A wide-ranging conversation with Ian Francis, founder and director of Flatpack, about cinema, community, building audiences, and developing the festival from a pop-up in a pub 12 years ago to one of the leading festivals in the UK and a cornerstone of film culture in the West Midlands. We talk about cinephilia in Birmingham, about showing films in canal boats, churches, warehouses; about programming mixed-media, animation, shorts, experimental and expanded cinema and how international art-house might now be amongst the biggest challenges; we talk about funding and about ‘Heritage’ projects, from the recent ‘Birmingham 68’ to a forthcoming project on South Asian film from the region. It was a great opportunity to discuss key aspects of culture in general and film culture in particular that, because they often take place behind the scenes, don’t often get the public airing they merit. You can listen to the podcast below.
The all-female reboot of the Ocean’s franchise sees Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett leading a team of women to infiltrate and rob the Met Gala. We discuss how the heist failed to meet our expectations, the weak integration of Ocean’s personal motivation, and the underwhelming displays of glamour, but we find things to like, including Anne Hathaway’s performance in particular and how the film depicts the characters eating. But ultimately we’re left with the question: If a woman can’t get the job directing a film like this, just what is she allowed to direct?
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
Muerte de un cliclista/Death of a Cyclist is a salutary reminder that even under the most totalitarian of regimes protest is possible. But Juan Antonio Bardem’s triumph is not only due to his making a Communist film at the height of the Franco regime: this film also has a remarkable way of framing the action, quite extraordinary compositions in 4:3 ratio (see below), an evocative use of space, original modes of cutting, and a way of building scenes to daringly extreme close-ups, rhythmically, in a way that conveys all the necessary story information whilst creating tension. It’s not only a landmark in Spanish cinema but a great film tout court.
In his autobiography, Y todavía sigue: Memorias de un hombre de cine, Bardem insists the film is based on Tolstoy’s Resurrection (p.204). But it bears more than passing similarities to Antonioni’s Cronaca di un amore, which Bardem had by then seen and subsequently acknowledged as an influence: Juan (Alberto Closas) and Maria José (Lucia Bosé) were teenage sweethearts. She left him to marry a richer and more influential industrialist Miguel (Otello Toso) but they’re now once more involved. Returning to Madrid from one of their trysts in the country, they run over a cyclist. They get out of the car to see whether he’s alive and find out he is. But instead of getting help they flee, worried that if others are involved, their affair will be uncovered and their social position ruined.
Back at work, Juan reads in the paper that the cyclist has died. He’s so distraught that he inadvertently fails a female student when she should have passed, a mistake witnessed by great numbers of people in class. What was previously selfishness now becomes murder. At a party, Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla) hints that he knows what’s happened and threatens blackmail. The rest of the film is a combination of tense Hitchcockian thriller, populated by characters suffering from Antonioni-esque ennui and framed in compositions very much influenced by the Italian modernist’s work, and peppered with sequences that owe a debt to Italian neo-realism, particularly in its Spanish variant such as in Surcos. Compare the sequence in Surcos (below) to the one that follows from Muerte de un ciclista.
The film is an indictment of the Franco regime. The culture depicted is one riddled with corruption. Juan’s brother-in-law is the reason he’s got his post at the University. And he could even be made Dean should he wish to on the basis of this connection. The brother-in-law is satirised giving one of those inflated, smug and florid speeches one so associates with the era. We see the mother who’s had everything in life categorised and measured and has problems understanding that which isn’t. She loves her son, but also understands he doesn’t share her values, not least her pride in having two sons fallen in the war. We see newsreels as of yore of Maria José, dressing up and looking glam, ostensibly to give money to the poor, whilst we know she let someone die because he was an inconvenience. We’re also shown those in power, like Juan at the university, so careless of those in his charge, he fails his student even without looking at what she’s done and potentially ruins her life. There’s a line spoken by Juan’s sister, at one of those boring cocktail parties that seem to make-up their life, where she jokes that the bracelet Maria José’s husband has given her comes at the cost of a thousand impoverished workers.
This viewing is the first one I’ve recognised the extent to which the Civil War permeates everything. It’s visible in the bombed out buildings by the tenement flats of the dead cyclist. It’s referred to in conversations with the mother. It’s what interrupted Juan’s love affair with Maria José and gave her the opportunity to marry a richer man. But more importantly, the trenches were Juan fought the war (on the Nationalist side), where he daydreamed of her, are visible from the very place he and Maria José let a poor cyclist die. The culture he fought for, the one his two brothers died to build, is the same one that allows him and his like to walk away from someone they’ve just run over with their car and let die.
It’s interesting that David Melville Wingrove, in an excellent piece for Senses of Cinema, assumes Juan fought for the Republicans, whilst I assume he fought for the Nationalists. I based the assumption on the his social class, his mother valuing the ‘glory’ of their name and revelling in a particular Nationalist discourse, his ‘fallen’ brothers, his position at the university, and the knowledge that such a representation of of an ex-Republican combatant would have been unlikely to be permitted representation. It’s worth saying that on his piece on the film in Antología crítica del cine Español, Casimiro Torreiro cites José María García Escudero, ex and future Director General of Spain’s Ministry of Film and Theatre, writing in the pages of Arriba, a Falangist paper, as naming Juan as ‘one of our ex-combattants (un ex-combatiente nuestro).’
Still, I don’t think the side Juan fought on, so important in the history of the Civil War and it’s aftermath, is ever explicitely stated.The fact that he fought in the trenches on the outskirts of Madrid means nothing as the gun could have been facing in either direction. Upon reflection, it might have been left deliberately open: and whatever side one assumes Juan fought in brings interesting, if different, dimensions to his character, and to the story. Seeing him as a Republican would explain his being the ‘black sheep’ of the family; his needing to rely on the patronage of his brother-in-law; his ennui and immobility during much of the film; and his being fired up by the protests. What’s really important in the film is Juan’s acknowledgment that the war is something that affected everybody, that ‘you can blame everything on it’ and the film’s use of it as a context in which Juan must live his existential crisis and begin to take responsibility for his actions.
If in Death of a Cyclist the rich are lazy, bored, corrupt and careless. they’re also made alluring: the men by loving and having a conscience, Maria José by looking so exquisitely beautiful. The poor are of course victims at the beginning and shown at the end to have the conscience and sense of responsibility the rich lack. The class that comes off worst here is the middle one, those with position, but who have to work for a living, like Rafa, the blackmailing art critic. What is it that the cinema of this period has against critics? They’re either bitchy (All About Eve) or murderous and perverse (Laura) and why is evil and deviant sexuality so often associated with modern art as here and in Phantom Lady?
Juan’s unjust and careless failing of Matilde (Bruna Corrà), the young student has resulted in the students protesting against the faculty (see below). This is shown to us through one of the many brilliant cuts in the film, where Rafa’s blackmail scheme has been foiled and in frustration he throws a bottle through the window of the restaurant where they’re all celebrating a wedding. Cut to a similar window being destroyed but this time at the faculty where Juan works as an assistant Professor of Analytic Geometry. The end of the threat of blackmail is thus inter-linked with the student protest. Certainly, Juan sees it as a way out of the ennui and hopelessness he’s been suffering from: ‘isn’t it wonderful?’ he says to Matilde of the protests against him, ‘This selflessness, this unity, this solidarity…your problem — my unfairness — has become their own…They’ve made me feel young and noble and selfless again’.
The student protest, pointedly designated an ‘insurrection,’ is a turning point in the film. From, this point onward, the tragic denouement is set. But let me linger for a moment on the significance of the film’s representation of this uprising. It was of course illegal. And the sight of the students against the army in front of an institutional building (see above) must have been an extraordinary sight in the totalitarian Spain of 1955. But the critique is built into the very fabric of the film. See for example, how Juan and Maria José’s secret meetings take place in either the circus or the Church, rendering with an equivalence clearly not noticeable to the censors of the time.
Above: We are shown Juan and Maria José (centre) discussing their murder at the circus (left) and with a mass at church in the background, right: both Circus and Church rendered as equivalent ritual distractions and ideal settings for discussions of crime and murder
Once Juan has his consciousness raised and found a purpose for living, the film returns to the noir structure it started with and denies the adulterous couple the happy ending that had in any case begun as an impossibility. The film returns us to the same setting, the place where Juan once fought for the repressive culture he now lives and in and where he dreamed of Maria José. As you can see below at the beginning (image on the left) Maria Jose is running towards Juan who is running after the cyclist. By the end (centre image), in the same setting, she is walking away from him. The distance between the couple is evident in both frames. By the image on the right however, in one of the many beautiful compositions that characterise this film, she’s descended from being the selfish and careless person who runs away from an accident to someone who actively plans to murder.
Rafa is the blackmailer. But as in so many noirs, Maria José is the femme fatale and the true villain of the story. She’s the one who’s driving when they run over the cyclist. The film often deploys unexpected cuts, through her, so as to show the lover when the husband is expected or vice-versa. She’s the one who married for money, avows her love to whichever man she’s with, and tries to hold on to her social position and worldly goods no matter the cost. If Juan changes from pointless ennui to self-liberation inspired by social protest, her trajectory is from that of careless selfishness to outright murder. It is interesting that we see her in newsreels collecting money for charity (see below left) but often, and throughout the film, pictured in, next to, or in font of a bed (see below right). In spite of the film’s left leanings it still hasn’t progressed to the point where it doesn’t blame the woman for everything.
As is shown in every frame visible in this post, the compositions are extraordinary. The other remarkable aspect of the film is the editing, constantly surprising and most effective. In the clip below, for example, note the associative cut, on smoke. Juan exhales the smoke in his bedroom, Maria José blows it away but then we notice that she is not with Juan but in her own bedroom at home, as she leans over, and we’re shown he husband entering the picture. It’s brilliant and one of many examples of unexpected and inventive cuts on action, on things, across people and spaces, even a liberal use of jump cuts.
The scene above deserves its own blog post. But I here simply want to show it to you as a way of bringing the discussion of framing, composition, and editing together in an extraordinary scene in which we are shown Rafa telling the husband of his suspicions. The flamenco blocks out the dialogue, the editing rhythmically raises tension. What is being said? How does it affect them? The camera goes from close-ups back to showing the guilty couple in a social setting, the tension builds through the increase in the close-ups, systematically, whilst occasionally returning them and us to the knowledge that their personal drama is being played out in public. It’s a great scene and characteristic of the cinematic brilliance evident throughout this great film.
The DVD is available on a great print through Criterion.
The affair is ended. Money’s made and lost. Empire’s over but colonial relations return as the not-so-repressed oversexed stereotypes, and in black-face. I wish I didn’t love you. I wish I loved you more. But then maybe one shouldn’t love at all. One is fundamentally alone. Even when you have feelings for someone as gorgeous, rich and uncomplicated as Alain Delon, and he’s crazy about you, human relationships are like kissing someone through glass. None of it matters anyway because the Atom bomb will get us all.
A landmark film in the history of Spanish cinema, Surcos vividly evokes a way of life and structures of feeling of Francoist Spain and is the best snapshot of that moment in history I can think of. The Perez family migrates from their village to Madrid in the hopes of a better life. The film begins with their arrival at the old Estación del Norte, with their chickens in their hand-baskets. They already have a son there, Pepe (Francisco Arenzana) who knows the city a bit due to having done his military service there. He find them rooms with a relative in Lavapies whose daughter Pili (Maria Asquerino),has already been corrupted by the city. Pili’s street-smart, cynical, makes a living off the black market (estraperlo) that was such a feature of life in those days, and is involved with a small time hood, a typical Madrid chulo called El Mellao (Luis Peña) who lives off her and occasionally beats her.
The Perez family arrive with just about enough money to pay their rent so their first objective is to get a job. They register with the unemployment agency but there’s a huge queue for work and in the meantime the family’s got to live. The father starts selling contraband cigarettes and candy along the Avenida del Prado but he’s too imbued with rural values — love of children, honesty — and ends up giving the candy away and getting arrested and fined by the police for illegal activity. The youngest son, Manolo (Ricardo Lucía), gets a job as a delivery boy at a grocery store but he’s so decent and naive he’s quickly robbed and the family is now in hock for all the father and the youngest son have lost. The father is so emasculated by the city, failing as both a vendor and a factory worker, that he ends up clearing the table and washing the dishes at home. The youngest son is kicked out of the house by the mother- who’s here depicted as one of those monster mamas so typical of Francoist cinema –for losing his job and landing the family in hock to his employers for the goods he’s been robbed and he ends up on the street, drying his one shirt amidst bombed out buildings, and fainting from hunger.
The only Perez child who gets and keeps a job is Pepe who Pili hooks up with Don Roque, ‘El Chamberain’ (Félix Defauce), a local gangster. Pepe begins as a driver. He moves up to armed robbery and makes enough money to replace ‘El Mellao’ in Pili’s affections. The daughter Toña (Marisa de Leza) dreams of being a singer but like so many young girls of that generation ends up in service as a maid, in her case to Don Roque’s mistress. When they leave the house to go to the pictures — one of the neo-realist films so in vogue, the film tells us — Toña tries on her employer’s clothes but in doing so rips a stocking. In this film a pair of silk stockings is an unaffordable dream to a poor family and spells ruin for Toña. This is a film with a palpable yearning for things that to us are basic but to these people in this time is completely out of reach. Toña caresses her mistress’s silk stockings like they’re the most precious of jewels, Pili yearns for years for a winter coat she never gets, Manolo is pictured outside shops stacked with food he can’t have.
As the film progresses, the father sees the deterioration of his family. The eldest son is the only one bringing in money and he thinks that makes him head of the family and gives him the right to bring his girlfriend home to have sex with, such an outrage that the father beats him for it. The daughter Toña gets conned by Don Roque into sleeping with him to comfort her for her failed debut as a singer — a failure Don Roque engineered for precisely that purpose. When the father goes in search for her and finds her ensconced as Don Roque’s new mistress, he beats her too. When he gets home, he hits the mother as well, blaming her for, well, everything.
Above, father beats son, wife and daughter, at different times, for crossing the ever-so-rigid lines of a particular and precisely delineated ways of being
At the end of the film, the family is at the cemetery, burying their eldest and headed back home to their village, accepting the shame their failure will bring on them, but glad of their straight and narrow furrow where things are the way they should be, a typical colloquial phrase from a culture that held those things to be certain; and away from the corruptions of the city, where they’re not.
The film is a landmark film in the history of Spanish cinema for many reasons: its on-location shooting and its attempt at a neo-realist style; its depiction of prostitution and other ‘immoralities’ then forbidden; its implied critique of the society its depicting, then remarkable because forbidden. It’s intelligent and well-made. But it’s too manichean to be great. It’s view of rural poverty as enobling is in itself a Francoist ideal. Its dichotomous juxtaposition of the rural and the urban, facile.
Though it might not be great, Surcos is nevertheless a film I love. The story of internal migration in the film has parallels with external migration now. Hicks from villages in 1950s Madrid were treated just as contemptuously as Latin American immigrants are now. The jobs, the way of getting them, the patriarchal family structures of the day, the strict gender roles are recognisable to me and lasted way past the period in which the film is set. I think many Spanish people would recognise aspects of their own family history or of people they know in this film. Plus, because it was shot on location, the film also acts as a kind of document of how Madrid used to be and I find myself pulled into a haze fo feeling — part nostalgia, part sadness, a kind of mosaic of the many phases of Madrid’s development that I’ve witnessed compared to those I haven’t, such as here, that I find fascinating and satisfying.
It’s a film those who continue to feel nostalgia for Franco’s Spain should see. Here is a Madrid as poor as some rural villages are now. Compare it to Almodóvar’s Madrid. The places in Surcos are identifiable; the attitudes, ways of life, levels of poverty and hunger are not. In Surcos the characters are constantly placed next to things they can’t have; the riches evident in American films like Father of the Bride, the show-business glamour of the singers and dancers of the Madrid of the era but also food, stockings, bras, new coats. What the film shows as impossible glitz are people’s everyday lives in Almodóvar’s Madrid. The change is not only physical and material but also evident in more expansive, generous and open ways of living, being and thinking.
Below I’ve enclosed image-capture from the film that those who know Madrid might recognise and get a special kick from seeing:
The first image we see in Cronaca di un amore after the credits is that of a woman in a bathing suit, beautiful alluring (see above. The images are in the order they appear in the film). The first line we hear is ‘The usual story eh’ followed by ‘no, it’s not the usual story. It’s not suspicious. In this case, the lady is faithful’. We’re told of how these photos were taken when she was a student in college. How she had a middle-class upbringing — her father’s a professor– and how she’s now an elegant society woman married to Enrico Fontana (Ferdinando Sarmi), a rich industrialist who owns over twenty companies. Her name is Paola (Lucia Bosé). The husband found that cache of photographs and they made him jealous. He wants to know what kind of a woman he married.What did she do before? What kind of friends did she have? There’s a man in one of the pictures but the picture doesn’t reveal his face. The detectives are charged with finding out her secrets so that the husband may know without asking her. The husband’s investigations start off the narrative, ironically drive his wife into the arms of that very man in the picture, and drive her to thoughts of murder that the investigation will reveal are not unknown to her. The narrative set-up, like so many investigations of women under suspicion in film, is that of noir, and Paola is the femme fatale.
The clip above is our first sight of Paola in motion. The detective has been digging dirt in her home-town. A girl who we will later find out was Guido’s girlfriend fell in an alevator shaft whilst Guido and Paola were present. Did they do it? They were in love. Is Paola capable of murder? The detective’s digging has brought Guido back to Paola, to warn her. How do you picture a woman potentially capable of murder? Note how we see her coming out of the opera, draped in white fur, dripping in jewels elegant, beautiful; in one fluid shot that pictures her first with her husband, then her elegant society friends. It’s her birthday she reminds him. Then her gaze wonders left and as the film cuts to show us what she sees, out of the past, framed against an industrial billboard, comes Guido (Massimo Girotti) her old love ,her accomplice; from her former world and from another class. Her whole mood changes. Already in the car she’s lying and manipulating. She’s a beautiful lady with a lot to lose. It’s a magnificent, expressive star entrance. A beautiful woman capable of killing for love and perhaps worth dying for.
I’ve just seen Antonioni’s Cronaca di un amore, which I found wonderful. But I’ve still to process it. For the time being, I can’t get over the extraordinary beauty of Lucia Bosé in the film and the eye-popping things she’s wearing. The clothes are by Ferdinando Sarmi, whom I’ve never heard of, and probably with good reason. They’re not ‘good’ or ‘original’ designs. But they sure look arresting, expensive and beautiful on Lucia Bosé. The jewels are by Corsi whom I’ve likewise never heard of. The hats are uncredited, which is a good thing as they are ridiculous. Was it Nancy Mitford who asked why a new hat always inspired either titters or violence? Massimo Girotti is the man in the picture and Antonioni does not film him with the same love as Visconti did in Ossessione. So permit me this fan swoon, and I’ll get to the film proper in another post.
Dottie Ponedel was the make-up artist to the stars in the classic era. She helped develop Dietrich’s look and did her make-up throughout the thirties. She also developed Garland’s ‘natural’ look beginning in Meet Me in St. Louis. For years she was the only female make-up artist, hard to believe now, and for years the boys in the union tried to get her kicked out (see image below). The book is a reminiscence, jottings from memory once all the adventures had been lived and whilst Ponedel was living through a difficult and all too early retirement brought on by Multiple Sclerosis. In a way it’s a slight book; a person’s memories, treasured, vividly rendered, but of a past already distant when they were written.
But what a person Dottie Ponedel was! She moved to LA with her mother and on 300 dollars they set up a bakery. She was picked off the street to work as an extra, and LA being a small town then, got to know all the big stars; Valentino and his first wife, Jean Acker, Carole Lombard when she was a Mack Sennett bathing beauty. She moved from bit parts to dancing bits and even got a contract with Goldwyn. She became a make-up artist only when she solved a spit-curl problem for Nancy Carroll and Carroll insisted on having her onset. The film was Follow Thru in 1930. Then, by her account, Von Sternberg had seen what she’d done with Carroll and wanted her to do something similar for Dietrich. In the book Ponedel goes to great lengths to explain what she did do, and why Dietrich’s look in her American films was so different than in The Blue Angel. Soon she was under exclusive contract to Paramount as a make-up person, at a time when all of them were men, the most famous of them, the only one who enjoyed a similar level of fame to hers, being Perc Westmore, and that because he was head of the whole make-up department at Warners.
‘At the studios, the make-up men hated my guts’ writes Ponedel. ‘They called me everything under the sun because I wouldn’t make charts to show them what I was doing. Why should I, the way they were treating me. If they were smart, they would have done the same as I, take a little from this painting and that painting and use a little imagination and they would have the Ponedel make-up style. That’s how I became so well known’.
Whilst Ponedel had been an extra, bit player and dancer, men had been a certain kind of problem. The sexual harassment seems relentless: ‘it seems every time I did a dance I got into trouble with the male sex.’ And it was structural, from the lowest to the highest: ‘Those big guys had offices that looked like Grand Central Station. I did a hop, skip, and jump around the oval table and he after me’.
Once Ponedel became a make-up artist most of that stopped. The make-up men and the union boys might have hated her. But the stars, particularly the women –Dietrich, Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead, Barbara Stanwyck, Judy Garland — loved her. The book evokes a strong sense of female solidarity, women creating all-women networks in which they could find mutual support, help, voice their troubles. And we all know the hair and make-up people are privy to all the secrets. And Ponedel still respects them. We hear of Dietrich’s extraordinary generosity and kindness. How Paulette Goddard credited her with getting her role in Unconquered after De Mille had rejected her. How Garland stole back some of her own money from Sid Luft so that she could go to Rome. What come across here is the kindness and generosity of women one thinks of a bit as monstres sacrées.
Almost a third of the book is devoted to Judy Garland. The chapter that begins the story of their relationship is entitled ‘My Wonderful Judy’ and begins, ‘Now that Judy Garland has taken her final trip over the rainbow, it’s up to me to write the story that Judy and I were going to write together. I was with Judy a quarter of a century and if she wasn’t at my house or me at hers, or on the phone, I always knew what she was up to. Few people meant more to me in my life than Judy Garland.’
What follows, for almost a third of of the book or more is an account of that friendship, its professional beginnings and how it flowered into something deeper. Men do not come across well in this account. Here’s Danny Kaye jumping on Ponedel in a hotel room whilst she’s asleep and pretending he’ assaulting her for a practical joke. Ha Ha: the humour curdles the blood. Here’s Minnelli, distant, ineffectual, complete powerless to help, uncaring of the many adventures Garland is undertaking with other men; here’s Sid Luft, exhibiting the classic behaviour of an abuser and stealing her money; worse he’s stealing her money whilst she knows he’s stealing her money and she lets him because…well, one can always make more money.
It’s quite an extraordinary tale, partial, lacking in context, but offering information one doesn’t get elsewhere and told with a personality that jumps off the page. I recommend.
Antonioni’s London in Blow-up is exciting, artistic, inclusive, open-minded and a bit queer. It’s full of different kinds of people but with an accent on youth, photography, music, art and fashion. It values old things. Grey cement blocks and old red-brick buildings are the backdrop to new and exciting ways of being with new, more open-minded attitudes to sex that are still anchored in ages-old sexism and in which the pull of a certain kind of realism is over-ridden by a clash of modernist impulses, conveyed graphically. It’s a place of unsolved murders where mimes cavort, justice is sought, but alienation dominates, albeit in green spaces. Why do I think this? See below:
Brad Stevens, ‘La notte’: ‘Far from being concealed, everything to which (Antonioni) wishes to draw our attention is present on the surfaces’. Here are eleven stills from the film, in chronological order, on which to test that argument:
A classic returns to cinemas for its 50th anniversary and we receive it in rather a muted fashion. José’s never seen it on the big screen and Mike’s never seen it at all, so it’s an interesting experience for both, but both come away with reservations.
Much of the discussion revolves around context. 2001: A Space Odyssey was first released in 1968 and our repeated use of the phrase “of its time” becomes a coded criticism as much as an honest descriptor – the film simply doesn’t work today as well, or in the same ways, as it did half a century ago. We discuss its editing, novelty value, depiction of the future and technology and more, perhaps unfortunately but probably unavoidably never being able to escape the historical lens. It’s true to say that we’re both very glad we took the opportunity to see it, but both left feeling that while its influence is even more tangible than one could imagine and its legacy is not in question, its greatness is today a touch overstated.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
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) but he 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.