Arguably more than any European filmmaker of his time, Michelangelo Antonioni enhanced his already captivating body of work by incorporating a pronounced use of metaphoric and literal location. Be it deliberately arranged interiors, a naturally occurring landscape or some sort of industrial, urban, hyper-modern milieu, these settings would influence and mirror the complex inner turmoil and agonizing physical condition of his characters, oftentimes coalescing in extraordinary compositions of visual beauty and poignant psychological identification. However, as a vital feature of Antonioni’s cinema, this formal strategy did not emerge fully formed.
There can be little question that his renowned trilogy of L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962) ushered in the most explicit examples of this approach, and even Il grido (1957) was a notable early showcase before that. Prior to this, though, Antonioni seemed to tentatively test the waters in terms of location integration as something more than a mere backdrop. His first film, the 10-minute documentary People of the Po, shot in 1943 and released in 1947, took as its subject a populace defined by their locality, and his first feature, Story of a Love Affair (1950), expanded somewhat on the interplay between characters and their environment with a concrete sense of setting through street scenes to open the picture and the employment of expressive climatological elements such as rain and fog to set the tone (in this it is a less distinguished precursor to Il grido, Red Desert , and Identification of a Woman ). By comparison, The Lady Without Camelias (1953) is a largely unassuming step backward in this regard, while I vinti (1953), though not a film he was particularly interested in, gave Antonioni the opportunity to explore foreign locales in France and England (again, a partly revealing preview of later films away from Italy: Blow-Up , Zabriskie Point , Chung Kuo – Cina  and The Passenger ).
By the mid-50s, Antonioni had sufficiently worked through this sporadic amalgamation of people and their places, to highlight a particular site as a form of narrative annotation and to instill in his films a setting that lent itself aesthetically to his developing mise-en-scène. Similar to these earlier features, Le amiche (1955), loosely based on Cesare Pavese’s novel, initially appears as a moderately moralistic story about superficial individuals and their emotional, and in one case fatal, disintegration. But there are times here, more than in these prior works, when Antonioni’s desire to make setting a distinctly crucial component of his cinema clearly comes through. The biggest difference (and this is most notable compared to his post-1960 work) is that with Le amiche, he is primarily utilizing location as a conduit for sociocultural commentary instead of a probing analysis of singular individual torment or an intimate romantic relationship.
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Most prominent in Le amiche is the evolution of Clelia, played by Eleonora Rossi Drago. Clelia arrives in Turin to set up a fashion salon branch, as instructed by her bosses in Rome — her character is frequently introduced as being the lady “from Rome,” so even here she is identified by where she hails. Despite that she was actually born in Turin, this designation nevertheless gives her a now foreign sensibility and, to others, a touch of unfamiliar strangeness. She is alone in the city and only by chance becomes involved in a shallow world of insatiable self-interest. When a neighbor in her hotel attempts suicide, Clelia not only meets the victim, Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer), but encounters those who make up the young woman’s circle of female “friends”: Nene (Valentina Cortese), Momina (Yvonne Furneaux) and Mariella (Anna Maria Pancani). As someone who does not come from an affluent life financed by old money, Clelia stands apart from these other women in terms of status and life experience. In this, she also gravitates toward Carlo (Ettore Manni), the genial working-class foreman who is under the salon’s more pretentious architect, Cesare (Franco Fabrizi). Into the mix is the affected painter Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti), fiancé to the artist Nene and apparently the object of Rosetta’s affection (and the probable cause of her heartbroken suicide attempt).
Save for Carlo, those around Clelia — the men and the women — are often amused by her behavior in Le amiche. To them, this strong-willed independent woman is almost comical in its rarity, and befitting their largely carefree life, her career concerns are seldom taken seriously. There is at once built-in accepted sexism (evinced in the struggle to acknowledge a woman in charge rather than a clichéd figure of femininity), as well as firmly entrenched social and occupational hierarchies (bosses vs. workers, rich vs. poor). With her personable nature and frankly more humane disposition, Clelia is obviously not akin to Momina and the others. The way she quickly befriends Carlo, who otherwise gets mocked for his working-man existence (“he’s the assistant, a simple guy”), and the fact she is concerned with doing her job the best she can (an honest day’s work is beyond most of the other characters), puts her in a marked contrast with those now making up her social circle. The frivolity of a life of leisure pits Clelia and Carlo as outsiders, embodying the difference between status earned and status expected, fostering a conflict of class and ideology, but one overtly explored only in micro-scale.
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Though post-war Turin was a burgeoning economic hub, with a surge of southern Italian immigrants drawn to its automotive industry in particular, one does not get an explicit impression of the city as a center for commerce and migrant congregation. As scholar Karen Pinkus points out, in this respect, Le amiche is most revealing for what it doesn’t show, for how it avoids a grand depiction of class distinction. That Momina, Lorenzo and the rest reside comfortably within their own insular niche, with little to no sympathetic signal of surrounding disparity, clearly indicates just how far removed they are from a more socially conscious reality. It is also emblematic of Antonioni’s penchant for characters with a willfully detached existence, which in this case helps elucidate on why Clelia and Carlo bond the way they do, as two of a kind flowing in and out of this upper-crust sanctuary.
When Clelia first enters the salon, she finds it is still in shambles, a long way from being completed by the date it needs to be. More than just providing some narrative suspense (in a very loose sense of the word — whether the salon be finished in time is not really a major factor in Le amiche), this unfinished work-in-progress reflects Clelia’s lack of preordained, artificially constructed veneer; as this high-class surface-oriented establishment reaches completion, Clelia begins to shun the vanities and external concerns of others, seeing the enterprise as occupational more than personally applicable. In an essay accompanying the recently released Criterion Collection Blu-ray, Tony Pipolo argues that, “Just as Antonioni would later make the stock exchange in L’eclisse embody the mercantile nature of contemporary relationships, he uses the fashion world in Le amiche to reflect the glamorous facade of the bourgeois atmosphere and the superficial nature of the characters’ lives.” As this business is essentially based on the altering of appearance to suit societal norms and expectations, it does provide ample opportunity for Antonioni to insert implicit and voiced reflections, as when Clelia herself connects the dots between the reciprocal role of synthetic image-making and social status: “In Rome, women want to spend little but look rich. Here they spend a lot but want a modest look.” Why? she is asked. “Social diplomacy.”
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If the salon stands as the key interior location of Le amiche, surely the barren beach visited by the contentious clique is the most revealing exterior setting. As the group escapes the urban confines and the modern malaise they have so vocally and consciously endured in the city, they enter a contrasting realm of stark naturalism. There, isolated from the diversions of the familiar, where they could blend in and find solace in their rigid bourgeois surroundings, they face each other with rancorous consequences. Tempers flare and emotions run high; insults are hurled with uninhibited passion and romantic inclinations are acted upon. As Seymour Chatman notes, this beach location is clearly pointing the way toward Antonioni’s later work, and here one can already witness a developing appreciation for how, and to what extent, setting can illustrate character thought and thematic preoccupation. “The beach, sky, and water provide a vast arena within which the characters can at once disport and reveal themselves,” he writes. “The empty ambience nakedly demonstrates the power of the little clique both to embrace and to ostracize.” On this beach, Le amiche’s most distinctly Antonioni landscape, public and behavioral boundaries break down. The characters call out each other for past deeds, they pass blame, their various liaisons are revealed and deep-rooted contempt is laid as bare as the sparse, wind-swept scenery.
“If one had to select Antonioni’s leading contribution to the art of cinema, it would have to be his way of relating character to environment,” Chatman states. “Refusing … to treat background as mere décor there solely to ‘establish’ locale, he uses settings to represent characters’ states of mind.” But even with the implications of this beach sequence, Le amiche lacks some of the visceral visual impact still to be seen with Antonioni, especially insofar as his flagrant use of locations within a given city. Though the credits may roll over an image of the Turin skyline, presenting a vision of the area that establishes its relevance in a generally compulsory fashion, Le amiche seldom utilizes the geographic features of the city as striking assets in and of themselves. Viewers get a taste of the regional temperament (as noted above, in ways that are both seen and unseen), but it would be a stretch to contend, as Pipolo does, that “The film’s use of actual locations … beautifully shot by Gianni Di Venanzo, not only testifies to Turin’s cultural and historical significance … but also makes the city as much a character as any of the fictional ones.” He is right to further note sequences that highlight the city’s “sparkling bourgeois milieu,” but it is scarcely a milieu exemplary of Turin in particular, nor does it host the more illuminating sequences of Le amiche.
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Within the city, the two most revealing locations are the rundown tenement where Clelia grew up, a site certainly not “sparkling” or “bourgeois,” but one that does denote awareness (by she and Carlo as well as viewer) of where she came from and why her path to success is so dissimilar to the others, and Momina’s apartment, Antonioni’s most formally exploratory location, which is a Cinecittà set and not strictly indicative of Turin’s “character.” This latter venue does, however, provide Antonioni a tremendous opportunity to orchestrate textured interior staging with shifting partitions and a fluctuating perception of openness and restriction. Not unlike the characters of Le amiche, the doorways, bare windows and adjustable blinds suggest the potential for admittance but can just as easily be obstructed. When one does try to enter or empathize — earnestly, as Clelia does when she seeks to console Rosetta, or selfishly, as when Momina, Mariella and Lorenzo try to deduce a reason for Rosetta’s despair but only end up arguing about which one of them was the object of her anguish — the outcome is inevitably futile and tragic.
Whatever the location — inside or out, natural or constructed — and whichever social strata is being scrutinized, the ultimate conclusion of Le amiche is one that will be echoed throughout Antonioni’s career. Existing on the margins of stable relationships, all on the brink of commitment, the characters of Le amiche are plagued by betrayal and an overriding sense of (perhaps self-induced) alienation. This cool remoteness is not as severe as one will see in L’eclisse or Red Desert, for example, so the emotional and aesthetic impact is lessened, as is the corresponding role of setting. But with Le amiche, Antonioni further bridges the gap between comparatively conservative melodrama and the groundbreaking narrative and visual abstraction he would soon unleash.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.