Excavated from the deep '50s, Michelangelo Antonioni's Le amiche (known in English as The Girlfriends) is an unexpected treasure. Or, perhaps, an expected one: Largely dismissed when it briefly played here in 1963, the movie was among the few to find favor with Village Voice critics Jonas Mekas and Andrew Sarris.
Mekas and Sarris both made the same observation, noting that this detached look at life among the rich and vapid anticipated Antonioni's 1960 breakthrough L'avventura by five years. It was with Le amiche that Antonioni found his métier (modern art galleries, cocktail parties, fashion shows), his modus operandi (multiple mysteries, many pretty women) and his dramatic meat (enigmatic emptiness, self-annihilating ennui). A scene in which the ensemble visits a deserted beach to aimlessly pair off or wander on alone is L'avventura's concentrated essence.
Adapted from Cesare Pavese's novella Among Women Only, Le amiche is casually episodic. Thirtysomething fashion designer Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago) returns from Rome to her hometown, Turin, to oversee the opening of a new boutique and, thanks to a young woman's failed suicide attempt, falls in with a group of wealthy ladies (and future customers). Like the Monica Vitti character in L'avventura, she's the responsible working girl kibbitzing with a circle of self-indulgent airheads. This Sex and the City setup is complicated by the presence of a masochistic ceramicist (high-strung Valentina Cortese) married to a philandering failed artist (Gabriele Ferzetti, who'd play a similar role in L'avventura), and Clelia's own flirtation with the humbly dumb but hunky foreman on her construction site.
Although relatively plotless, Le amiche is baroque by Antonioni's later standards. The various failed love affairs are enlivened by emotional confrontations and even a full-fledged brawl. The movie also considerably complicates the Pavese novella — which is striking not only for its cool understatement but also for its underlying existential despair. In 1955, Antonioni was subtly criticized by Pavese's friend, Italo Calvino, for his lack of Pavesean subtlety. The lesson was learned — even more than Le amiche, it's Pavese's Among Women Only that anticipates the Antonioni of the '60s. (LACMA, Aug. 20-21, lacma.org)