Saturday, 12 January 2019

Show people… The Lady Without Camelias (1953), BFI Antonioni season

It’s hard to watch Michelangelo Antonioni’s fifties films without looking for clues based on familiarity with his iconic sixties’ quintet. Sure enough, there are plenty of long takes, designed in part to prevent studio cuts, and a focus on identity as post-war humanity struggles to assert itself among clinical modernity.

The opening sees a young woman walking hesitatingly towards a cinema down a darkened Roman street in order to see the reaction to her first film, a former shop girl she has been talent spotted and placed in a crowd-pleasing film for which she will be the main attraction.

The story is a lot more narratively specific and conventional than his later work but still devastates at the end with Lucia Bosé’s character, Clara Manni, caught in the trap of being defined only by her looks and limited expectations both as an actress and a woman. It’s a thought-provoking and painful with the film a carefully-structured space in which our expectations meet in discomforting collision – an end result that makes for a highly watchable experience in an age when these issues are still to the fore.

Clara edges towards the cinema to see her success...
At one point Clara’s husband, Gianni Franchi (Andrea Checchi), decides she should stop making popular entertainment and star in his film about Joan of Arc… she hasn’t the skill and one audience member decries, “…how could she, after Falconetti and Bergman…?” – good to see the reference to one of the great silent performances of the former in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan... But Clara’s Joan is hollow without the guile or skill to resonate beyond situation and she’s trapped between being an unwilling wife to a controlling husband and the freedom she deserves.

Their house is a cage, a claustrophobic matrix of undulating angles that frame Clara’s conversations with Gianni as much as it defines his rigid view of their marriage and his wife. He set his sights on the young actress shortly after she shot to fame and his single-minded pursuit ends with him ambushing Clara with a proposal in front of her parents.

Not for the last time a man and a woman fail to connect for Antonioni
But it’s hard to know where the hollow objectification of Clara ends and her own vacuity begins which is exactly on point for Michelangelo in his pomp. This doesn’t make Clara an unlikable character just one who is part of the director’s design as much as her home and nor does it indicate any lack of sympathy on his part; after all, no one has really encouraged her to think deeply about anything. Even that sounds harsh but it’s not meant to be and she’s not alone in a film in which everyone is concerned with the surface. That ending does indicate Clara’s awakening and in that there’s hope.

Clara’s lack of camelias is a period reference to Alexandre Dumas’ much-filmed novel The Lady of the Camellias in which a beautiful courtesan has an affair with a penniless writer who is persuaded to leave her in order to marry a more suitable woman. The camelias originally referred to flowers worn to indicate the lady’s availability to lovers (broadly speaking….) and so a lack of them presumably means that Clara’s signalling is obscured and she certainly lacks the clear signalling she needs to define herself. But Antonioni always leaves work for his audience to do and makes sure there is an engaging amount of evidence on screen.

Clara imprissoned by Gianni's desire and ambition
Lucia Bosé is excellent and had already proved herself to the director in his first feature, Story of a Love Affair and here the story mirrors her own rise from bakery to film stardom. She has the looks but also the acting style required to give us exactly what her director expects – restrained naturalism that merely presents more clues in the bigger picture encompassing mise en scène, camerawork and architecture. With Antonioni the sum is always greater than the parts, literally, which might give some grounds for those who might see it as lacking in passion but you can't have everything. 

There is so much to see and the search for meaning is usually worth it. As Gianni pulls her from the film she is making on the grounds of its sexual content, their friend, the director Ercole (Gino Cervi), sweeps into their labyrinthine and pretentious house to confront her recalcitrant husband, almost hidden within, secure of his position and prize. As the director leaves in frustration Clara is framed by the diagonal lines of the glass and steel stairs.

Joan lacks passion, Clara walks away from the truth...
After their Joan film fails at Venice, Clara’s actions are the reverse of the opening sequence as she runs away from the cinema in despair as the jeers and laughter follow her. She is “rescued” by a diplomat, Bernardo Rusconi (Ivan Desny), and he sweet talks her on a trip from the Lido to the main city. At first resistant Clara accepts his offer of escape and leaves Gianni only to find he’s  only really interested in one thing and it’s not commitment. There’s another fantastic single take in the apartment when he rings just as Gianni and Ercole walk off behind her, by the time they have rounded the balcony and descended the stairs, she’s slumped in her chair, for all the world suspended in mid-air, paralysed by conflicted opportunity.

Clara seeks advice from the veteran actor on her first film, Lodi (Alain Cuny), who speaks the most honestly of any of the men when she asks should she try to become a proper actress and study. It’s the only route forwards in a world were patronage and box office drive friendship… and one where whatever doors are opened by a pretty face slam shut soon after entry.

The film was screened as part of the BFI’s Antonioni season which includes all the director’s major works as well as his debut – full details on the institute’s website. I’ve just watched La Notte on the big screen for the first time and it was so full of the promises made in this earlier film – Marcello Mastroianni writer in crisis is every bit the nephew of the misunderstanding Gianni and Jeanne Moreau’s thoughts fill the screen always within Antonioni’s surprising angles and all-consuming architecture.

Geoff Andrew who programmed the Antonioni season and who presented an overview of his work in a fascinating talk this week, admires the director’s work for its formal innovation and intellectual engagement even if he does not have for him the emotional resonance of Bergman, for whom Andrew programmed last year’s season. Of this film he observed that whilst it was a deft and gently satirical portrait of the Italian film industry the story contains what would become common themes with men who are often arrogant and feckless and women who are understandably bored and frustrated by the lack of sincere connection. 

There’s a lot more of this to come so please check out the BFI website and watch these films in their proper context.

Drama in the spaces between the characters
Clara is left floating between possibilities

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