Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Deadly Charm of the Bourgeoisie

LE AMICHE / The Girlfriends
(Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1955, 35mm, 104 mins.)

"Fashion designers usually dress like tramps."
-- Momina (right) to Clelia

Much as I love Michelangelo Antonioni, I like the way Le Amiche begins more like an Henri-Georges Clouzot thriller (his classic Diabolique appeared the same year). First, he introduces Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago), one of the film's fashionable women. Then, he introduces Rosetta Savone (Madeleine Fischer), who is staying in the hotel room next to the salon manager--after the maid discovers her close to death, lying on the bed in an evening gown. (The detective even recalls Paul Meurisse.) So, Antonioni sets a mystery in motion before he's even revealed the rest of the cast.

I was expecting an Italian version of George Cukor's The Women, but the director is going for something darker--though these ladies are just as fond of mink coats and funny hats. As J. Hoberman noted in The Village Voice, Jonas Mekas and Andrew Sarris, among Le Amiche's few original American adherents (it didn't make its way to the US until 1963), felt "that this detached look at life among the rich and vapid anticipated Antonioni's 1960 breakthrough L'Avventura."

Momina de Stefani (Yvonne Furneaux) then enters the scene when she comes to
call on Rosetta, who is recovering in a Turin hospital. So, while Clelia goes about her
rounds, Momina speaks with Rosetta's associates to determine why she overdosed
the night before. In the process, she ropes Clelia into her unofficial investigation.

The cast grows larger with each scene. Momina believes Rosetta tried to take her
life out of love for Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti, L'Avventura), who painted her portrait, though he's married to fellow artist Nene (Valentina Cortese). Some reviewers de-
scribe Rosetta's intentions as ambiguous, but she confirms Momina's suspicions.

If Le Amiche has become known for bitchiness, the way Momina befriends Clelia is
actually quite sweet, especially since the latter came from blue-collar Turin before
making it in Rome, stating, "I've always worked, and I've never had time for friend-
ships." She also finds a friend in Carlo (Ettore Manni), the store foreman. While Ro-
setta's friend, Mariella (Anna Maria Pancani), finds him a "hunk," Momina's lover, ar-
chitect Cesare (Franco Fabrizi), dismisses him as "a common laborer." After Roset-
ta recovers, everyone--except Carlo--becomes part of the same social set. Unfortun-
ately, Rosetta isn't really better, and picks up right where she left off with Lorenzo.

Clelia thinks it's a bad idea, but Momina encourages the younger woman. Separated from her wealthy spouse, she thinks nothing of sleeping around, which doesn't offer much to brag about, but certainly sets Le Amiche apart from the hundreds of Italian movies where husbands cheat on their wives, and no one gives it a second thought.

Aside from Momina, the other ladies aren't as catty as their reputation suggests.
When Nene, who knows about the relationship, confronts Rosetta, she's more than a little decent about it, but that isn't what leads the part-time model to contemplate suicide again; it's that Lorenzo cares more about his lackluster career. He can't be with his successful wife, he can't be with his lover, and he doesn't seem to enjoy his own company much either. Worse yet, Rosetta's lack of identity makes her a drag.

In the end, Clelia throws away her hard-won social status to express what she thinks about Turin high society. Significantly, it's her choice, and not a fate she must undergo to prove a point about the impermeability of class and gender in 1950s Italy. Whether you agree with her actions or not, she exits with her dignity intact.

Le Amiche, in a new 35mm print, continues at the Northwest Film Forum
through 9/15 at 7 and 9pm (plus Sat. and Sun. at 5pm; no 7pm screening
on Sat.). The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine on
Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here or call 206-829-7863.

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