The Masters of Cinema series present here an exquisite rarity from the early work of Italian modernist filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, in a marvellous new duel-format edition which includes a ravishing HD transfer on Blu-ray -- and although “La signora senza camelie” (The Lady without Camellias) may be a long way removed from the icy existential formalism of the director’s more famous works from the sixties and seventies, this, Antonioni’s third feature film, released in 1953, offers an affectingly choreographed portrait of the Italian film Industry in the 1950s and forms the backdrop to an iteration of some familiar Antonioni themes: the uncertain nature of identity and the forms of modern alienation, here both made an adjunct to the film’s meditation on the position of women in post-war Italian society.
The film tells the simple story of a working-class Milanese shop clerk called Clara Manni (played by the suitably inscrutable 22-year-old dark-eyed beauty, Lucia Bosé), who is catapulted to fame after she becomes the star of some popular Italian screen melodramas through a chance meeting with a pushy producer from Rome. It’s the story of how the process by which Clara comes to embody the romance and glamour of 1950s Italian popular cinema eventually subsumes and divides her own sense of self.
Although Antonioni doesn’t have the use of the widescreen aspect ratio, here, in which to situate his characters in relation to the alienating remoteness of their surroundings, the director soon proves he was the master of the manipulation of screen space even within the Academy ratio, choreographing a series of scenes that wordlessly establish an ambient mood of distance with their telling observations of Clara’s brittle relationship with the alien world of movie-making that is shown taking over her life. The opening scene sets the tone perfectly: Lucia Bosé is shot from behind, with the camera slowly tracking her from above head height as she ambles through a rain-soaked evening street that, like much of the rest of the film, displays -- in smoky chiaroscuro strokes -- the shabby elegance of a 1950s Rome permanently ensconced in louring skies offsetting the urbanised landscape.
She eventually strides into a theatre that’s playing some musical melodrama or other, and only later do we realise that the face smiling down from the silver screen in the auditorium belongs to her. This turns out to be a test-screening for her first film, and, in snatches of mixed conversation, we (and she) overhear the reaction of audience members and the film’s producers who, on the basis of her rather negligible role , have evidently decided her face fits and that Clara is to be the ‘next big thing’ in Italian cinema. This motif – of Clara moving alone among crowds of onlookers, with snatches of admiring or not-so-admiring comment constantly being overheard – will be a repeated refrain throughout the movie; as though these brief, half-heard flurries of off-the-cuff opinion are all that the former store worker now has at her disposal with which to construct some semblance of a sense of identity in this bustling, always moving world she now finds herself inhabiting.
The man who ‘discovered’ her in Milan, Gianni Franchi (Andrea Checchi), is a mercurial, probably bi-polar producer given to sudden flights of fancy, and one half of a team also consisting of the avuncular Ercole (Gino Cervi), who immediately sets about rewriting the serious period piece Clara had previously started shooting at Rome’s Cinecitta studios as a romantic bodice-ripper, now with added censor-baiting love scenes inserted as titillation, after a re-write that now requires the former male lead of the film to be re-cast as her lover rather than her husband.
Wide-eyed, Clara goes along with all this; after all, she just wants to work and is flattered everybody thinks she is so wonderful. Clara’s fragile sense of self-worth and her complete dependence on Franchi -- the man who gave her this shot at glamour and stardom in the first place -- soon threatens to undermine her burgeoning career as quickly as it originally transformed her life: Franchi is in love with her, and has asked her to marry him. Not really interested, Clara plans on putting him off for a year but arrives at the studio to find that Franchi has already announced their forthcoming marriage to both her delighted parents who have just come in from Milan, and to his production partner, Ercole. The honeymoon disrupts the shooting schedule, but Franchi is unwilling for Clara’s career to continue now anyway -- especially as a part of Ercole’s sexy melodramas, which, all of a sudden, he finds undignified and second only to prostitution. Eventually, Giannie sets up production on his own and casts his submissive wife in a ponderous arthouse exploration of the life of Joan of Arc. This leaves the critics less than impressed and gives the shell-shocked Clara her first experience of a public and critical backlash when half the audience at the film’s Venice Festival screening leave mid-way through.
Clara’s negative experiences at the Venice Film Festival and a meeting with a handsome audience member (who first encountered her during the location filming of an earlier film) called Nardo (Ivan Desny) who eventually becomes her lover, lead to her sudden realisation that her life with Gianni is a farce. However, the failure of his self-financed Joan of Arc project results in her husband making a failed suicide attempt even as she is contemplating leaving him; and in the light of this, the marriage lingers dismally on, with Clara in the meantime becoming more entrenched in her secret affair with Nardo.
For a time, Gianni’s ill-health allows Clara to establish apparent control over her career and life: she vows to alleviate her husband’s financial worries by throwing herself into her work and embarks on another round of popular melodramas at the behest of her husband’s former partner Ercole. But the realisation that her lover Nardo isn’t willing to allow her to leave her husband for him, and is quite content to carry on with their clandestine meetings indefinitely, eventually results in an epiphany: the affair is no more real than her uneven marriage. Clara leaves both men and throws herself into learning the true craft of acting. She cuts her hair short like a ‘50s art school beatnik and starts reading Pirandello (hardly a move calculated to ease her existential uncertainty). Now, ironically, enough, Clara’s desire to stop selling her screen-projected beauty and become a ‘proper’ actress, leads to her seeking out exactly the kind of ‘important’ acting roles which her former husband had previously used as a form of control;, but her attempts to redefine herself prove equally fruitless, and the film ends with Clara being forced back into accepting a role in a film even more tawdry and inconsequential than the kind of crowd pleasing fare which shot her to fame. In a restatement of the celluloid image which previously announced her on screen at the start of the film, the last time we see Clara she is blinking back tears of frustration to produce her superficial movie star pout once again for the flashing cameras of the press.
“La signora senza camelie” presents an easily digestible surface narrative of the travails attending the rise of a working class ingénue’s route to fame and fortune, but its value as an exploration of the tenuous nature of personal identity and the artifice of sculpting screen beauty is artfully conveyed by Michelangelo Antonioni’s consummate grasp of screen composition, the director (more usually known for spartanly arranged imagery) often choreographing a frame crammed with a chattering conveyor belt of players against a backdrop of cramped movie sets, tenebrous movie screenings and the interiors of Clara and her husband’s balconied, vaguely modernist themed home, as the heroine attempts to navigate her way between the assigned roles of screen siren, trophy wife and alluring lover, towards self-realisation and self-fulfilment . This new high definition transfer beautifully showcases cinematographer Enzo Serafin’s masterly black and white photography, revealing unparalleled levels of clarity in the details of fabrics and furnishings that seem almost freakish for a film that’s nearly sixty years old. This Masters of Cinema edition includes two short video essays by film critic and teacher Gabe Klinger in which the academic provides an introduction to the film (explaining the significance of the title’s reference to Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Lady with the Camellias – a work well-known in Italy for its having provided the inspiration for La Traviata) and an overview of Antonioni’s relationship with the Italian film industry in the 1950s. Both are informative and worthwhile. Also included is the film’s original Italian theatrical trailer.
Stylish, mordant and blessed with a central performance of great charm and vulnerability from the young Lucia Bosé, “La signora senza camelie” is only “a minor work” in the light of the subsequent towering reputation of its primary author. This Blu-ray from Eureka! Entertainment gives it a spectacular new showcase and comes packaged with a DVD version (including exactly the same content) for those viewers who have not yet made the change to HD. The package also Includes yet another exquisite 23-page booklet in the Masters of Cinema range that’s full of highly involved and articulate writing by some achingly intellectual Italian critics, an interview with Antonioni and various essays on the film, accompanied by some gorgeous black and white production stills from the movie. Cineastes will easily see that this is another essential addition to their home viewing collections.