Michelangelo Antonioni’s Le Amiche opens with an aerial shot of Turin, Italy that, in the moment, could easily be mistaken as simply a cheery, picturesque backdrop for the credits sequence. Retroactively, though, the image proves deceptive and even misleading in its suggestion of peace and tranquility. Antonioni’s 1955 film interrogates the detrimental socio-economic dimensions of modernity in Turin by moving an assortment of characters through confrontations and conversations in drawing rooms and cafés, and outside on beaches and in alleyways, so that a character’s elation or devastation must be understood in relation to the place where it occurs. Le Amiche is filled with characters asking one another “why” something is happening, but for the director, “where” is always the most optimal question.
Le Amiche features some of the most impressive ensemble work of Antonioni’s entire oeuvre, perhaps second only to L’Avventura, which is essentially an avant-garde reworking of this film. Cleila (Eleonora Rossi Drago) has arrived in Turin from Rome to open a fashion salon, and Antonioni’s direction immediately addresses identity formation. When a maid in Cleila’s hotel asks whether she’s a “Mrs.” or a “Miss,” Cleila responds, “Whichever you prefer.” The line is said almost in passing, but it unmistakably commences Le Amiche’s focus on malleable personas capable of, in the most extreme cases, borderline sociopathic levels of feigned affection. Cleila’s entire life appears to be in transition, so that the building of a salon symbolizes an assemblage of herself as a modern businesswoman who has ascended from the poorer slums of Turin—a place she visits later in the film. In modern Italy, identity, like architecture, necessitates a blueprint.
Cleila is befriended by three Turinese women after aiding their friend, Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer), a young woman who attempted suicide a room over from Cleila’s on the evening of her arrival. If some directors favor staging scenes in medias res, Antonioni stages them a beat or two after the midpoint, so that the film’s entry point into several scenes plays at odds with viewer comprehension. Momina (Yvonne Furneaux) arrives at the hotel just moments after our first glimpses of Cleila and Rosetta, neither of whom have been named or had any relationship established between them. The other two women—Nene (Valentina Cortese) and Mariella (Anna Maria Pancani)—subsequently appear as natural facets of Momina’s circle of friends rather than for a specific narrative purpose.
Such directorial choices could suggest an interest in neorealism on Antonioni’s part, but then the film possesses none of those typical accouterments, like handheld cinematography or non-actors. The dynamic among the film’s female confidants outwardly recalls 1939’s The Women, but whereas director George Cukor’s film views divorce as the most horrifying end of a relationship and happily concludes with a woman jumping into her lover’s arms, Le Amiche sees Rosetta’s opening suicide attempt as a persistent problem, one that will likely end in her death lest her friends and lovers configure a means to quell her ceaseless emotional pain.
Le Amiche is Antonioni configuring a multitude of cinematic and literary predecessors into a sporadically experimental, but still character-driven whole, whereas his subsequent films became less interested in character psychology than in how the human figure became a means to understand the material elements surrounding them. Such material constraints are present here in hints of larger industrial forces beyond the film’s immediate purview. When Cleila is told there’s a shortage of workers to build her studio, she responds: “If there’s work to do, suddenly there’s an epidemic.”
Yet Le Amiche leaves these lines dangling as bait for a broader significance the film never quite gets to, especially as it settles into charting the interplay of these women and their lovers, which include Carlo (Ettore Manni), a hunky architect, and Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti), a chickenshit painter whose egomaniacal cruelty both taints Nene’s invitation to exhibit her sculptures in New York and once again pushes Rosetta to the brink of suicide.
The film suffers philosophically for its alignment of Rosetta’s depression with her attachment to a man, softening her crisis into a simpler reconciliation between a society’s gender demands and a desperation for happiness of any sort. Perhaps that’s the film’s underlying point: Rosetta’s pain derives from an inability to extricate herself from the clutches of a city that has increasingly rendered her an incidental component. Many have deemed this a theme of “alienation” in Antonioni’s work, but in Le Amiche it’s more an ideological matter of being too close to environmental constraints, of having been trampled by the force-fed desires of pursuing monogamous companionship.