La signora senza camelie Review

An early, excellent Antonioni film on Dual Format from the Masters of Cinema series.

General wisdom would probably recognize the key theme in the career of director Michelangelo Antonioni to be alienation. In his films we tend to see existential longing and deep unease amid the modern world that surrounds the main characters. There’s often an unseen, barely alluded to force that drapes these characters in frustration. Many see this almost crippling impasse the characters face as resulting from some reaction to the perceived hollowness in modern society. Antonioni’s methods seem to then heighten this very sense by foregoing traditional narrative transitions and focusing intensely on barriers to human interaction instead of attempting to convey any feeling of empathy for his often vapid protagonists. The spareness of plot, where apparent inaction can prove at least as crucial as volitional activity, tends to be another hallmark of an Antonioni film.

While you could easily argue that Antonioni’s main interests have always been evidenced in his pictures, the earlier ones do find him adhering a bit closer to established formulas and ideas. These movies might not reveal the artist as fully formed but they do lend themselves more to those viewers less enamored with the celebrated Antonioni alienation that would follow. They are somewhat of a happy medium perhaps, where you get both the guide and the tour. Antonioni can be met halfway without overpowering certain notions of the viewing experience.

That viewing experience proves to be quite enthralling both on and beneath the surface in La signora senza camelie (The Lady without Camelias), Antonioni’s second feature following Cronaca di un amore in 1950. It almost goes without saying that an Antonioni film would have fantastic and evocative cinematography but this one looks particularly splendid, always and strongly setting a mood that puts the viewer right into the scene. The film is a successful combination of the melodramatic and the idiosyncratic. The referencing of The Bad and the Beautiful in the disc supplements seems incredibly apt as, despite the unshared narrative structure, there’s a very damning portrayal of the film industry waiting to be appreciated. Glamorous aspects are hardly overlooked, with the bright lights and allure of easy celebrity highlighted with caution, but the hold of the industry seems to be a most persuasive message. When it has you, that’s that. One would think that Antonioni keenly recognized this and possibly saw his film as an opportunity to take a bite or two of the hand that was feeding him.

The introduction of Lucia Bosé, who was in Antonioni’s debut and later could be seen in Death of a Cyclist, as the film’s protagonist Clara sets an immediate tone for how she’s portrayed throughout the picture. We wander with her through wet streets before she has to almost beg to get into a screening of a film that’s nearly ended. At no point is her face visible. An image on the large cinema screen shows a young woman without necessarily emphasizing her. By now the still unidentified Clara has taken a seat and is little more than another member of the audience. The film ends and, as people exit, we hear chattering about a new actress. Men, apparently involved in the production, discuss what to do with the actress in the new film they are making. Was the reaction positive? Should her role be increased? Meanwhile, Clara has made her way out the doors and seems to be avoiding any direct response. Her screen image and her private one are, already, being separated as two entirely different entities.

Precious little of Clara the performer is shown. Antonioni favored moving time forward with little explanation so we’re able to learn of Clara’s ascendancy only after it happens. The assumption is that her beauty and the low degree of difficulty in her roles are more the cause for fame than any special talents she might have. Producer Gianni seems especially struck by the former and almost unilaterally makes Clara his wife. Their partnership in every sense of the word is a failure. He’s married a budding movie star while looking for a wife. Her preferences are barely considered. She isn’t a strong figure but she nonetheless rebels in her own way. This includes an affair with another man and a new dedication to becoming a serious actress.

The film shows us inside the Italian film industry but it also makes sure to capture some of the emphasis given to public opinion. There are crowds almost always surrounding Clara when she goes out. They’re like whispering moths drawn to her but often critical, and vocally so, in their perception of her. Even the praise they share early on is less for Clara than a representation they perceive of what she is or should be. As such, Clara struggles to gain any individuality. She’s fragile and trapped, and made less remarkable by her loss of the spotlight. That Bosé is all cheekbones and narrowed chin conveys this helplessness well. Had Antonioni used a physically stronger or healthier-looking actress, the effect wouldn’t be as convincing.

The Disc(s)

The Masters of Cinema Series goes Dual Format with this release, including both Blu-ray and DVD in the same package. Another fifties Antonioni film, Le amiche, is being put out at the same time, also in a Dual Format edition. The Blu-ray is region-locked and will only play in machines capable of handling Region B discs. It, or at least the check disc I have, is single-layered. The PAL DVD is R2 and dual-layered.

MoC emphasizes that the aspect ratio used is 1.37:1, which is the more precise alternative to the 1.33:1 we usually get for Academy ratio films. For the record, I appreciate this exactness and it’s another little indicator of how serious the MoC folks are with getting things right. Certainly the transfer of La signora senza camelie is something else that has been gotten right, and brilliantly so. This is an almost impossibly beautiful image, with borderline perfect contrast. It’s stunning. Clarity and detail are superb. Damage is not an issue. Some mild grain has been left intact. Run, don’t walk on this one.

The listening devices on either side of your head are treated to a two-channel Italian DTS-HD Master Audio track. It’s clean, largely unchallenged. The main distraction is that it’s dubbed, just as most any Italian film of its time would have been. I can never really get comfortable with the lack of synchronization but it’s something that obviously cannot be helped at this point. Most of us will utilize the excellent English language subtitles, which are optional here and white in color.

Supplements are identical on both Blu-ray and standard definition discs, though in 1080p on the former. Billed as an introduction (9:44) by Gabe Klinger, the first video piece provides an overview that I’d still probably recommend be watched after, instead of before, viewing the film. Klinger can come across as a hesitant speaker here but he seems to settle in to the role more and more throughout his several appearances on these new Antonioni releases from Masters of Cinema. He also takes us through “Antonioni in the Fifties” (8:33), a piece that discusses La signora senza camelie and its filmmaker in the context of its time and place. The introductory text screens, and the menus on the whole, are grand.

A brief, Italian language trailer (0:52) for the movie plays up some apparent controversy that swirled around it prior to release.

The included booklet, shrunken down to the height allowed for by the Dual Format case, is generous at 44 pages. You might notice, though, that precious few of those actually discuss the merits of the film at hand. That’s not to say the written pieces are unhelpful, only perhaps a tad removed from garnering appreciation for what proves to be a much more essential film than what its mild reputation might suggest. The one article devoted entirely to La signora senza camelie is a 1959 essay by Robert Benayoun that was published in the French magazine Positif. It’s a short read at not even three full pages’ of text. Antonioni trumpeters might enjoy Benayoun’s last line, referencing a quote by Charles Bitsch who once said that the director “has nothing to say, and he says it poorly.” The rather arrogant retort Benayoun provides is that Antonioni “hasn’t stopped mystifying illiterates.”

The biggest part of the booklet details a somewhat fascinating back and forth between noted Italian critic Luigi Chiarini and Antonioni that took place in the pages of Cinema nuovo in 1953. What begins as a championing by Chiarini of what he feels to be the often unheralded cameraman, with a swipe or two at La signora senza camelie thrown in for good measure, builds into something quite a bit more when Antonioni writes a reply. The exchange between the two men becomes a means for discussing the degree of authorship a director has or can have of a film, with still further topics being broached left and right. In total, that all lasts 14 pages of text, with related thoughts by Elio Chinol entitled “Poetry Film and Literature Film” adding 5 more. Next in the booklet is a section of “Small Notes” that consists of excerpts from two interviews with Antonioni published in the late 1970s. The director doesn’t seem very forgiving of his film or even interested in revisiting it. At one point he admits: “La signora senza camelie was a failure and I do not know why. What I know is that the public did not go to see it from the very first day that it was released. Cinema audiences are a real mystery to me. I haven’t seen the film since, so I do not know how it turned out.”

clydefro jones

Updated: Mar 23, 2011

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