La Signora Senza Camilie (The Lady Without Camelias)
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Starring: Lucia Bosé, Andrea Checchi, Gino Cervi, Ivan Desny, Alain Cuny
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Having already released two of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films onto DVD, “Il Grido” (1957) and “La Notte” (1961), the “Masters of Cinema” series has now endeavoured to showcase his earlier work: 1955’s “The Girlfriends,” and 1953’s “The Lady Without Camelias.” Long before the days of Oscar nominations and Jack Nicholson, Antonioni was busy building a career by making films about women thrust into social circles that they aren’t familiar with. This is particularly true of “Camelias,” which follows the career of a shopgirl-turned-actress propelled into the enticing new world of Rome’s Cinecitta film studios.
Shop Assistant Clara Manni (Bosé) has been handpicked by movie executive Gianni (Checchi) for his new film, “Woman without Destiny.” When test screenings reveal that the public are enamoured with Clara, but less enthusiastic about Destiny itself, producer Ercole sees an opportunity to take advantage of his Actress’ shapely presence and spice the film up a bit, with less attention to detail and more overt displays of passion.
Clara becomes compromised when she marries Gianni, who subsequently gets jealous at how provocative the marketing for her film is, and categorically states that he doesn’t want her involved with it anymore. She reluctantly agrees, and after requesting a more serious avenue of filmmaking they set about on a new version of the daunting trial of Joan of Arc, with Gianni in the Director’s chair. Suffice to say, the film fares terribly when premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and with both their reputations in tatters, Clara is forced to evaluate their marriage and the career that she has embarked upon.
“The Lady Without Camelias” actually begins as a more brisk, satirical jibe at the movie business in its opening act, as the producer commands his bewildered director to change the feel of the film with very little regard to authenticity. A year after Hollywood’s own insular critique, “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Camelias” is as scathing a depiction of art versus commerce – if much more comic and resigned about the whole enterprise. Filmmaking is promoted as a fun but altogether shallow experience, defined by money, jealousy, and other trivial external factors that have nothing to do with artistry. If nothing else, Antonioni feels contemptuous of this brand of cinema – a suggestion to film on location is lambasted despite neo-realist cinema being presented as an example of how it can work – and “Camelias” represents a commentary on the regressive and opportunistic nature of the film world.
The opening shot of the film stalks Clara as she tentatively waits outside a test screening of the film for a general reaction, unsure of herself, questioning whether this is the right path for her. We feel her pressure and her uncertainty even at this early stage, weighing up the situation as if to say: can things really be this easy? It’s remarkable how Antonioni evokes an era in order to expose the emotional solitude of his characters; whether that takes the form of the espionage revival of the Seventies, the voyeuristic sexuality of the Sixties, or the cosmopolitan distraction of the Fifties. He’s so in touch with how these worlds can engulf and impress upon people, create a faux sense of belonging, cajole them into giving too much of themselves.
Nicknamed La Manni, Carla’s newfound fame turns the heads of many men, but particularly Nardo, who comforts her after Joan of Arc is trashed by Venice critics. Although key in Carla’s grand journey of discovery, her romance with Nardo represents the dullest portion of the film – largely because there’s very little chemistry between them, and partly because it feels so far removed from the rest. This section of “Camelias” is more attuned to the feel of later Antonioni films, but doesn’t really sit well amidst the more biographical elements. This is not a compact narrative by any means. But while it lulls somewhat, there’s always a lingering curiosity towards Carla; why she’s acting so recklessly different to her earlier, studious outlook on romance. Bosé charts Carla’s self-awareness deceptively astutely through the film’s second half, to the extent where the more sudden, bleaker realisations of the character feel like a natural culmination of where this woman has been heading.
The resounding success of “The Lady Without Camelias” is in the impact of its heroine’s Ophulsian arc, and Antonioni, in his ability to show how the movie business uses people, colours their sense of self-worth, exploits their aesthetic qualities to pigeon-hole them into archetypal signifiers, has made a film that’s largely understated yet remarkably effective. Joan of Arc may be used as an example of a legacy leagues ahead of the fickle talent in this filmmaking world, but the final shot of “Camelias” is one that almost references the “Maid of New Orleans” in its harrowing indictment of male regulation of the female form. It’s hard out there for an Actress.
"The Girlfriends" and "The Lady Without Camelias" are both available on DVD and Blu-ray from March 21st.