Last week New York’s Film Forum screened Italian director Antonio Pietrangeli’s 1965 film I Knew Her Well, a black-and-white comedy-drama recently restored and released for the first time in the US by Janus Films. I would be lying if I pretended I had no expectations going into this New-Wave-ish movie starring Stefania Sandrelli as the Italian counterpart to that French icon of flightiness, Brigitte Bardot. The film’s poster standing proudly in the lobby of Film Forum, with Sandrelli’s diva allowing manly hands readjust her bikini top, turned out to be faithful to the general pin-up vibe of the film. The plot itself – Adriana, a pretty girl from the Italian country, tries to become an adulated celebrity in Rome – serves mostly to reveal her superficial endeavors. The very first shots confirm the tone of the film through a recurrent use of imposing close-ups reminiscent of those magnifying female bodies in films such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt. Throughout the film, the camera emphasizes Adriana’s looks as well as her gaze, as if to mimic the way she unconsciously fixates on the minutiae of her own appearance as a gateway to the magical world of movie-making.
A key element that saves I Knew Her Well from its easy shelving as a shallow piece of filmmaking produced by an Italian bloke who likes to ogle women is Adriana’s overreliance on her carnal display which does not seem to result wholly from a misplaced sense of pride. It appears rather to stem from a certain naiveté, a genuine belief in the desirability and essential goodness of what is pretty or glittery. No wonder the film world would become her favored milieu. Thus, instead of solely rendering Adriana’s credulity a tragic flaw, Pietrangeli depicts her in a rather compassionate light, showing how this aspect of her personality goes hand in hand with a touching and even vital spontaneity. Dance scenes where Sandrelli merrily shakes a leg side-by-side with agreeable gentlemen (Godard again comes to mind, this time Band of Outsiders) are one among many examples that efficiently carry forth her drive for activity and for life. I Knew Her Well draws on the playful mixed signals worked into a tradition by the star actresses of the French New Wave—the diffident young girls whose femme fatale mannerisms only hide the wash of contradictory feelings underneath. I am pleased to report this affinity immensely gratified the ’60s arthouse fangirl in me.
As an enthusiast for the so-called “Left Bank” group of New Wave filmmakers as well, I was delighted to find in Pietrangeli’s tale a take on character development similar to Agnès Varda’s titular protagonist in 1962’s Cléo From 5 to 7. Corinne Marchand’s Cléo, the Parisian singer of Varda’s film, like Adriana realizes the necessity of moving beyond the world of surface appearances to better reconnect with herself and with the surrounding world. In the film, she gradually understands the value of being/feeling alive without relying on the opinion of others, a realization that seems to stem from her dealing with sickness and the proximity of death. In Pietrangeli’s film, Adriana similarly realizes the rather frivolous nature of her initial aspirations. She indeed gradually recognizes the lack of meaning in her life: she changes men as often as she changes wigs or jobs (successively working as a hairdresser-manicurist, cinema usherette and film extra, condemned to association with the cinema world only from a distance). The deep tragedy of the film is her inability to anchor herself to anything concrete or stable that would secure her investment in being a part of this world.
But while Cléo from 5 to 7’s radical narrative structure has this realization take place in real time, roughly halfway through the film, Adriana’s epiphany occurs very late in Pietrangeli’s more classically paced film—much too late to my liking, especially if one wishes to witness a substantial psychological evolution in a character that we have breathlessly followed for nearly two hours. In I Knew Her Well, there is no time for such a transformation to unfold, a real pity when we know the potential of the film to finally become an interesting tale of introspection relying on that old Delphic maxim of “knowing thyself.” It appears as if the film might dig deep into profound material only when Adriana is confronted about her behavior by a lover—at this point the film is nearly over. Despite my complaints, walking out of Film Forum, I could ultimately affirm that I Knew Her Well was not a bad movie. The gorgeous look of the film, emblematized by recurrent close-ups in a deep black-and-white contrast practically built for Sandrelli, as well as the infusion of absurdist moments characteristic of the histrionics of Italian post-war cinema, creates an interesting polar environment, both pleasing and thoroughly disquieting. But I still felt as if a certain something was missing, a quality encapsulated by The New York Times’ Glenn Kenny, who writes that while the movie is “hardly subtle, it is compelling.” Maybe what I needed was a deeper reflection on what it really means to solely rely on contrivances, and most importantly, a potential way to evolve beyond that point. All narrative signs lead to an eventual extolment of a healthier equilibrium between utter carelessness and a penetrating self-awareness, but Pietrangeli leaves these avenues unexplored. His decision to do so doesn’t just reduce the film’s ability to teach this or that lesson—it makes it feel like an incomplete project.
I Knew Her Well was released on Blu-ray and DVD on February 23rd by The Criterion Collection.