A film about cinema itself, in all its variants; and, from the first, one is dazzled by the technique; the extraordinary compositions, the use of space, the inventiveness of the shots, the use of mirrors to bring off-screen space into the frame, the way off-screen dialogue is used as a kind of Greek chorus on the action; and then there’s Lucia Bosé as Clara Manni, the shopgirl who’s ‘discovered’ and becomes a big star. She’s dressed fifties-style, with bullet bras and a belt cinched as tight as possible to reveal what must be one of the smallest waists in the history of cinema. But it’s the beauty of her face that arrests – the ineffable sadness it evokes, the sense of mystery, the feeling she’s got longings that will never be sated; and her presence draws you in so as to share and understand those feelings without never quite knowing for sure which ones they are. The film ends on her gorgeous, sad and vanquished face attempting a smile.
The film starts with a young shop-girl, Clara Manni (Bosé), waiting outside the cinema during the preview of her first film. She’s anxious, wonders into the cinema and we see that she’s such a hit that the filmmakers want to enhance her part, make it bigger add a bit of romance and sex to it. One of them, Gianni (Andrea Checchi) falls in love with her and, before she knows it, he’s arranged a wedding her parents are delighted by, and a combination of gratitude and responsibility lead her to submit to the wishes of others. Gianni, however, is jealous, won’t let her film any more sex scenes with others, and he idealises her to an extent he sees her only in heroic and virtuous roles. In a clear nod to Rossellini and Bergman, he decides that his first picture as a director will be Joan of Arc, the role that will showcase all that he sees on her. The film is a terrible flop and comes close to bankrupting them. She takes on a role in a commercial film that succeeds and thus rescues her husband financially but seeks solace in the arms of another, Nardo (Ivan Desny). Whilst she’s ready to give up everything for him, he’s only after a fun adventure with a glamorous movie star. Her career is now back on track but she decides to learn how to act, to get serious about her art and only accept roles in film that aspire to more than just making money. The husband who formerly idealised her has just such a role to offer. But he doesn’t see her as an actress now. And neither does anyone else. The film ends as she accepts a role in an Arabian Nights movie with lots of harem scenes.
The film raises questions that cinema has incited since the beginning: cinema’s relationship to sex, realism, fantasy, noir, the business of it, the selling of it, the art of it. At the beginning of the film director Ercole (Gino Cervi) claims that sex, religion and politics are what’s needed for success. We get to see Venice during the film festival; and almost all areas of Cinecittà: it’s coffee shops, dressing rooms, the various sets, the ramparts of sets, behind backdrops, its entrance, its screening rooms. It’s a film buff’s delight.
In the biography she wrote with Begoña Aranguren, Lucia Bosé, Diva, Divina (Marid: Planeta, 2003), Bosé tells us:
‘To return to La signora senza camelie, it turned out to be a big hit. In my second film with Antonioni I could forget about the torment of the lights. He was the first director to begin shooting with ‘foto-flu’. It was a lighting system in which, at last, the whole set was lit at the same time, and this made possible that it wasn’t you that had to go blind in the darkness searching for the light. This is why Antonioni was able to make those extraordinary compositions. He lit the whole set and then the camera could move freely. The new system was very time consuming and the fuses kept blowing up frequently..But what impressive shots he made!’ (pp.58-59).
In an interview with Antonioni that accompanies The Masters of Cinema booklet to La notte, Antonioni says that ‘La signora senza camelie ….is a film that I consider to be a mistake, mainly because I started off on the wrong foot from the very beginning of the film by concentrating on a character who then turned out to be the wrong one.’ I wonder what the right one was? And I wish more filmmakers would make ‘mistakes’ of this order. La signora senza camelie is a cinephile’s dream of a movie. Antonioni’s comments only want to make me see it again.