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  • Ravi Swami

"Les Amants", Dir: Louis Malle, 1958 & "Adua and Her Friends", Dir: Antonio Pietrangeli, 1960

Updated: May 24, 2021

There's nothing particularly thematic to connect these two films that I watched recently, one on BFI Player and the other via Amazon Prime other than that the focus in each is one is on the experiences of women in society.

In Louis Malle's "Les Amants" (Eng: "The Lovers), Jeanne Moreau's central character of "Jeanne Tournier" is the wife of a wealthy newspaper baron and moves through the upper echelons of French society, whereas the subjects of Antonio Pietrangeli's "Adua and Her Friends" are all prostitutes who have been turned out of the relative security of an Italian brothel following the so-called "Merlin Law" in 1958 which made such establishments illegal, so facing the now destitute "working girls" with the prospect of working the streets illegally, a subject that also formed the narrative of Fellini's earlier 1957 film, "Nights of Cabiria".

They are both quite dark films, as it turns out, and in the case of "Adua and her Friends", what might superficially seem to be of the "Commedia All'Italiana" genre judging by the film's director and the several light-hearted scenes and performances in the film - something reflected in both the misleading title and design of "Love A La Carte", the U.S release of the film that suggests a "Carry On" type of romp - the film itself is a very feminist statement on the position of women in Italian society, or anywhere for that matter, and the social stigma of prostitution.

Antonio Pietrangeli has often been described as a "feminist" director and this is borne out by the films of his short-lived career, with the pinnacle being "I Knew Her Well", and his background in Commedia All'Italiana suggests that he found a way of tempering a serious social message with a lightness of touch that never ever drifts into sentimentalism or broad comedy and reveals his neorealist leanings.

Louis Malle's "Les Amants" opens on a scene at a polo match attended by Jeanne (Moreau) and her old friend Maggy (Judith Magre) where the focus of Jeanne's interest is her lover Raoul (Jose Villalonga), one of the players.

Via the device of a first-person monologue we discover that Jeanne spends a lot of time in Paris with Maggy since she feel estranged from her husband, the newspaper baron Henri (Alain Cuny), who operates his publishing empire from a grand country estate and who seems to show little interest in his young wife.

As a result she seeks consolation in the arms of the handsome polo-playing Raoul, a dapper but rather rakish older man who has a string of female admirers.

The growing rift between Jeanne and Henri is revealed when she returns from Paris and he accuses her of spending too much time there, with the implication that she may have a lover, though he never states it outright. Later, when Jeanne makes an unannounced visit at Henri's printing press, she meets Henri's secretary (Michèle Girardon) and suspects that the two are having an affair.

Henri suggests that Jeanne invite Maggy and Raoul to spend a weekend at his estate as a ploy to expose his wife's affair, which Jeanne agrees to reluctantly, more out of a sense of guilt and because she fears her husband's influence in society as the publisher of a newspaper.

When Jeanne's car breaks down on her way from Paris to rendezvous with Maggy and Raoul at her husbands estate, she accepts a lift from a young man, Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory) who it transpires is related to someone in her social circle, though he affects an air of disinterest and cynicism in the social strata into which he has been born.

Bernard is subsequently invited by Henri to also join Jeanne, Raoul and Maggy, as an act of courtesy and as thanks for assisting his wife.

Within the short space of time that Jeanne has known Bernard, they fall in love, an act of rebellion since it is conducted under Henri's very nose and in his own home, which seems doubly shocking. Also her discovery over lunch that Raoul is quite feckless propels her into Bernard's arms even if the thought of falling in love with someone under such circumstances causes her some doubt.

The film concludes with Jeanne and Bernard unceremoniously leaving Henri, Raoul and Maggy the next morning after spending the night together in her room, an act that seals her determination to escape from her present life for an uncertain future but with the certainty of love for each other.

Malle spends what I felt was an inordinate amount of time on Jeanne and Bernard's courtship that leads to the two making love in her room, with many scenes set in the late evening and night (shot "Day for Night") as they explore the grounds of the estate during their passionate tryst. These scenes are very atmospheric and possibly romantic, strikingly filmed in monochrome, but at the same time hint at danger and transgression as Jeanne throws caution to the wind with someone who up until a short time ago was a complete stranger to her but to whom she irresistibly drawn, and in retrospect feels like the scenario of a romantic novel written by Barbara Cartland etc rather than as a commentary on the choices available to women in society.

Jeanne Moreau delivers a luminous performance as "Jeanne" and is always watchable and the scenes of lovemaking are as close to being censorable as they could be for a commercial film of the period although partial nudity was not uncommon in many French films in 50's and 60's - the poster above featuring clasped hands that feature in one shot in the film and that represents the peak of Jeanne and Bernard's union is an indication of how Malle opted for cinematic symbolism to depict this moment and is a visual device that I've seen being used in a Hindi film of the 1960's, oddly enough :)

The device of dropping the viewer into a situation without any preamble is also used by Antonio Pietrangeli in the opening scenes of "Adua and Her Friends" by taking you to the heart of a busy brothel where "Adua" played by Simone Signoret - fresh from her Oscar winning performance in Jack Clayton's "Room At The Top" - plays an aging prostitute who decides to club together with 3 of her fellow prostitutes to set up a restaurant by pooling their earnings, a move designed to anticipate the closure of the establishment in the wake of the "Merlin Law" and driven by a fear of ending her days as a street walker.

The other three women, "Lolita" (Sandra Milo, who appeared in many of Pietrangeli's films before a striking role in Federico Fellini's "Giulietta of The Spirits"), "Marilina" (Emmanuelle Riva) and "Millie" (Gina Rovere), are cautiously enthusiastic, with Marilina the most skeptical since she believes herself to be still young and attractive enough to gain clients and a relatively comfortable life from her earnings, something that is proven to be the case when she becomes the majority shareholder in Adua's venture, which proves to be a sore point later in the narrative when she decides to leave the group and return to her old life.

However, the path to financial freedom and an escape from their dishonorable life proves to be difficult even though jointly they have enough money to buy a crumbling villa on the outskirts of the city, as their past catches up with them and they are denied the necessary license to operate a restaurant.

It appears that many prostitutes were offered a way out of their wretched existence by laws which promised to erase any record of their past and therefore the chance to start afresh in some other more respectable occupation, but in reality the social stigma of prostitution was an ever-present obstacle which forced many back to the streets.

Adua (Signoret), who is clearly the brightest of the four women, thinks on her feet and arranges a meeting with a wealthy but corrupt lawyer and possible former client, "Ercoli" who agrees to act as a guarantor by obtaining a license on their behalf, with their financial collateral as an insurance if the business fails. However, he demands a monthly fee of 1 million Lira from their projected income, something that Adua intends to hold back for as long as possible.

Into the mix is thrown Marcello Mastroianni as "Piero Silvagni", a suave but dodgy used-car salesman who arrives at the women's villa to deliver Marilina after she decides to do a runner that leads to a drunken few nights in Rome pursuing her former profession.

Piero gains Adua's confidence after selling her a car, becoming her lover and supporter in the process and while she fully understands men and what they might want, she fails to see that Piero is just another dissolute bachelor with no intention of settling down.

Gradually the "Ristorante" begins to thrive as it attracts customers - Millie becomes attracted to a regular customer, a policeman, and entertains notions of settling down to married life, while Lolita struggles with her loyalty to Adua and wanting to escape to a life in films or on stage. Marilina takes her young illegitimate son out of an orphanage and installs him in her room without consulting Adua first, which brings the two women into further conflict.

Just as things appear to be settling, Ercoli reappears on the scene since he has not received the agreed monthly 1m Lira. He sends two of his associates to the restaurant posing as customers when Adua is away spending time with Piero at a dog-racing circuit while leaving the running of the restaurant to her business partners.

Aware of the women's shady past, the two associates ask to be "taken upstairs" - a euphemism for sex - and after some hesitation the women oblige since it means that they can earn some extra cash, sending the younger Lolita (Milo) to entertain them while they attend to the restaurant, which is running at full capacity.

Adua, unaware of what has transpired, returns the next morning just as Ercoli appears with his lawyer. Ercoli demands to view the premises, firstly by barging into Marilina's room, strewn with children toys and clothes and then Lolita's, which has the air of a prostitutes' boudoir rather than a bedroom.

Satisfied that the women are using the restaurant as a cover for prostitution he threatens Adua with repossession of the villa and taking over the successful business and the four women are powerless to stop him even though they still own all the capital in the business.

The public scandal, made worse when they are arrested, charged with prostitution and "exposed" in the press is the final nail in the coffin that dashes the women's hopes of escaping a miserable future - Millie is forced to admit her past to the policeman when he proposes marriage and while he loves her, the public scandal makes this impossible, while Adua discovers that Piero has taken a younger lover.

In a spectacular, explosive moment the women decide to take revenge on Ercoli by trashing the restaurant that he now owns and that they have invested so much time and effort into making a success, overturning tables and smashing carafes of wine in a final act of rage.

The film concludes with a scene set in a downpour at night - prostitutes gather at a regular haunt, one of whom is Adua, determined to escape this life since she has money but is at the same time trapped by circumstance and old habits. A driver pulls up and she makes a half-hearted attempt at getting some business but he opts for a younger woman and the film's closing scene is of Adua, now past her prime, her rain-sodden fur stole wrapped around her shoulders, walking away from camera as the rain beats down on a deserted Roman street.

Pietrangeli makes no attempt at sugar-coating his message even though there are many moments of lighthearted banter between the women, and we experience their joys and woes in a non-judgmental way, but always with the ever-present sense that their hopes may be dashed one way or another, which is what I meant about it being quite a dark film.

A note on the performances in "Adua And Her Friends", Simone Signoret is on top form as the motherly "Adua", both world weary and wise and the 3 actresses who make up the ensemble are not simply support but deliver nuanced and sympathetic portrayals that avoid exaggeration and stereotype, succeeding in making each character have a distinct voice, from "Lolita" (Sandra Milo) as young, attractive and gullible, to "Marilina" (Emmanuelle Riva) the hard-bitten career prostitute and "Millie" (Gina Rovere) as the relatively inexperienced, plain, country girl who has ended up as a prostitute as a result of her innocence.

I watched both films on the same evening as "Eurovision 2021", not being a fan of the event, and noted in the opening credits of "Adua And Her Friends" that Domenico Modugno makes a guest appearance in the film. Modugno achieved worldwide fame for the song "Nel Blu Di Pinto Di Blu", better known outside of Italy as "Volare", after coming third in the third ever Eurovision contest in 1958 with a song that, along with ABBA's 1974 Eurovision winning entry "Waterloo", makes it one of only two songs from the contest to be known the world over as perennial and instantly recognizable.

Modugno was also an actor and song-writer, the former evident in his role in the film where he performs a song in the restaurant as himself, when the women are delighted to discover that they are attracting celebrities to their establishment as a mark of their success.

I watched Antonio Pietrangeli's 1955 Alberto Sordi comedy "The Bachelor" (review to follow) the following day, which features Xavier Cugat - again billed as and playing himself, a popular band leader of the time - in a nightclub scene that suggests that the featuring of well-known artists of the day was by no means unusual in the "Commedia All'Italiana" films and perhaps offers an insight into the social lives of the film-making community and where their leisure time was spent visiting popular entertainment venues of the day and coming into contact with artists such as Modugno and Cugat, with their inclusion ensuring that the films had an element of topicality for audiences of the day.


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