Thursday, March 16, 2023

THE LADY WITHOUT CAMELIAS (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1953, Italy)


Clara is a wilted flower, a fragile expression broken like soft petals that drift slowly to the ground, trampled into cold hard earth. She is betrayed be those she loves most, transformed from woman into a commodity of supple flesh, a celluloid heroine as stable as camphor and nitrate under fire. Director Michelangelo Antonioni subverts melodrama by transposing the expected with the ambiguous, creating tragedy from sentimentality.

Clara walks a thin white line in the soft rain while her identity is projected onto a silver screen, fearing audience reaction to her bit part in a spurious and forgettable production. She eavesdrops upon those leaving the theatre, defining herself by the loose talk of strangers like a smeared reflection upon a wet dirty street. An overnight success, she is soon bullied into a regrettable marriage and forced to adopt a submissive role. Her wealthy producer husband seethes with jealousy and dominates her life; as she smothers Clara struggles to breath. Soon she is in a brief encounter with a playboy but fails to recognize it as such; he spurns her even as she divorces her husband.

Antonioni transcends the Italian soap opera by placing Clara in this precarious nexus of subjective and objective identity, where love becomes a gilded cage and desire can set her free. Antonioni adds flesh and blood to the characters, people with complex reactions driven by human needs and lonely fears: the husband is controlling and often unlikable but reaches his own epiphany, a sublime understanding that eludes our heroine. After his suicide attempt, seemingly a mere theatric, he accepts their separation but doesn't harbor hatred for Clara...and he has some right to. The playboy is caricature and superficial, his intentions obvious to everyone but Clara who remains occluded, chasing a shadow or a dream. Antonioni sets this internal crisis amid the film industry where the difference between people and their reflections is vague, and Clara can only see through a lens darkly, unable to find her place. Antonioni's mise en scene often depicts Clara amid portraits of famous actresses (like Garbo or Bergman) and even one commentator spurns her performance in comparison to Dreyer’s angelic Falconetti. Clara is trapped between her desire to be an A list actress and B movie cheesecake.

Clara becomes an extra in the movie of her own life, never finding the right part to fit in. She remains trapped between reels and reality, moving at 24 frames per second.

Final Grade: (B+)