A pair of recent releases from the always dependable Eureka imprint Masters of Cinema (re)introduce us to the 50s work of Michelangelo Antonioni, a filmmaker usually most closely associated with the 60s. The first is La Signora Senza Camelie, the behind the scenes tale of the rise and fall of an Italian actress, and the second is Le Amiche, an ensemble drama centred on a group of female friends in Turin.

La Signora Senza Camelie opens at night in Rome and Clara, played by the intoxicating Lucia Bose, is walking away, framed as a distant figure moving through the streets. She pauses before slowly entering a cinema which is playing host to the première of a musical melodrama of which she is the star. The screen is filled with Clara’s face, the close up on screen directly contrasting the lone figure we have just seen wandering towards the première. The soundtrack in this scene is filled with the thoughts of the cinema-goers enraptured by this new starlet who dominates the screen. Cinema in La Signora Senza Camelie is an illusion though, an idealised image that seduces Clara and ultimately destroys her.

With La Signora Senza Camelie Antonioni paints an unflattering portrait of the harsh realities of Italian popular cinema but in doing so he’s also not afraid to take a swipe at the more pretentious and portentous areas of film. Following Clara’s marriage to Gianni Franchi (Andrea Checchi), a marriage born out of obligation, work on her latest film is halted. Gianni is less than pleased with the idea of his new wife starring in a lusty piece of popular Italian cinema and is more keen on her pursuing roles such as Joan of Arc. Clara dutifully but unconvincingly complies with her husband’s wishes. The resulting film garners the opposite reactions to the première seen at the start of La Signora Senza Camelie and so begins Clara’s decline, one that occurs before she has ever truly risen.

Clara’s fate and the short but intense trajectory of her marraige and her film career are bleak but Antonioni never wallows in the film’s more gloomy notes. The life that we see is seductive despite the harsh realities and the film’s shop clerk to movie star protagonist is oddly timely in an era where fame appears to be the ultimate life goal of so many.

In contrast to the solo protagonist and resolutely singular narrative of La Signora Senza Camelie, Antonioni’s Le Amiche presents us with a group of women living and working in Turin and a loose structure punctuated by laid back scenes and eruptions of emotion. The title loosely means ‘The Girlfriends’, although an Italian friend informs me that some of the depth to this phrase is lost in translation, and the multi-stranded narrative pulls in the many stories that these women have to offer, making it easy to be lost in this enthralling and captivating film. Without the occasionally cold or austere approach that seeped into Antonioni’s 60s work Le Amiche is almost effervescent, with its relatively quick fire dialogue and densely filled frames.

Despite the many characters that make up the film’s narrative, it is the character of Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago) that is at the centre of the film and it is through her that the story sprawls outwards. Arriving in Turin to set up a new fine clothing shop Clelia checks into a hotel but before she even has a chance to get her bearings she is thrown in amongst the group of women that make up ‘le amiche’ of the title, following the suicide attempt of Rosetta (Madeline Fischer). We are then introduced to the varied female characters of Le Amiche and the men that orbit them. Whilst not as grand a story perhaps as La Signora Senza Camelie, Le Amiche benefits greatly from a group of strong actresses and a compelling dramatic story. Engrossing and ultimately incredibly rewarding.

Antonioni frames the female leads of Le Amiche wonderfully in a variety of confined spaces, constantly finding new areas within these to position them, conveying the characters emotions and most importantly their overlapping connections, all done through expert framing.

Antonioni’s skill at composition is evident in both La Signora Senza Camelie and Le Amiche with the framing and depth of field always used for the benefit of the story and the characters. This is also true of the exquisite camera movement throughout both films. The tracking shots glide through the spaces, guiding the audience’s eye through the environments and between characters, immersing one in the events unfolding. Truly exquisite filmmaking from a director who understood the need for the story to dictate the stylistic approach and the importance of technical choices that helped immerse rather than distance the audience.

Both Blu-rays provide excellent picture quality with clear and well balanced transfers representing excellent restorations that have almost certainly been through a number of processes without any softening on other negative effects as a consequence. The audio tracks are similarly excellent with only a few very minor signs of damage audible.

Both releases come with exclusive videos of critic Gabe Klinger discussing the films and also Antonioni’s wider career. These are interesting and engaging but the releases could have perhaps benefited from some more varied voices and the addition of a feature length commentary for each would have also been a strong selling point.

Both La Signora Senza Camelie and Le Amiche are available to buy or rent now in dual format releases.

La Signora Senza Camelie
Film – [Rating:4/5]
Blu-ray – [Rating:3/5]

Le Amiche
Film – [Rating:4/5]
Blu-ray – [Rating:3/5]