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Twenty-three years after L'Avventura (1960), Michelangelo Antonioni returns to Lisca Bianca Island. The rarefied atmosphere of Lea's disappearance is recalled by some audio excerpts from the original movie.
Clelia comes from Rome to her native Turin, to set up a new fashion salon. On her first night, the woman in the next room of her hotel takes an overdose of pills. Clelia becomes involved with this woman, Rosetta, and three of her rich women friends, Momina, Nene, and Mariella. Momina is older than the others, and lives apart from her husband. Her current lover is Cesare, the architect of Clelia's salon. Nene is a talented ceramics artist, and lives with her fiance, the painter Lorenzo. Mariella is a flighty woman only interested in having a good time. Clelia becomes attached to Carlo, the architect's assistant, but the other women look down on him as he comes from a working class background. Momina, with the help of Clelia, discovers that Rosetta fell in love with Lorenzo as he was painting her portrait. Momina then encourages Rosetta to go after Lorenzo, even though he and Nene were supposed to marry soon. Written by
Complex, dramatic, and visually seductive, "Le Amiche" is not just a fine early work by Antonioni, it deserves a place beside his more famous achievements.
For those approaching it in 'historical reverse', that is AFTER knowing the 'Trilogy' ("L'Avventura" "La Notte" "L'Eclisse") and "Il Deserto Rosso", the film is stunning in the way it prefigures nearly all the themes the director would continue to explore in his somewhat more daring works of the 1960s. In the character of Clelia (played by the beautiful Eleonora Rossi Drago) can be seen the ancestor of Monica Vitti's Claudia in "L'Avventura": she is an outsider, curious and compassionate, who is coming to terms with her own sense of self. Gabriele Ferzetti plays Lorenzo, a frustrated artist, much like his lost architect in the same famous film. And in Rosetta (Madeleine Fisher) is prefigured the enigmatic Anna go 'goes missing' on the immortal volcanic island. Yvonne Furneaux's Momina embodies the superficial leisure class characters with whom Antonioni will continue to populate his next three or four films. And Nene (Valentina Cortese) acts out the director's great theme of forgiveness.
But it is not just in the characters that "Le Amiche" points toward the future. There are many scenes of wandering, along city streets, or beaches. Casual sexuality it presented not for its sensual or aesthetic appeal, but as an empty attempt to connect. And the great chasm of miscommunication between men and women is on full view. Yet, even in 1955 the director knows that all is not black and white. Characters of the same gender don't really understand one another either. The film seems to ask a difficult question: is it possible to 'be yourself' and still need others? Clelia finds a difficult answer, while Nene seems to find its mirror image.
And speaking of mirrors, the famous 'doubling' technique is here in germ form as well. In the very opening shot, Clelia looks into the hotel bathroom mirror while drawing her bath: she is about to find her self divided in her feelings about her soon-to-be new friends and her old home town of Torino. Later, she regards her reflection in a shop window mirror before deciding to pursue a romance with the handsome Carlo (Ettore Manni).
Possibly most interesting of all is Rosetta, who, in attempting suicide, is trying to 'disappear'. The film makes it more than clear that this character has no real sense of self: she is dependent upon the affections of a man and the perceived loyalty of her mostly vacant friendships. There is a telling scene with Lorenzo in which she feeds off his flattery. And, in a beautifully acted scene aboard a train, Clelia tries to help her understand the importance of connection to others, never realizing how unstable Rosetta truly is.
Antonioni would in his next feature, the marvelous "Il Grido", begin to streamline his technique. "Le Amiche" has far more characters than he would later prefer, and they talk constantly. There are virtually none of the characteristic, nearly silent sequences that will inform his later works. Nor does landscape play the commanding role it will assume in the 1960s. Also, the two main narrative threads of "Le Amiche" (Clelia and Rosetta/Lorenzo/Nene) will be reduced to one for nearly all his remaining films.
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