I Knew Her Well begins suggestively enough: a long tracking survey of a litter-strewn beach, accompanied by jaunty Sixties bop, eventually landing on topless bambolina Adriana (Stefania Sandrelli) oiled and stretched out in the sand. Suddenly late for work, she dashes down the empty street holding her bikini on (until she enlists an idling shopkeeper to hook her up) and arrives at her hairdresser’s shop, only to flop onto the backroom sofa in exhaustion. Soon enough, at day’s end, the middle-aged owner arrives and she lies down for him — as she obviously has a hundred times already.
A sneak attack from the Italian jukebox hipsterlands of 1965, Antonio Pietrangeli’s neglected autopsy of modern showbiz culture would be a satire if it were funny — instead, and despite the bouncy vigor of its star, the movie’s narrative goes down like gelato and then slowly clots in your throat. Before he drowned on a film shoot in 1968, Pietrangeli was an ace hand at the controls of the commedia all’italiana, subtly toggling between the postwar genre’s trademark down-and-out farcical buzz and its often neck-snapping dips into mortal tragedy.
There’s hardly a mature thought running through the feckless Adriana’s skull, and Pietrangeli’s film evolves into a character portrait of a classic modern figure: the uncynical, clueless nymph trying to get by on looks and getting lost in the fringe swamplands of showbiz. Adriana is never more than a whisper away from flat-out prostitution — except she often gets stuck with the tab and earns nothing but minor gigs and more sexual offers. The police-lineup of men she becomes entangled with is both paradigmatic and all too convincing, from Jean-Claude Brialy’s silky goldbricker to Nino Manfredi’s amoral press agent to, unforgettably, Ugo Tognazzi’s crucifyingly pathetic film-biz has-been, tap-dancing to a heart attack on a table to amuse a producer to whom he then tries to pimp out Adriana.
She’s been pimped before, all too often, and Sandrelli dares us to read the scars we can’t see.
Pietrangeli is so awake to his young star’s dewy, cheerful working-class pathos that it’s startling to recall in contrast how thin her giggling-nitwit role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist was — here, with the least affected smile of the era, Sandrelli underplays Adriana’s essential emptiness, as though it were hiding under defensive layers of shame acquired with time and liaisons. She watches everyone with a fake-relaxed wariness and on several occasions gives the camera a dead-eyed glare. When Joachim Fuchsberger, as a pompous novelist, scathingly invokes a fatuous and slutty character of his, a distracted Adriana slowly realizes he’s describing her, and the mood of the movie freezes.
As New Wavey as can be, Pietrangeli abruptly vaults through Adriana’s existence with a series of context-obliterating shock cuts; a pregnancy is discussed and then vanishes, and scenes begin in the beds of strange men, all to a crammed soundtrack of obliviously silly Italian pop. A generation-defining movie in Italy, I Knew Her Well is that rare saga of the never-was, immersed, like its heroine, in daydreams, numb to its own heartbreak.
I Knew Her Well
Directed by Antonio Pietrangeli
Opens February 5, Film Forum