Very grateful to Masters of Cinema for sending me a complimentary dual-format edition of THE LADY WITHOUT CAMELIAS, and early, underseen Antonioni movie starring the stunning Lucia Bosè. Watched it with guest David Wingrove, which was a good decision — the film is slow to start, and the more people you have in the audience on such an occasion, the less likely you are to switch off. And I’m so glad we didn’t!
The picture begins with Bosè becoming an overnight sensation in her first movie — this Milanese shopgirl is now a rising star. The problems she now faces concern both love and art — can she achieve anything worthwhile in the cinema, and can she balance that with a successful romantic life. The reason both goals are so difficult is that the men in her life all want complete control of her, and are threatened whenever she tries to make a decision. It’s when this starts to become clear that the drama kicks in and the film goes from sliding past your eyes in a slightly apologetic fashion, to gripping you by the skull while fixing you with a hypnotic gaze. More of what we think of as the Antonioni style becomes visible as the story develops, also, as the drab studios and streets of the opening scenes are replaced with ultra-modern cinemas and chic, soulless duplexes.
Sophia Loren was apparently offered the lead role, but turned it down as being too close to home. But it’s Bosè
who really was a Milanese shopgirl (Loren’s background was less respectable), though Loren did work in the fumetti, as this character is supposed to have done. Bosè’s extraordinary glamour comes with a slightly uncomfortable edge — her waist is so slender it looks cinched, but isn’t. Her body achieves a blending of the voluptuous and the starved that no body should be expected to attain. Her performance has something of the glacial quality I associate with later Antonioni, but the movie invites emotional engagement with the character in a way that’s progressively less common in the maestro’s oeuvre.
The obvious comparison is Ophuls’ Italian opus, LA SIGNORA DI TUTTI, which likewise charts the rise and fall of a female movie star. That film begins with a suicide before flashing back, whereas this one adopts a straight linear path, maybe accounting for its trouble getting started, but the Antonioni is no less clearly a tragedy. While the fate that awaits Isa Miranda in the thirties flick is potentional death by her own hand, Antonioni’s heroine is threatened with spiritual death — the possibility of a life of compromise and failure. It’s potentially more depressing that way — Ophuls’ tragedy carried with it a built-in feeling of “if only”. There may be no “if only” in Antonioni’s world.
“Is every man in her life part of some conspiracy to drive her insane?” asked David W, quite early on. The answer is YES, with the multi-tier conspiracy consisting of the film business, family life, marriage, Italian society, and human nature.
David later apologized in case he was poor company, having been emotionally shattered by the experience of the film (of course, he was still spendid company, even while reeling). I never actually find films depressing if they’re good. This one I’d call devastating but not depressing. Fiona thought it was depressing, but she still liked it. Does that say something about our differing personalities?
David W tells me that only ill-health kept the octogenarian Bosè from her stated intention of appearing on the Italian version of Celebrity Love Island last year, which suggests that Antonioni’s askance view of celebrity may be more timely than ever.