The band Joy Division once recorded a song called "Love Will Tear Us Apart." They may as well have been speaking of Le Amiche, among the most entrancing views of love's sweet devastation that the movies have ever seen. The film unfolds in a bourgeois Turin of sharp angles, harsh, clear light, endless looks, and poses, with people urging each other to connect but unable to do so themselves. They are constantly separated by buildings, doorways, the paintings on the walls, the clothes on their skin.
The physical distance becomes emotional distance. A man talks to a woman busy regarding herself in a mirror, both their backs to us, her face's reflection apparent but the face itself unseen. In the deep-focused hallways the couples walk through (captured gleamingly, sheeningly well in the Cinemateca Bologna's new, restored 35mm print), everything seems visible but very little is actually known. The poet T.S. Eliot, so keen on evoking l'amour's wasteland, might not have described it better. The men—hunched-over, failed Prince Hamlets—push their meaty mouths forward for kisses; the women kiss back, and then break away. "We can't do without other people," one woman says, "It's no use deceiving yourself," and then tries to anyway. Even the well-wishers smother. When a group of concerned friends discuss a troubled member, they do so in front of her portrait, blocking it from sight.
They're the amiche (girlfriends) of this elusive movie, which is perhaps best understood through a series of frames. The film is based on a Cesare Pavese novel, Among Women Only, with which it cursorily shares a plot: A young woman tries and fails to kill herself and, in the struggle to understand her motives, her friends confront their own unhappiness. The movie changes much of the book's storyline (ciao, lesbian love affair), but its biggest change is perspective. The book's first-person narrator, Clelia, observes the world darkly, dropping bon mots along the way ("When you make love, you take off your mask. That's when you're naked"); the movie, by contrast, blows up to tell all five women's stories, preferring the long shot to any character's point of view. Psychology emerges from landscape rather than from an individual perspective. An example lies in the film's most famous scene, a beach-bound picnic where one couple steals away from the group. Framed between a giant black bush and an insistent ocean, the lovers look small and furtive; a woman comes to kick at them immediately after they start kissing, to which the man leaps up and says that they were just playing around.
The people are characters as much as the waves, dresses, paintings, train whistles, and high heels clacking against stone are—all figures in a moving landscape, objects soon to collide. This is usual for the work of director Michelangelo Antonioni, who would later end 1962's The Eclipse with seven minutes of street lamps, crosswalks, and waterlogged barrels rather than movie stars Alain Delon and Monica Vitti; by the time of 1969's Zabriskie Point, the blocks of wood called actors were all but irrelevant in the face of Death Valley. Antonioni was fascinated by peoples' attempts to fit themselves into a mechanized modern world, and in tracking them revealed that the world was made up of animate, dynamic parts, people included. And if objects have secret lives, then people also must, lives secret even to them. Antonioni claimed of his 1961 film La Notte that "the characters this time find themselves, but they have trouble in communicating because they have discovered that the truth is difficult"; he might have gone further and said that people are always and essentially alone. One of Le Amiche's male lovers is an architect, another a painter. Just as any work of art is made up of separate material pieces, so, too, do human consciousnesses stay isolated, even within the deepest emotional bonds. "Every human being," Antonioni also once said, "represents a world." (Several critics have linked Antonioni's view of human psychology to that of the novelist Henry James; one might think in particular of a novel like The Golden Bowl, where motives are suggested through objects and vice-versa.)
Antonioni was far from his most radical materialism when he made Le Amiche, though. He was still shifting away from another materialist movement: neorealism. The Italian crop of films that grew after WWII, on many of which Antonioni served as an assistant, often used untrained performers, location shooting, and improvised moments that aimed for a more authentic emotional reality. Their stories also often followed poor people through harsh political and economic climates as they hurt themselves and each other not for sentimental reasons, but out of a basic will to survive. Critic Andrew Sarris later argued that neorealist films oversimplified reality by comparing The Bicycle Thief, the film that won neorealism international attention, with the more pedigreed French melodrama The Earrings of Madame de…; while The Bicycle Thief's characters might have better lives with more money, Sarris claimed, Madame de…'s miserable socialites "lack nothing and lose everything."
Sarris was himself oversimplifying (The Bicycle Thief's characters have both free agency and deeper problems than money can solve), but the class distinction he made applies to the split in Antonioni's filmmaking career. Antonioni, a wealthy former tennis star from Ferrara, began as a documentarian with a chronicle of the rural poor of the Po Valley, but after 11 documentaries shifted to fiction films about the middle class and the rich. "It's no longer important to make a film about a man whose bicycle is stolen," he claimed; rather, he desired "to depict neorealism within the individual," a goal he thought could be more easily achieved by following people who had the time and money to complicate their interior lives. It's difficult to think about love when you're starving.
Neorealist films like Open City, Ossessione, and Shoeshine make a pretense of happening organically, the scenes permitting whatever natural light and action enter; by contrast, the psychological realism of Le Amiche, Antonioni's fifth fiction film and by far his most controlled to that point, feels moment-to-moment perfectly composed. Critic Eugene Youngblood has rightly claimed (in a brilliant commentary track on the Criterion DVD for Antonioni's L'Avventura) that many of the director's images aren't metaphoric so much as metonymic; they advance the story both figuratively and literally at once. A Le Amiche scene shows Clelia (Eleonora Rossi-Drago) and Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer) fretting nervously inside a cramped train car, then cheering up as they step out.
Yet, at the same time, Le Amiche is a documentary, in the sense that the movie is a literal recording of people interacting with the world. Antonioni claimed that his first filmmaking experience was an attempt to record patients at an insane asylum, during which their instinctive reactions proved most intriguing to him. By the early '60s he was explicitly arguing that every film was a record of its making, and that the line between fiction and documentary bordered on irrelevant (a belief, incidentally, that he shared with Jean-Luc Godard). The thought's a reversal from neorealist principles; instead of fiction that feels like documentary, Le Amiche is documentary that looks like fiction. The more one knows about the film's making, the truer this becomes: Rosetta, the film's least assured character, is played by its most nervous, uncertain, and self-conscious actress, who Antonioni discovered in a magazine photo two days before shooting began. As in many of his other films, both earlier (Story of a Love Affair, his first fiction feature) and later (L'Avventura, his most famous; Blowup, his most blatant, a photography-centered story that argues, quite literally, that reality is determined by the viewer), he even teases audiences with conventional fictional genre trappings that he then confounds. An Antonioni film will frequently pose a riddle, and then never answer it; here the mystery of why Rosetta tries to kill herself becomes a pretense for the rest of the film. A stereotypical neorealist film might show Rosetta's attempts and blame physical circumstances, while Antonioni leaves them off screen, and clams shut on the cause.
A traditional melodrama might blame her despair totally and completely on love, but here love doesn't doom Rosetta so much as fail to save her. Concerned with aesthetics as the film is, her absence, and the empty space it leaves in the film, is much more important than its reason. (Many of Antonioni's films feature suicides—the movie he made directly before Le Amiche, a series of interviews with would-be self-murderers, was even called Suicide Attempt. As he continued making films, though, the reasons behind peoples' vanishings became less important to him, to the point where characters disappear in his later movies without any explanation at all.) The standard film genre Le Amiche most superficially resembles—and spiritually opposes—is in fact the melodrama, specifically the women's film. George Cukor's The Women shows an all-star, all-female cast pining for and fighting over off-screen men for 133 minutes. The sick joke of a movie is one of the more extreme examples of what Philip Rosen has called classical Hollywood's "obligatory heterosexual closure," where every woman from Jean Harlow to Jean Arthur is supported and affirmed by the love of a good man or, failing that, sacrifices herself for the sake of her kids.
No such comfort exists for these girlfriends, unmarried and childless. Youngblood has said that "In Antonioni's films, a woman can be seen as autonomous for the first time in the history of cinema." The statement seems hyperbolic, and probably is; that said, Antonioni's is the only case that comes to mind where an artist's objectification of women is neither pejorative nor diminishing. Le Amiche, among its many other virtues, is the strongest example of how Antonioni depicts women as freestanding, relating to men and to each other without (for the most part) a subordinate clause. The most important role he assigns each of them is as a figure in the larger world.
Yet the independence he gives his women comes with a price, for to be freestanding means to live without the comforting myth of locking into love. In August Strindberg's great play Creditors, a man sees a couple and murmurs, "She really does love him. Poor woman"; in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night one character frets over a potential paramour, "Poor lady, she were better love a dream." Love is indeed a dream: A dream that another person can make us whole, fix our damaged spots, and above all, support us. To live without that support is to live without love.
In Le Amiche, the dream turns to nightmare, as a man asks a woman, "Why do you still love me?" and learns, "Perhaps because you make me suffer so" (note the "perhaps"). The film's gorgeous images show, over and over, how human contact brings only momentary, transitory, mutable comfort, and how one of life's greatest dangers lies in thinking that it brings anything more. Rosetta walks through the world dazed and numb till human voices wake her and then she, clinging to them, drowns; Clelia, like Virginia Woolf's modernist feminist heroine Clarissa Dalloway, gains her own life by observing another's loss, leaving love with a lovely image of a single parting train.
Le Amiche remains exciting, though, largely because of how unsettled it feels. Antonioni had told an interviewer in December 1950 that "I don't yet know if I have a style, or if I'll get one." Stunning as many of his later films are (and Red Desert, his first color film, will come out on a Criterion DVD June 22 as evidence), they also often feel preordained and settled, their ideology especially so. At a 1960 Cannes Film Festival press conference for L'Avventura, Antonioni declared, "Eros is sick." The statement certainly pertains to the film he made five years earlier. Unlike the bored, blank faces he used subsequently, though, the people in Le Amiche seem restlessly, agitatedly, literally and figuratively movingly hold out hope that Eros can be cured, or at the very least, that their small version can get well.
In this way, Le Amiche resembles Roberto Rossellini's film Voyage to Italy, released two years earlier (perhaps fitting, since Antonioni helped write one of Rossellini's first films). Voyage to Italy depicts an English wife and husband who realize once abroad that they no longer love each other. Shifting from neorealism himself, Rossellini shows the two competing for attention with the physical world around them, occasionally spiked with surprise by a statue's wide eyes, an endless row of skulls, or a live child. Antonioni's world could not have happened without Rossellini's masterpiece: The thought of a couple as essentially distant, isolated by landscape, icons, history, and the very fact of themselves.
In Rossellini's film, though, the couple unites by miracle; Antonioni's film, struggling, finally separates couples, and then spreads them further apart, in longer and slower and more static takes, as the director's career ensues. Le Amiche is Antonioni's Nights of Cabiria, his Solaris, his Breaking the Waves, his La Chinoise, and his Voyage to Italy: A key transitional film where, beneath an artist's emerging new aesthetic, a heart not just beats but screams.