In 1960, Michaelangelo Antonioni began his trilogy of alienation amongst the idle wealthy, and demonstrated his power to craft films devoid of conventional narrative. Unforgettable images and a consideration of whether humans are capable of happiness or love marked his early work. L’Avventura was his first truly great film, clever almost to a fault in portraying a group of people who go to an island, one disappears, and nothing happens. They talk, and make love, and act as windup toys; Pauline Kael described them as “too shallow to be truly lonely”. The wry title is itself a commentary on their lives, and the missing person a symbol of the lack of ‘thereness’ in the others on the trip. The ancient-appearing island contrasts with the insubstantial wealthy, for whom life is a distraction, and self-realization would cause them to implode and cease to exist. The film was a revelation, and the examination of ennui continued with La Notte and L’Eclisse, which closed with the haunting absence of closure. Le Amiche was released in 1955, prior to Antonioni’s masterpiece, and though it is not as accomplished or focused, it still contains an interesting commentary that supersedes any story therein.
As in L’Avventura, the focus is upon wealthy and bored people. Clelia arrives from Rome in Turin to start a fashion salon, an incongruous endeavor in postwar Italy (contrast this with 1949’s The Bicycle Thieves). The woman in the adjoining hotel room, Rosetta, attempts suicide and is taken to a hospital. Clelia becomes involved in her life, and with her idly rich friends. Momina lives apart from her husband, and is the most cynical of them, with her most recent in her string of lovers being the architect building Clelia’s salon. Mariella is a shallow twit who has but one talent – if you want to know, she is delighted to tell you to ‘ask the men’. Nene works with pottery, and her fiance Lorenzo is a successful painter who opens an art show at the local gallery. Clelia is attracted to Carlo, a laborer working on her salon.
During Le Amiche, these people love and laugh, and engage in lively chatter; this appears slight on its surface, but its drifting plot belies an acerbic view of people. They are educated but shallow, for whom true happiness is as distant an object as the Andromeda galaxy. As in L’Avventura, their easy banter underlines a perpetual distraction. Momina encourages Rosetta to pursue Lorenzo and split him from his fiance, perhaps because Momina has an easy time swapping lovers and wishes for others to do the same. She is not interested in whether she had only recently attempted to top herself, because interfering is just too much fun. Rosetta is unstable and clingy, and smothers Lorenzo with predictable results. Lorenzo is as shallow as the rest of them, making clear that he is simply not happy with being happy; only if those around him suffer can he express any contentment.† Nene can see she is going to lose Lorenzo, but despite his cheating behind her back, then in broad view of their small social circle, she is only too happy to have him. Loneliness is a more powerful force than any inner source of joy. Mariella is an idiot who impulsively takes lovers and demands marriage from one of them because she likes the way a dress in the salon looks. I can only imagine the agony the poor bastard who marries her will endure. They converge in a dance that leaves each of them in solitude despite a room filled with laughter and company.
Clelia’s arc considers a different sort of dissatisfaction. She alienates Carlo, as he is from an inferior social strata, and they cannot imagine a life together. Still, they could yet be a couple, if only she would abandon her career and remain in Turin and be a quiet housewife. Instead, she departs for Rome, where her employer offers a greater task. Advancement comes at the cost of happiness; or is it even possible to have both love and financial power? Antonioni does not feel this is possible. Even if Clelia remained in Turin, one could have little doubt that she and Carlo’s gaze would wander, as the seemingly random collisions of people drive them apart. Not that bliss is beyond reach, as everyone has it for a moment as they experience something new. Time erodes this as it does all else. Clelia boards her train, even then hoping to catch a glimpse of someone she can love briefly in exchange for everything else she has.
The appearance of the film is fairly conventional, with shots that are less inventive than Antonioni’s later work. The interest lies in the mundane, as scenes where very little happens is where most of the action can be found. There are few lines that are too on-the-nose, with slights and unspoken thoughts doing the heavy lifting for moving along the nearly absent plot. This is in itself a pleasure, as the audience is left to tease out the motivation of each character. At times it is a lack of motivation that provides the propulsion; Clelia spurns Carlo by musing that they would only fight about furniture – after all, they have different tastes, being from different social classes. Rosetta tries to commit suicide, and nobody seems to care a great deal about this, or even try to head off future gestures by talking about her problems.† Dialogue is its own distraction, en route to nothing.
Though Le Amiche is a bit too meandering for its own good, you can see the seeds of greatness that would bloom in just a few years. This is boredom with purpose, and rambling with a clear direction in mind. It is minor Antonioni, which still stands far above its peers.