La Signora Senza Camelie (1953)
Michelangelo Antonioni’s second feature, The Woman Without a Camellia, focuses on the story of a shop assistant Clara, who soon became a movie star. Although the film may seem like a neglected early one, it contains many of Antonioni’s signatures already by then, also gives us important clues about the cinematic style the director will follow throughout his filmography.
Again, a view of the city and a woman; Antonioni greets us with the main character, while Clara walks on the pavement timidly the film credits are shown on the screen. With the pan camera movement we’re introduced to the other characters of the movie. Clara then makes her way towards the cinema that hosts the premiere of a musical melodrama in which she acts in the lead role. One can easily understand her hesitation by looking at her face. Even before it was understood that the movie was mainly about her, we see the director (Gianni) and producer (Ercole) started making decisions on her behalf already. Even the decision to become an actress was taken outside of herself, as later understood.
Surely the decision about a young “outsider” woman will be made by one or even a few men. Ercole, without hesitation, reveals to us that he objectified Clara by saying, “Your innocent face will be 80 million in a year.” Moreover, another dominant male Gianni, decides to marry Clara without even asking her consent. “A woman must be a lady before and next to the actress” Clara is forced into the role that she was assigned with these words of Gianni. As a matter of fact, Clara’s character seems to have been completely changed upon her honeymoon return; she is not a timid and young actress any more, bot more like a lady now. The film Adieu Signora, of which posters draw our attention all over the frame, seems very much like Clara’s farewell to the innocence of purity, but perhaps also a harbinger of her irreversible transformation.
The transformation that Clara is forced into is more visible now: Clara will no longer decide on the movies she will act in, but she may only decide on the design of her luxury mansion, where her jurisdiction is limited in a cage with iron bars. She is now framed in a frames in almost every angle we see her.
Gianni’s jealousy marks a turning point in Clara’s career; Clara is no longer able to act in sexually explicit scenes, Ercole’s highly anticipated film plan falls through. This conflict between the trio is depicted in the Paolo Uccello painting “Battle of San Romano” in the room. Gianni idealizes Clara by only allowing her to play virtuous roles; as director, he makes decisions on the first film as Joan d’Arc. This being a clear salute from Antonioni to de Rossellini and Bergman, but maybe a message to us, by showing the ruthlessness of the audience comparing Clara with some great actresses such as Falconetti and Ingmar Bergman only in her second film? Or a cinema criticism based on the unpopularity of classical cinema’s masterpieces at the box office?
With the pouring rain, it is implied that things will not go as Gianni planned, the dark days are not far away. We see Clara for the second time aside with her appearance on the screen, but this time she is neither free nor successful. The woman’s career and success are again turned upside down by one man’s decisions.
Time flies and minds changes, the conversation Clara and Gianni in the moving train cabin makes this clear to us. Waking up from her “being a lady” dream, Clara is now questioning her life and taking back the control perhaps for the first time ever. Leaving the house Clara rushes to Nardo, whom she believes is her true love of her own decision, eventually breaking free from the bars and being released from her prison. However, Antionioni makes his signature here soon after; Eros is sick, an eternal and happy love is impossible. And cowardly, indecisive, impotent men who, although naturally ostensible, lack alpha-male qualities; Nardo is not as strong and determined as Clara like the other men in the movie and nobody understands Clara in the movie except Antonioni.
When she is on her own and finally needs someone to talk to honestly, she turns to her co-star, ironically still seeking care in a man. The words of the actor reveal the other side of the shield in the cinema sector; the adversity of acting in a movie, in audition to start with, etc… Even though the woman who has become the Objet Petit a seems to have reached a place by taking her steps with this feature, in fact, this is an apparent success with no solid foundations. Clara does not accept failure bow and this fate imposed on her and continues her struggle to regain her freedom by taking acting lessons; there’s a solid difference between the ones who are using their appearance only and the good actress, and Clara could prove to prove herself choosing the second one. However, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting, which she almost superposes her face with, is only a metaphor for her immersive beauty and host, Clara’s end will be no different from these flowers. The shadows become clearer as she commits more sins.
In the end it doesn’t take long for society to punish Clara with a scarce moral point of view. Rejecting the marriage as a form of moral security certificate (as seen such in the 1950s) and an easy life under domination, her all struggle drag the story to a hopeless end; since this is not what is expected of a vulnerable actress exposed to the world anyway. After all, Clara is either one of the thousands of working class women waiting in the audition queue, or she’s the one who takes short cuts to success and struggles with different kinds of difficulties but still in a struggle. As she wanders among a group of figurants in Cinecitta, where everyone meets throughout the film, she realizes that it is all in vein, she has lost her hope enough to be persuaded to accept a superficial role that she had previously rejected. Cinema, which she lost herself with its magic, has now turned into an illusion that finally destroys her. All that remains is a smile among tears, and the audience is left alone with the journey of Clara, who was deprived of the strength and will to continue her life.
Antonioni dazzles the audience with its technique from the very first moment, his extraordinary compositions reveal themselves very clearly; the perception of space deepens with creative camera angles and the use of mirrors. The way the characters are placed in a wide-angle frame enriched by the space separates and integrates the audience with them. Although the film is black and white with a photo grip light preference, its magic is extremely effective.
The title of the film, La Signora Senza Camelie (The Lady Without Camellias), is a free adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s famous novel La Dame aux Camellias (The Lady with the Camellias), which tells the tragic story of a beautiful Parisian prostitute. Because Antonioni’s view of women throughout his entire filmography, namely the strong, intelligent, questioning, combative woman, was quite avant-garde even in the 1950s and even in the 60s; moreover, Antonioni was not only looking at women in terms of gender equality, but was also interested in artistic representations of these emotional and existential pursuits of women.
However, it would not be right to limit the Woman Without Camellias fitting in a feminist interpretation only, as Antionioni is also not a director who would not stay without criticizing the film industry that he is a part of. This time, the camera enters Cinecitta, the temple of the Italian film industry at the time, which shoots more than 300 films a year. The change of Neorealism is not only given by the cinema world’s perception of space (let’s hear the owner of the house where a film was shot in: “Everywhere is the stage now with Neorealism” Antonioni makes the change visible to us from the words of his character), at the same time, no phone in the movie is ‘white’. Politics, religion and sex, which seem to be the keys to a successful film, can only be the subject of “escape films” as they symbolize changing expectations. After all Antonioni almost makes you feel that he will not be held accountable to anyone, by not sparing his words about Hays’ laws and censorship, which he will finish with Blow Up a few years later.