Michelangelo Antonioni, Le Amiche (The Girlfriends), 1955, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 95 minutes. Left: Rosetta and Cesare (Madeleine Fischer and Franco Fabrizi). Right: Clelia and Momina (Eleonora Rossi Drago and Yvonne Furneaux).

RESTORED TO A LUSTROUS GLOW, the blacks, whites, and grays of a new print of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Le Amiche (The Girlfriends, 1955) accent the elegant surfaces of mid-1950s Turin where it was filmed. From the opening pan under the credits to the long shots of the arcades and buildings that form the backdrop for the fashionable personae in the story, the city’s modernity sparkles before us. There is no evidence of the ruins from the Second World War, a conflict that still haunts the lives of the characters in the 1949 Cesare Pavese novel on which the film is based, titled Among Women Only. The adaptation’s ambience is not quite as bleak as the novel’s, but Pavese was nevertheless an important influence on Antonioni’s work. Although Le Amiche differs from its source, the tone of the novel, discernible only intermittently, has greater affinity with the director’s future work, foreshadowing the ennui that imbues the atmosphere of L’Avventura (1960) and the masterpieces that would follow. Not that Le Amiche capitulates entirely to the generic romanticism of its screenplay. A scene of two lovers making out on a beach as one of le amiche strolls by indifferently has the air of casual, meaningless sex typical of Antonioni’s later films.

Both novel and film begin with Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago) returning to Turin to open a dress salon, having left her working-class life there years earlier to become an assistant to a couturiere in Rome. Her arrival is marked by the botched suicide attempt of Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer), a young woman in the adjacent hotel room––an event that hangs ominously over the film. Rosetta, secretly in love with Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti), a moody, failing artist who painted her portrait, finally confesses, only to be swept into a fleeting affair that ends in abandonment and her successful suicide at the end. For Pavese, however, it is not romantic rejection but existential despair that plagues Rosetta. A malaise pervades the novel’s atmosphere––partly an effect of the recently ended war––lending a somewhat different cast to the escapist lifestyles of the girlfriends and their men as they appear in the film. But while Antonioni alters Rosetta’s motive, her demeanor, as portrayed by Fischer, bears more than a little resemblance to the young woman whose disappearance on an island is the premise of the plot of L’Avventura.

Clelia is the novel’s narrator and, as a result, conscious of her escape from poverty. Antonioni treats her brief affair with the working-class Carlo (Ettore Manni) as a sign of the life she might have lived had she not pursued a career in Rome. Pavese is careful to distinguish her hard-won success from the shallower lives of the upper-class women she encounters in Turin––especially the cynical, impeccably garbed Momina (Yvonne Furneaux) and the flighty, man-crazy Mariella (Annamaria Pancani). While their flirtations are set against the facades of the modern city, Clelia and Carlo declare their feelings to each other while strolling through the poorer neighborhoods of their roots. And despite her resolve that “working is [her] way of being a woman,” there is, in the final shots of Clelia boarding the train back to Rome, a sense of nostalgia, even regret, as she scans the station for Carlo who observes her departure without revealing his presence. Though an affecting touch, it is one that Antonioni would resist in the future.

Although there are no all-night parties in Le Amiche that end in a somber, disquieting dawn—as in L’Avventura and La Notte (1961)—there are moments that prefigure them. After Lorenzo leaves Rosetta, her desperate flight down a long, dark street, past the bar where her friends still party, cuts abruptly to an overhead shot of the police removing her body from the river the next morning. And the cycle of male weakness and female forgiveness that resonates throughout Antonioni’s oeuvre, appearing at the conclusions of L’Avventura and La Notte, is operative here as well: Lorenzo’s plaintive apology to his mistress, Nene (Valentina Cortese), is met by a steely indifference that melts into a reassuring caress. But while the domestic context in Le Amiche has an intimacy that speaks to human possibilities, Antonioni sets the later scenes within a spatial vastness that dwarfs the pathetic, unchanging nature of mortal beings.

Tony Pipolo

Le Amiche plays at Film Forum in New York June 18–24. For more details, click here.