The Lady Without Camellias (La signora senza camelie, Italy 1953)

Clara (Lucia Bosè) as she appears in her first film.

What is the status of Michelangelo Antonioni today? In the 1960s he was in some ways the archetypal figure of the European art director. His three English language films, Blow-Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1975) and The Passenger (1975) then transformed him into a new kind of celebrity artist. For older cinéphiles his great works might be the trilogy of ‘alienation’ films from the early 1960s, L’avventura (1960), La notta (1961) and L’éclisse (1962). But what about the 1950s? Antonioni was born in 1912, making him roughly a contemporary of Bergman (b. 1918) and Kurosawa (b. 1910), but unlike those two prolific filmmakers who were active in their film industries by the early 1940s, Antonioni’s progress is more hesitant. He co-writes A Pilot Returns with Rossellini in 1942 and directs eight documentary shorts between 1947 and 1950 before making his first feature, Cronaca di un amore (A Chronicle of Love) in 1950. Penelope Houston, editor of Sight and Sound from 1956, made the observation that unlike the Cahiers du Cinema writers who became filmmakers in La nouvelle vague or the Free Cinema directors in the UK who formed part of the British New Wave, Antonioni had no clear beginning, no celebrated first film and no clear ‘film movement’ identity. She quotes an interview in 1959 for Positif in which Antonioni explains that in 1943 he was directing a documentary about fishermen on the Po River – the same location used by Visconti for Ossessione, often quoted as the first neo-realist film in 1942. “Today, perhaps I would be cited in a discussion about the birth of neo-realism”, Antonioni suggests. (In Cinema: A Critical Dictionary Vol 1: Aldrich to King, Richard Roud (ed) 1980, Martin, Secker and Warburg.)

A typical neo-realist long shot of a street scene

What then of La signora senza camelie?, one of three films that Antonioni directed or part-directed in 1953. Neo-realism was still a recognisable influence in Italy in the early 1950s and it certainly informs some of Enzo Serafin’s cinematography in the film. (Serafin worked continuously from 1942 and in 1954 shot Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia.) The narrative is familiar. Clara (Lucia Bosè) is a shop girl from Milan, an outstanding beauty who has been snapped up by a pair of film producers. They have put her into a mundane exploitation film and when the narrative of La signora senza camelie begins she is waiting in the street outside a cinema where her debut is being previewed in a public screening. These opening shots seem to promise distinctive location shooting. What follows certainly has neo-realist moments, especially because of the cinematography, but it is primarily a melodrama and in generic terms, a film about the film ‘business’ rather than about filmmaking per se – though there are some direct comments about performance. There are ‘pre-echoes’ of certain well-known films. It’s difficult not to think of Godard’s 1963 Le mépris (1963) in which an American producer wants to put Brigitte Bardot into a ‘classical drama’. In La signora senza camelie, Clara marries one of her producers, Gianni (Andrea Checchi) who installs her in a beautifully furnished by soul-less apartment and then casts her in a version of Joan of Arc. She goes to the Venice Film Festival and is humiliated when the film fails. In the meantime she has linked up with another hopeless lover, a diplomat who is not prepared to risk being seen with her publicly. She would be better off with the experienced actor Lodi played by Frenchman Alain Cuny, who in one scene teaches her how to make love for the camera. The film’s title presumably refers to The Lady of the Camellias or simply ‘Camille‘, a novel and play by Alexandre Dumas, an opera, La traviata, by Verdi and then a film made famous by Greta Garbo. Poor Clara has none of the mystique of Camille (though possibly all of the beauty).

Clara watches herself as Joan of Arc in the disastrous Venice screening of her ‘art’ film. Her would be lover, Nardo (Ivan Desny) is in the row behind, third from the right

La signora senza camelie is very much a film about mise en scène – the apartments, the beautiful clothes – and the cinematography. I’m sure there is music too – Clara sings in her début, but I didn’t really notice the music. Cinecitta, the great studio complex in Rome plays a role in the closing stages of the narrative, as do the paparazzi of Rome, ever-present in the studio canteen. Earlier, the two producers (the other one is much more pragmatic) first find a beautiful house belonging to the aristocracy and then fail to make use of its possibilities. Overall, I found the film beautiful to watch (and that includes the luscious Lucia Bosè, who I realise was in the Spanish film The Death of a Cyclist a couple of years later – she married a Spanish bullfighter). The narrative is in one sense quite cynical and in another an exposé of the celebrity culture of Italian cinema and what eventually came to be known as ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’. Fellini’s films make much more sense when you’ve seen this film and perhaps Visconti’s Bellissima (1951) the more ‘neo-realist’ film that traces the story of a mother’s attempt to get her child into the film world. I feel I appreciate Antonioni’s skill more than I did before, but he still feels a bit like a ‘cold fish’.

Clara with the producer who will become her husband on the night of her screen début

Like all Italian films of the period the dialogue is dubbed. I was surprised that this is very badly done at one point.

Clara in the bar at Cinecitta with the paparazzi

I watched the film on MUBI. It is currently available on a Masters of Cinema dual format DVD/Blu-ray. In the clip below (no English subs) we see Clara and Lodi playing the love scene in her second film. The director is the man in charge, though both the producers are also on set. What are those extras, seen through the window, doing outside?

4 comments

  1. alanprice69

    Thanks for that, Roy. Nice to see an article on a relatively neglected Antonioni. I like Signora a lot but of the fifties films it’s Le Amiche that for me remains the highlight. I recently reviewed La Signora on the website FILMUFORIA. If you Google it just type in my name ALAN PRICE or the film title on the search slot and it will come up. You will also find my review of La Notte. Best wishes, Alan

    • Roy Stafford

      It’s interesting to read your review. You are clearly a fan of the later Antonioni. I note that you feared the film might have “collapsed into melodrama”. My feeling is that it is melodrama in its purest form that I want – and that’s possibly why I prefer Visconti and Rossellini to Antonioni or Fellini.

      I enjoyed your comments about Lucia Bosè. There is an intriguing tension around her appearance and how she holds herself. I can see the shopgirl, but also get a sense of a middle-class girl. It’s a good ‘performance’ I think.

  2. Mimic Hootings

    I thought it was a strong film, bracingly cynical, but ever so slightly tedious. More or less the same reaction I had to The Barefoot Contessa. Il Grido, which was also on MUBI, is much better.

    • Roy Stafford

      It’s such a long time since I saw The Barefoot Contessa that I have no memory of it. I think I have a copy of Il Grido somewhere and I’m keen to see it now. I recognise the ‘slightly tedious’ quality of some of 1950s art cinema – it goes with the cynical perspective I think and that sense of ‘distance’ which allows us the space to think about why the world is like this. But it does need to be matched by a mise en scène that holds our attention.

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