La Signora Senza Camelie
Director / Script: Michelangelo Antonioni (from his own story) / Editing: Eraldo Da Roma / DP: Enzo Serafin / Music: Giovanni Fusco
Cast: Lucia Bosé / Gino Cervi / Andrea Cecchi / Ivan Desny / Monica Clay / Laura Tiberti
Camelia says no.
If, as some believe, our Fate really is set-in-stone, no matter what we might do to try to change it, then Antonioni’s La Signora goes some way to proving that claim.
Lucia Bosé is cast as Clara Manni, in a sensitive, nuanced performance that carries this fable of thwarted ambition. Although we don’t yet know it, it’s Clara who opens the film, leading the camera from a rainy street in Roma into a cinema, where a girl up on the big screen in singing. Evidently this is her and she’s snuck-in to watch, what is shortly revealed as her debut. The murmurs from the departing crowd are positive, especially about her and it’s little wonder that its producers are overheard talking-up their big discovery.
One in particular, talks of how he ‘found’ Clara: ‘working as a shop girl in Milan’. In the context of what follows, this revelation is important because it reminds us that even now, this early, Clara’s status to these men is little higher than that of a lightbulb: a bright, popular starlet in the classic Hollywood mould, who’ll burn bright, burn-out and get replaced by another. Not that Clara sees herself as that…
This producing duo – Ercole (Gino Cervi as a loyal, avuncular teddy bear who knows his own artistic limitations) and Gianni (Andrea Cecchi, as a restless, hungry, man-on-the-move), will shape Clara’s path way beyond giving her this first bit-part. Now she’s a hit, everyone wants her in their films: and these two gatekeepers will keep the money flowing – or so we think.
For on-top of everything else, Gianni is pushing a romance onto Clara, as if to ‘seal the deal’. At this stage, she’s still able to resist him, but as the film unfolds, her resolve weakens in all directions as she tires of resisting Fate. The clincher is a conversation with confidante Renata (Laura Tiberti), who, when asked by Clara what to do about Gianni’s overtures, replies: ‘Follow the path of Jean Simmons and make him wait for a year’. Clara can see the wisdom, but explains that Gianni’s not the patient type. Nonetheless, she resolves to follow-through on the advice and rocks up to Gianni’s office to say her piece: only to be disarmed at the unexpected sight of her parents. Seems that Gianni has already told them that Clara’s accepted his proposal…
Yes, it’s a gamble, but a calculated one on his part, as he’s banking on indecisive Clara being unable to publicly humiliate either of them or upset her mother, who appears happier at the news than the ‘happy couple’; Clara looks like someone who’s just had their puppy put down… Which suggests that Gianni had invited her parents over from Milan, just to ensure his preferred outcome prevailed, thus revealing the true extent of his control-freakery over his protégé. So much for Clara’s resolve to think for herself. Not for the first – or last time, has a man made-up her (and her mother’s) minds…
Act Two opens in an upscale Roman townhouse that’s being used as a location for Clara’s first feature, except neither Bride nor Groom appear to have returned from their honeymoon, which is cause for Ercole to grow increasingly emotional; Antonioni makes one of his signature set-ups here, by having the camera settle on an agitated, though static Ercole, as bit-players enter and leave the frame. Someone’s asking about Clara’s body double, another enters to take a phone call and more. Amidst the chaos, the camera is the only stillness. Only when hostess Simoneta (Monica Clay) leaves, do we back-out ahead of her, turn to let her pass and have the frame fill again, with a new cast of strangers met on the landing. Simoneta walks away, up a staircase.
The Steadicam that would’ve enabled Antonioni to follow her, had yet to be invented so instead, Antonioni waits for the crewman she’s just passed on the stair, to reach ‘our level’ and is then guided by him, into another room, where this intricately choreographed long take continues.
Now the Director of this evidently troubled picture is complaining to Ercole (newly arrived, unseen) that he can’t shoot anything without its star; it seems her body double’s not up to scratch. Ercole finally explodes: ‘I haven’t slept in three days! I begged Gianni on my knees to wait and marry her at the end of the film!’ Now, to close, that crewman seen previously on the stairs, admits that Gianni’s back in Rome, causing Ercole to re-explode; such reaction pleasing the newly arrived houseguests, who’ve been gawping at the spectacle all along, as if watching a production by an agitprop outfit like punchdrunk. What does this news tell us? That such is Gianni’s apparent obsession with Clara, that he is keeping her away from an ongoing production: doesn’t bode well, right?
Cut to: Simoneta, the hostess of this mansion, who’s now in her quiet bolthole at the top of that staircase we last saw her ascending. She’s talking to a boyfriend – Nardo (Ivan Desny plays him as an opportunistic predator). Turns out that Nardo’s a diplomat, just returned from a posting abroad and that alone ratchets-up her attractiveness to, well, just about anyone. So when he wriggles-out of the thorny question of marrying Simoneta, you just know it’s because he’s about to meet…
…Clara and Gianni, who stroll in to the house oblivious to the turmoil their absence has caused. Clara has to contend with a lascivious leer from Nardo, but Antonioni’s more concerned with the explosive ending of Ercole’s and Gianni’s partnership. It seems that Gianni is jealous of Clara being pawed by other men in her love scenes, so he’d rather she didn’t work at all. An extreme position, but it reinforces the paranoid insecurity ruling Gianni’s life. He only married Clara because he thought he could control her like some Svengali; create a star in his own image. Even now, he’s telling Ercole that ‘Clara agrees with me’, when she clearly doesn’t and just wants to work. It was acting work after all, that got her out of Milan in the first place and she doesn’t want to become a housewife in a soul-less, modern villa that easily: but that’s her Fate, it seems.
Furthermore, denying Clara a voice in this exchange, reveals the extent of Italy’s heavily patriarchic society as it was in the Fifties. Her P.O.V. is shaped by the men in her circle; take the exchange when Gianni is explaining to Clara that he wants her to give up acting and become La Signora (a ‘lady’) running his villa, meeting new (i.e. his) friends, etc. When he plead-demands ‘let me decide!’, she nods meekly. Yet this is the woman who, not five minutes before, was being fêted by the houseguests! She demonstrates a strong public persona and a private weakness in-thrall to her manipulators. Any success she has, is Gianni’s to bestow.
To close-out our time in the mansion, the bewildered matriarch (and home owner) then appears for the first time. She looks at the chaos around her, then at the weeping body double (who’s gig is now cancelled) and exclaims to herself ‘this is appalling’, before walking out-of-shot. But at what is her opinion directed? Show business in-general or this dysfunctional production in particular?
Antonioni’s very clever in how he has characters interact with others off-screen and how he reveals them. The extended take in the mansion is the obvious stand-out, but there are others dotted-throughout the picture. Take the early scene, where Gianni is walking to his car and turns-about to talk to a hidden figure revealed as Clara. Or the way the camera moves around a feature staircase in Clara’s villa, revealing chairs underneath. He’s also adept at expressing emotional distance; consider when Clara is looking down from a landing, at a comatose Gianni, as if she’s an Angel observing a morbid tableaux. Or how Clara is always alone when viewing her performances, as if she doesn’t trust the opinions of others (for good reason, as it turns-out). This is Antonioni using his locations intelligently, to benefit the piece and and put Gianni & Clara’s troubles into a real-world microscope.
Time in Clara’s new, characterless villa passes with her struggling to impose her identity here, on this blank-canvas of a place, as much as in her stifling marriage. Unsurprisingly, she visits Ercole in the hope of getting more work and returns home (with script) to an unimpressed Gianni, who nonchalantly tosses it aside and later announces to a visiting Ercole, that he hasn’t changed his mind about Clara’s work choices. Instead, he now blurts-out that she should play Joan of Arc. Ever self-aware, Ercole admits he can’t see how he’d do it, so backs-off, but Gianni’s off on some wild, self-fulfilling prophecy: ‘It’ll go to Venice! I’ll make her an actress that’ll make people tremble!’ So it proves, but not as he expects.
Along the way, Clara has her affair with Nardo but once again, it’s just a reaction to the changing whims of the men in her life and when, as predicted, he turns and runs when faced with responsibility, she’s confronted with an unpleasant reality.
And in the end? A second chance for liberated-but-lonely Clara, in the form of a sword & sandal B-Movie. It’s an acceptance of place; a humbling, triggered by crowds of extras at Cinecittá, whose ranks she wants to avoid joining. And, yes, there’s even a breakthrough to hidden reserves of acting prowess when, in the closing seconds, she finds grit in the oyster of her life. She may yet make it; transcending the mediocrity which others believe is all she’s capable of. She may yet leave the shopgirl behind forever.
Top-drawer film-making, this one.
Sex, politics and religion – All together!