I Knew Her Well (1964)is an Italian film directed by Antonio Pietrangeli. The movie is poignant and fully realized, the story of a beautiful young woman, Adriana, who seeks her fortune as a film star in Rome. Not exactly tragic, or, even, overtly sad, the film steers an uneasy path between biting and sarcastic satire and pathos. The film embodies a kind of weary resignation, a tone of disillusion that never exactly decays into bitterness. Until the final thirty seconds, Adriana weathers the various minor indignities imposed upon her cheerfully, without complaint, and without any sense that she deserves anything better. Her suicide at the end of the movie seems unmotivated and unnecessary -- she kills herself on a whim, apparently, because she is tired. (Of course the film is designed to show us that the meaningless, if apparently pleasantly debauched, round of parties and bar-hopping that comprises her existence has no end in sight -- in other words, the beautiful, but dimwitted, girl from the provinces will never be a star, will never be married to a rich and powerful man, and is destined to be cast off by all of her lovers when they tire of her. In the face of this future, Adriana throws herself off the balcony of her small suburban apartment. This falsifies everything that was attractive about the character in the preceding ninety minutes of the film. And, furthermore, when we see the horrific rural poverty from which the girl has escaped, it seems that her fate as a stylishly dressed concubine and minor-league party-girl is a distinct improvement on the destiny otherwise prescribed for her: we see that her aged parents are literally dying from hard-work, her adult brother is a simple-minded idiot, and her younger sister has apparently perished working as a prostitute.)
Pietrangeli is a director not known to me. He worked in the late forties with the great Neo-Realists, both Rosselini and Visconti (he translated La Terra Trema for French distribution). Pietrangeli began to direct comedies in the mid-fifties and, apparently, achieved considerable success. I Knew Her Well is his last fully completed feature. He directed a short film for an anthology picture in the mid-sixties and, then, tragically drowned aged 49 while setting up a shot for a film that was completed by another. On the evidence of I Know Her Well, Pietrangeli had a unique style and a exceptionally subtle narrative manner -- I Know Her Well is episodic and seems plotless; it is beautifully shot and memorably acted. (Stefanie Sandrelli's performance as Adriana could not be bettered.) In my view, Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty bears many close resemblances to the picture, both in its elliptical style and with respect to the exquisitely complex and subtle effects that the film achieves. An epitome of the film's peculiar mix of the sordid and delicately beautiful is its programmatic opening shot -- the camera pans across a beach covered with trash, each furrow of sand harboring, it seems, a candy wrapper or some shredded advertisement: Adriana lies on her belly on a stolen towel labeled in English "Beach Club" --she is topless and listening to a transistor radio that plays a pop tune of the kind that was once labeled "bubblegum music." (Indeed, the film's score is replete with cheesy twist numbers, proto-disco music, crooned love songs and ridiculously light-weight jingles.) The girl rises, covers her breasts haphazardly and darts through a deserted seaside resort as empty and vacant as a city-scape by de Chirico. She asks a fat vendor at a food cart to fasten her bikini top and rushes to a low-rent beauty shop where she naps briefly, stretching out her beautiful young body like a cat. Next, we see her working in the poverty-stricken salon, providing hair rinse and manicure, to a plump girl. A little later, her lover, a sleazy older man appears in his sports car -- it's twilight with the remarkable desolate grey skies that so many Italian directors portray in their black-and-white films of this era, an empty landscape of barren intersections and flimsy-looking concrete apartment buildings with rows of dark windows like the eye sockets of skulls, everything shot in impeccable deep focus. The girl's lover treats her with contempt, casually mentioning his wife, and roughly groping her -- she pretends to ignore him by reading a horror novel with a garish cover. The curious fact that the film explores is that although everyone treats the heroine with contempt she is more beautiful than one of Giotto's angels. But there is a certain blankness about her, a strange enigmatic emptiness. One of her lovers complains that she is without curiosity, always pointlessly happy, and lacking even the "greed for money of a successful whore." Indeed, it's not clear what this young woman wants from life. She moves aimlessly from one man to another -- some of her lovers are so nasty and negligent that they abandon her before dawn so that she has to pay the hotel bill. (She has to surrender her bracelet, a gift from the guy who deserted her in the shabby seaside resort, a hotel called the Calypso.) Her efforts to work in the film industry are laughably inept -- she gets to model some boots, a screen test is converted into a nasty montage that makes her look like a fool, and the film suggests that she poses for pornographic pictures to make ends meet. At every step of the way, people exploit her and ask her for money -- she has to pay for her own publicity. The entire debacle of her putative screen career ends with a hellish party where a Turkish bimbo with peroxide hair has been hired to provide a minor award to a washed-up actor played by Ugo Tognazzi. Tognazzi talks about seducing Ava Gardner but he's obviously fallen on hard-times and when he gets a chance to show his prowess as a tap-dancer, the other producers and film industry executives drive him into a hysterical display that almost causes the man to collapse from a heart attack -- Adriana hovers around this party, brainlessly cheerful, but clearly so unimportant that she isn't even accorded the honor given to the Turkish harlot who, after all, gets to hand Tognazzi his celebratory plaque. Described in these terms all of this seems cynical and depressing, but, in fact, until its last 20 seconds the movie is relentlessly cheerful, the heroine seems optimistic and appears to be enjoying her life. The film is buoyed up by the heroine's vacant but endearing style, her goofy way of dancing, and her luminous beauty. Because she is so gorgeous, we expect her to be noticed and singled-out for some special distinction but this never happens. Most films of this sort would chart some kind of trajectory -- the girl goes from rags to riches and, then, to rags again. But this doesn't happen in I Knew Her Well -- to the contrary, she never achieves any success at all; she is the kind of person to whom nothing every really happens. Adriana is strangely irrelevant to everyone around her; she changes her hair and make-up with each scene and never looks the same -- it's as if she isn't even exactly present to herself. Pietrangeli doesn't pause to explain; one scene follows another is a bewildering succession -- lovers come and go; there's no plot development, no cause and effect. When the heroine finds herself pregnant -- she can't identify the father -- an older woman who is apparently working as her madam berates her for negligence. The tragedy is that the girl loves babies and would probably be a good mother. In one scene, she stands up a film producer who has asked her to lunch to babysit a neighbor's infant, apparently unconcerned as to how this might affect her vocational aspirations. There are a number of very tender scenes, suggesting relationships that might be tenable, but are impossible -- for instance, a boxer down on his luck seems to appeal to her, but, after kissing him, she departs on a whim to visit her parent's at their rural hovel. In the end, the girl succumbs not so much to misery or depression, but to sheer exhaustion -- we see her driving home after a long night of partying and dancing. She drives a tiny truncated car that seems infinitely fragile on the empty roads that she traverses. We see a fuel tank or water-tower in the distance, only half built, and know that she has come home. In her apartment, she zips up her little plastic wardrobe, takes off her high heels and wig and, then, kills herself. Her death is as inconsequential as her life.