and his increasingly successful wife Nene (a masterfully subdued Valentina Cortese) also know Rosetta, from his having painted her. The cycle of main characters is completed by architect Cesare (Franco Fabrizi) and his assistant Carlo (Ettore Manni), who've been working on Clelia's project. Carlo is soon involved romantically with her while Cesare charms the married Momina.
The set-up and variety of players lends itself to being melodrama, though Antonioni's spare direction would seem to clash with any hint of hysterics. Indeed, the execution is rarely of a heightened nature. Melodrama isn't usually thought as being so dour, and perhaps it can't be, by definition. Only the slick Cesare looks like he's not a bad day from shooting himself in the head in Le amiche. And yet, parties, parties everywhere it seems. No one gives much indication of particularly enjoying others' company or really caring about their well-being but, on several occasions, there are ostensibly celebratory events that bring the group together. I've frequently thought that Antonioni doesn't make death or loss out to be very tragic. It's day-to-day living he portrays as being the low point of existence.
And that's the rub. By creating daily instances of despair in these characters' lives, where every little thing is its own tragedy, Antonioni has his melodrama. So despite electroshock therapy seemingly needed to perk up a character here and there, most all of them mope to such extreme, and in the apparent absence of anything that depressing, as to instill melodrama at even the smallest hint of activity. Clelia and Carlo apparently break off any romantic future over a mild argument concerning furniture. She perceives that they could never reach a compromise, thus making any plans of being together unrealistic. While that's only the breaking point most anyone would be remiss to not question what sort of indoctrination it takes for someone to make that sort of claim. Much of it goes to class, of course, which Antonioni handled lightly and delicately and sometimes to criticism over the course of his career.
It's nearly impossible to watch a film like Il grido and make a claim that Antonioni was deaf to the working class or only concerned with the sorts of people seen in the three films he made with Monica Vitti plus La notte. This complaint is far too easy to make and simple enough to be indicative of lazy thinking on the part of the disgruntled. As with most anything related to Antonioni, it's more complicated than that. With Le amiche, the perception is that these characters are definitely above a certain social status, but there's a bit more to it. We travel with Clelia as she revisits a less prosperous area of Turin where she'd once lived. This background informs much of her thinking, and also possibly affects the (unappreciated) interest she takes in Rosetta. Earlier, Carlo had warned her of hiring Rosetta once he learned of the comfortable financial situation enjoyed by her family. He said something to the effect of people like her, who don't have to work for a living, won't appreciate the job. Even Lorenzo, the struggling painter, carries little to no recognition of his wife Nene being able to help support them through her work. His concern is the mere idea of her gaining greater success than him.
Certainly as a visual storyteller, Antonioni had a unique, one might say elegant but also sometimes very patient, way of relating his films. The camera movements are remarkably sophisticated in Le amiche. There's one scene, in particular, where Rosetta is having a meaningful conversation with her lover Lorenzo, and Antonioni opts not to cut between actors but instead move the camera behind the wall, changing the focus from her to him. It's a movement that can't help but draw attention to itself but the action is done as discreetly as it possibly could be. A reminder, perhaps, of some fluidity in an often coarse world.
Le amiche makes its UK home video debut in a Dual Format edition from Eureka's Masters of Cinema Series. As with the concurrent release of Antonioni's La signora senza camelie, a Blu-ray locked to Region B and a PAL DVD are both included in the same package. My check disc for the BD is single-layered, while my DVD is R2 and dual-layered.
A recent restoration by the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna was able to utilize the original camera negative, with color correction then being made via an original positive copy as reference. Further details of this project are shared on screen following the film and can also be read in the MoC booklet. The resulting restoration has made for a mightily impressive transfer. The 1.37:1 image presented here is of exceptional quality. Sharpness and ease of movement look superb and are matched by a high level of detail, with just a welcome hint of grain. I noticed a small hair in the bottom middle of the frame on a couple of occasions but damage is otherwise undetectable. Contrast is strong, though perhaps not as visually magnificent as the inkier blacks seen in the La signora senza camelie transfer. Le amiche is brighter from start to finish but, similarly, a knockout nonetheless.
The Blu-ray disc offers up a two-channel Italian DTS-HD Master Audio track. The sound restoration was from a positive copy printed from the original sound negative. It registers as clear, smooth, without any hiss or imperfections. The dubbed dialogue is emitted cleanly here, as are the occasional musical pieces. Optional subtitles are provided in English and are white in color.
As with MoC's edition of La signora senza camelie, there are two video pieces featuring Gabe Klinger that are in HD on the Blu-ray but also present on the DVD and a sturdy booklet tucked away inside the case. (Unlike the other Antonioni release, Le amiche doesn't include a theatrical trailer.) Klinger provides an "Introduction" (8:22) to the film, which will probably carry more weight after a viewing instead of before. In another video supplement, entitled "Antonioni in the Industry" (10:35), he begins by talking about the director's death in 2007 and then shifts the topic around to discuss a selective overview of Antonioni's career.
The booklet is 28 pages and consists mainly of a pair of writings from the film's initial release. The first, by Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, is from the October 1957 issue of Cahiers du cinéma and offers a sometimes fascinating, early perspective on Antonioni. Already, he's being identified for his "somewhat cold, detached style, his taste for an aestheticism in which the rhythm of the montage is accentuated by the mist of the decor, his way of directing actors, at once tense and relaxed - everything conspires to make difficult for him a communication with the public that he often bores and sometimes irritates." More on Le amiche, and the writer Cesare Pavese whose story formed the basis of the film, follow in the essay, which runs 7 pages.
The other piece of some length in the booklet, a letter written by Antonioni and published in the February 1956 issue of Cinema nuovo, also considers Pavese. In the letter, the director deflects any criticism of not being faithful to his source material without apology. He further answers a few complaints lobbed at Le amiche and generally relates some of his intentions in making the film. This somehow seems like a far more civil method of explication than the modern attempts we see that use 140 characters or less. Antonioni's letter occupies parts of 7 pages in the booklet. It's followed by a brief Small Notes section that has excerpts from different essays and interviews on Le amiche. This goes for 3 pages of text. Notes on the Restoration, credits and stills fill out the remainder of the booklet.
The writings chosen for MoC inserts tend to have a real knack for either making me feel much more intelligent or giving me a headache, or sometimes both. They are easily the most scholarly of supplements being offered by an English language Blu-ray/DVD company, and one can never applaud those ambitions enough.