Le Amiche

I have to confess something to you: I had a difficult time connecting with Le Amiche. Hey, it happens, right? Sometimes a movie just doesn't click with us. But when it happens with a movie like this (and by “movie like this,” I mean a film that the critical community has decided is Important and Great and Meaningful – it's even in the Criterion Collection!), there's a moment of insecurity: am I just too dumb for this movie? Have I failed to live the sort of life that might help me better appreciate what this movie is doing? Am I really so film-illiterate that I can't see a masterpiece when it's standing right in front of my face?

Maybe. I'm certainly no David Bordwell. Then again, it's not as if I have an aversion to challenging, esoteric foreign films. Yes, the lives of the characters in this film are very different from my own, but I love many movies about people whose lives are very different from mine. I suspect that my main struggle here is directly connected to the fact that the film was directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, an objectively gifted and significant filmmaker whose work can be exceptionally difficult to warm up to.

However, Le Amiche is a bit different from the rest of Antonioni's work. It's an exceptionally chatty film, with precious few of the long, meditative stretches or daring editing techniques that define his groundbreaking '60s work. It's loosely based on a novella by Cesare Pavese, and gives us a window into the lives of five women living in Turin. Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago, The Bible: In the Beginning...) is a hairdresser who is opening a new fashion salon in the city. At the hotel where Clelia is staying, a young woman named Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer) makes an unsuccessful suicide attempt. The event nudges Clelia into the orbit of Rosetta's three closest friends: Momina (Yvonne Furneaux, La Dolce Vita), Nene (Valentina Cortese, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) and Mariella (Anna Maria Pancani).

To varying degrees, all of these women are dealing with some form of restlessness or discontentment, and Rosetta's suicide attempt seems to inspire the other four to start taking a closer look at their own unhappiness. They all have different subplots to work their way through – Momina has an affair with an architect, Nene and Rosetta have a complicated relationship with the same man (the main difference being that Nene is married to him), etc. - but it's obvious that Antonioni is almost completely uninterested in the actual story he's telling, instead attempting to use aesthetic elements to reveal important things about the characters.

Indeed, there are a lot of innovative cinematic ideas on display, from the way Antonioni uses a small throwaway gesture to suggest one woman's private longing to the way he places literal walls between people who can't seem to communicate effectively. He observes these characters speaking about their pain, and then rather coldly undercuts their observations by precisely detailing the lavish world of privilege they live in. Every costume choice seems deliberate, with each outfit specifically tailored to the personality of the character it belongs to.

After the film was over, I watched an interview with film scholars David Forgacs and Karen Pinkus, who spoke passionately and intelligently about the thoughtfulness of Antonioni's choices and the ambition of his vision. I appreciated their perspective, and understood what they valued about the film... but their insights didn't change the fact that the film more or less left me completely cold. Antonioni doesn't treat his characters cruelly – he's realistic, not sadistic – but he observes them the way someone might observe ants crawling around on a hill. It's a deliberate decision and a valid approach (this is a film about people who are emotionally unfulfilled), but I can't shake the apathy I feel towards it as a result. I'm sorry, Michelangelo: it's not you, it's me.

Le Amiche

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Year: 1955