Tuesday, April 28, 2009

SFIFF52 Day 6: Le Amiche

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival is going strong; it runs through May 7th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about one film I've seen or am hotly anticipating.

Le Amiche (ITALY: Michaelangelo Antonioni, 1955)

playing: 8:15 PM tonight at the Pacific Film Archive, with no more showtimes later in the festival.
festival premiere: Venice 1955
distributor: Image Entertainment released a DVD back in 2001, but this restoration may be lead to a new home video transfer. More theatrical showings might be unlikely in the near future, however.

Michaelangelo Antonioni has the reputation of being one of the severest of the great international auteurs of the 1960s arthouse. But his work in the 1950s was very different in formal seriousness and tone, as evidenced by this relatively rare screening of a recently-restored 1955, Le Amiche. Translated as the Girlfriends, it begins in the aftermath of a suicide attempt and follows a group of women, some married and some unmarried but in direct competition for the attention of the husbands. Its theme of the dissolution of the traditional family structure in post-war Italy certainly prefigures the so-called "trilogy of alienation", but it's positively breezy when compared to the director's canonized works like L'Avventura and L'Eclisse.

That's because Antonioni hadn't yet pushed his formal experimentation into the ground-breaking realm of those masterpieces. Le Amiche provides a fine example of that maxim for artists: that one must Know The Rules before successfully Breaking Them. For Le Amiche has a structure that, while by no means predictable or conforming to a rigid genre floorplan (not one that I'm aware of at any rate), is also no assault upon the very tenets of narrative as some later films reportedly felt like to audiences of the time. And on a shot-by-shot basis, this is not the Antonioni that Orson Welles complains about to Peter Bogdanovich in This is Orson Welles:

I'm so bored with Antonioni--that belief that, because a shot is good, it's going to get better if you keep looking at it. He gives you a full shot of somebody walking down a road. And you think, "Well, he's not going to carry that woman all the way up that road." But he does. And then she leaves and you go on looking at the road after she's gone.
No, in 1955 the Italian master was still using relatively conventional pacing. There is a crucial shot of a woman disappearing down a street, but she disappears into the darkness and it's quite clear what emotion the audience is expected to feel as the camera is being held there. For some, an Antonioni film without the long-take, long-shot ennui may be hard to fathom; why see a film by an auteur that doesn't highlight his most essential strength? But Charlie Chaplin made a masterpiece out of a Woman of Paris without employing his knack for comedy, and David Cronenberg's Fast Company is as good as any of his other early films, without the employment of overt "body horror".

The truth is these filmmakers are men of prodigial talent, and display it even when not plucking the same string they're best known for. In Antonioni's case, his eye for framing a composition and skill at delineating character shine through in a film like Le Amiche, and it should be sought out by anyone interested in the work of this great master. Conversely, it might even turn around the opinion of an Antonioni non-fan put off by the likes of Red Desert and Zabriskie Point.

SFIFF52 Day 6
Another option: Rembrandt's J'Accuse (UK/NETHERLANDS: Peter Greenaway, 2008), with the director expected to be in attendance. UPDATE: As it turns out, Greenaway is not in town after all. Michael Hawley points out that a new Greenaway film hasn't screened in Frisco since 1999. What's up with that?
Non-SFIFF-option for today: Wendy and Lucy (USA: Kelly Reihardt, 2008) at the Red Vic, a truly heartbreaking, beautiful film I recommend very highly. Check out this interview with the film's director by SFIFF shorts juror Jesse Hawthorne Ficks.

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