A woman friend of mine once insightfully remarked that men show much more compassion and empathy for other men than women do for other women. She claimed that the congenial smiles among a group of women may often belie far less generous feelings. This challenging subject territory – how women see themselves and how they see each other – is what Michelangelo Antonioni explores in his fourth feature film, Le Amiche (The Girlfriends, 1955). Although the film is not so well known today and appeared before Antonioni came to international prominence, Le Amiche features many of the themes and cinematic techniques that characterized Antonioni’s great works that came later. In fact it displays some of Antonioni’s innovative storytelling methods on a narrative canvas that was more complex than that of his later works. Here Antonioni traces the evolving and mutually influencing relationships among a group of young women friends who are all trying to answer the same question for themselves: what do they really want out of life?
People who have the time and wherewithal to obsess about these questions are usually not from the working-class milieu that had interested Antonioni’s Neorealist contemporaries, and Le Amiche is no exception to that observation – the principal characters are all relatively privileged in terms of material welfare. So it was probably inevitable that the examination of life in this social stratum would lead critics concerned with social realism and political issues to condemn Antonioni’s work as only of interest to spoiled, self-pitying intellectuals. But we should not so quickly make such dismissals. The issues that concern the characters in Le Amiche are those that concern us all in one way or another.
The serpentine narrative structure of Le Amiche doesn’t have the straightforward four- or five-act structure characteristic of many stories of this length. In fact because of the sinuous ways that the various narrative threads interleave and overlap, it is best first to list the principal characters. The five girlfriends, who range from very attractive to beautiful, are listed in order of importance:
- Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago) is a career woman from Rome who has come to Turin to open up a fashion salon branch for the main company. She joins the social circle of the girlfriends and develops a romantic interest in Carlo.
- Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer) is a sensitive young woman for whom life holds no meaning without romance. She is romantically interested in Lorenzo.
- Momina (Yvonne Furneaux) is recently separated from her wealthy husband (who is never seen in the film) and is concerned about the welfare of her “best friend”, Rosetta. The most social (and therefore the most roleplaying) member of the girlfriends, she develops a romantic interest in Cesare.
- Nene (Valentina Cortese) is a ceramics artist who has recently married the portrait artist Lorenzo.
- Mariella (Anna Maria Pancani) is a beautiful and good-natured hedonist who is interested in enjoying the romantic attentions of men as much as possible.
- Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti, who would later star in Antonioni’s L'Avventura), is a self-obsessed painter married to Nene who develops a romantic attachment with Rosetta.
- Cesare (Franco Fabrizi) is an interior architect doing contract work for Clelia and is a person who gets by on the basis of personal salesmanship and social carousing. He has romantic dalliances with Momina and Mariella.
- Carlo (Ettore Manni) is an earnest and taciturn construction foreman working under Cesare and is from the lower classes. He becomes romantically interested in Clelia.
(1) Introduction (24 minutes). The focalization in this sequence is mainly with Clelia, but at times shifts to Momina.
(1a) Clelia arrives in her hotel room, but she learns that the person in the next room, Rosetta, has attempted suicide by taking an overdose. Momina arrives to visit Rosetta and meets Clelia, who informs her about Rosetta.(2) The Sunday Outing (10 minutes). This is one of two brilliant ensemble scenes in the film, which puts all the dynamics of their social circle on display in a continuous swirl of movement. All the characters introduced so far, including Rosetta, drive off to the beach, where they socialize together and engage in light chitchat. Cesare seems to be Momina’s boyfriend, but he sneaks off with Mariella and embraces her. Later, Mariella’s insensitive remarks upset Rosetta, and so Clelia arranges to accompany Rosetta by train back to Turin.
(1b) Clelia, in a mink coat, visits her salon site under construction and berates the workers for being behind schedule. There she meets Carlo, and later Cesare, who tries to soothe Clelia with sweet-talk, to no avail.
(1c) Momina and her friend Mariella, visit Rosetta at the hospital.
(1d) Clelia, at the salon, is still upset with Cesare’s work team.
(1e) Momina and Mariella visit a playboy Frank, accusing him (falsely, we later learn) of breaking Rosetta’s heart.
(1f) Momina visits Clelia's hotel room in hopes of finding out what telephone calls Rosetta may have made the previous night, prior to her attempted suicide.
(1g) Momina drags Clelia to an art exhibition, where her acquaintance, the artist Lorenzo, has a portrait of Rosetta on display. Momina, still fishing for a suspect, accuses Lorenzo of breaking Rosetta’s heart, but he denies it. Nene is also there.
(1h) Back at the salon site, Clelia, Cesare, and Carlo talk, and then Clelia has lunch with Carlo and gets to know him better. Cesare and Mariella show up and invite Clelia to a Sunday outing.
At this point all the characters have been briefly introduced. Momina is the social butterfly and ringmaster who is vicariously fascinated with Rosetta’s presumed love life. Clelia is the beautiful, but professionally committed, career woman.
(3) Growing Attachments (16 minutes) The focalization shifts in this sequence between Clelia, Nene, Rosetta, and Momina.
(3a) Clelia and Rosetta on the train have a heartfelt talk. Rosetta at first says she attempted suicide because she was bored with life, but later confesses that, as Momina suspected, she was romantically heartbroken.(4) The Party at Momina’s (9 minutes). This is the second outstanding ensemble scene, with all the girlfriends together at a party at Momina’s place. Rosetta, now happy and full of enthusiasm, privately confesses to Momina and Clelia (out of Nene’s earshot) that she is in love with Lorenzo. Clelia is alarmed for Nene, but Momina's ruthless vicarious pleasure is overflowing. Cesare then shows up and interacts with Momina as the others depart.
(3b) With the work at the salon now complete, Clelia expresses warm feelings for Carlo as he is about to depart, and they end up embracing.
(3c) Nene in her flat (a new focalization) is excited to learn from her agent that she has been invited to America to exhibit her work.
(3d) Rosetta (in another new focalization) walks by the river with Lorenzo and confesses her love for him. They embrace.
(3e) Back at the salon with Clelia, Carlo, and Cesare. Clelia and Carlo go out to look for furniture for the salon, after which Cesare phones his new paramour, Momina.
(3f) While looking for furniture, Clelia apologizes to Carlo for her earlier romantic indiscretion (kissing him). Carlo is put off and offended by this withdrawal, but tries to conceal his displeasure. They visit Clelia’s old working-class neighborhood (she had grown up in Turin), and she speculates how different she is now that her social status is much higher than it was then (and higher than Carlo’s is now).
(5) Rosetta and Nene (23 minutes).
(5a) Clelia, in command and full glory, has her salon opening.6. Clelia, Momina, and Carlo (16 minutes).
(5b) Rosetta has a tryst with Lorenzo in Momina’s empty apartment.
(5c) Back with Clelia’s at her opening.
(5d) Rosetta walking on the street with Lorenzo. He is moody.
(5e) At the opening again. All the girlfriends and the men show up.
(5f) Nene, aware of her husband's wandering affections, has a private and frank discussion with Rosetta and agrees to leave the two of them together and go to America alone.
(5g) The salon opening wraps up, and they all decide to celebrate at a restaurant.
(5h) At the restaurant Cesare holds court with his supposedly witty banter, but when he jokes about Nene’s invitation to America, this turns out to be news to her resentful husband, Lorenzo, who is jealous of his wife’s success. Lorenzo punches Cesare and then angrily leaves the restaurant, with Rosetta tearfully chasing after him.
(5i) Outside the restaurant Rosetta tries to console Lorenzo and swears by her love for him, but he selfishly rejects her and walks away. Rosetta then tearfully runs off in the opposite direction.
(6a) There is an overhead shot of the city docks, where Rosetta’s body has been recovered. Her second suicide attempt has been successful.Despite all the intricate and carefully executed character and camera movements in the film, the acting is superb throughout, with subtle and meaningful eye-glances conveying hidden feelings at many moments. It is this fluid, multi-player mise-en-scène that sets Le Amiche apart, not only from most other films, but also from Antonioni’s other films, too. In his subsequent films, superb as they are, Antonioni continued his fluid, context-influenced cinematographic explorations, but narrowed his focus to a smaller cast of principal characters.
(6b) Clelia, back at another show at her salon, is angry and distraught. When she sees Momina, she blows up at her in front of all the salon’s clientele, accusing Momina of having irresponsibly encouraged Rosetta’s liaison with Lorenzo for her own vicarious pleasure. On account of her selfish social games, Clelia screams, Momina is nothing less than Rosetta’s murderer.
(6c) Back in her room, Clelia gets a call from Carlo and arranges to meet him.
(6d) Nene, now back with Lorenzo, forgives him for his infidelity and swears to stay with him.
(6e) Clelia, leaving the hotel and assuming that she has been fired because of her outburst, runs into her boss in the lobby. Her boss surprises Clelia by recommending that she continue working for the company, but that she should return to Rome.
(6f) Carlo and Clelia together. She tells him that “if you and I were together, I am certain that one of us would be unhappy”. Countering her pessimism, he says, “I can’t imagine being unhappy at your side.” She still intends to return to Rome, and they make a date to meet at the bar at the train station prior to her departure.
(6g) Clelia waits for Carlo at the bar. Carlo arrives as the train is about to leave, but hides and watches her train depart in secret.
The girlfriends in Le Amiche are largely in control, or willing to take control, of their circumstances. In fact they seem to have more mastery of what is going on around them than the three principal men, who all seem to be in reaction mode, rather than in control of their fates. The girls, on the other hand, do largely what they want, and they are mindful of what their goals are. Looking at the girls individually and how they look at life reveals clear differences, though.
- Mariella is simply out for harmless self-gratification and wishes to exploit her good looks to get what she wants. She has little real empathy for any of the other people around her. If one lover disappears, she will simply find another.
- Rosetta is at the other end of the spectrum, ready to sacrifice herself for her beloved. If her beloved abandons her, then life has no meaning.
- Nene is devoted to her husband, but, unlike Mariella and Rosetta, can see situations from outside the concerns of her own short-term desires.
- Momina is in some ways quite typical of many of us today. She wants to be in on all the social games that people play, and she wants to play a leading role. But her sympathies extend only as far as doing what it takes to keep players in the game.
- Clelia is the most circumspect. Despite the assertive way that she operates in the workplace, her hesitancy in the social sphere leaves her uninvolved. She observes the social dynamics of the group of girlfriends, tries to help here and there, but is helpless to avert the emotional destruction that takes place, the blame for which she places on Momina.
- Although the film opens and closes with Clelia and follows her emotional journey throughout, the most compelling sequences in the film are those that trace Rosetta’s struggles. Rosetta’s death, sixteen minutes before the close of the film, brings that narrative thread to a close, and those remaining scenes that mostly follow Clelia and Carlo seem almost irrelevant in comparison. In The Sweet Hereafter all the various elements and threads are oriented around the central tragedy of the school bus accident. In Le Amiche, Rosetta’s tragedy is there to provide a similar center of orientation, but when that focal point disappears towards the end of the film, the story seems cast adrift.
- Related to that previous point is the problem of the hesitant relationship between Clelia and Carlo. The two characters, attractive though they are, never develop any “chemistry” between them, and there doesn’t seem to be any promise of real romantic passion. To each of them, perhaps, the other is more of an alluring symbol than a real person. This is reflected in the way Carlo lurks hidden behind luggage carts as Clelia’s train departs. It is true that he was put off by Clelia’s preferential concerns for her career and her all-too-practical recognition of their differing class backgrounds. But a passionate lover wouldn’t just sit back in silence. If he were a man of action, he would have made a stronger case and insist that she not go. (On the other hand, perhaps we have all let key opportunities slip away when we shouldn’t have.)