#801 I Knew Her Well
Criterion Release Date: 23 Feb 2016 (LINK)
I knew Her Well is a film I knew nothing about beforehand, it’s a blind buy release from the Criterion Collection as usual. But once again, I found myself unprepared to another startling, daunting viewing experience. At the end of the film, I’m exhausted, frenzied, unsettled. They are the feelings that I encounter a masterpiece which come out of nowhere but actually it’s always there, waiting a chance to be unearthed, to speak to another generation across space and time.
I Knew Her Well came out fifty years ago, shortly after Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960) and 8½ (1963), Pasolini’s Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962), Germi’s Divorce Italian Style (1961), Risi’s Il Sorpasso (1962), Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964). The landscape of Italian post-neorealist cinema was prosperous and substantial. Besides focusing on provincial or impoverished life, the economical growth was also reflected in cinema as the form of characters’ living condition and life style. A more consumerist-leading materialistic behaviour was readily observable in none other than the celebrity, paparazzi encapsulated film La dolce vita, a film that was often cited in description of Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her Well. Similarities were definitely present, while Marcello and Sylvia were surveying Rome under the attention of spotlight, Adriana (Stefania Sandrelli) was in endeavor to “success”.
To Adriana, success means fame. And by no means, fame equals to fabulous clothing and hair-style changing from time to time, surrounded by celebrity companions in various parities day and night. It’s her dream to be a model, an actress, a star. The film is actualized in episodic mosaic, resembled to La dolce vita, without any specificity in juncture or timeline. One moment Adriana was working in a beauty parlor, the next she was employed in a cinema theater, aspiring to appear on the screen. One moment she was hanging with friends, sliding through the night on a sofa atop a moving car, the next she was spending the night in a hotel with a man she only knew his first name Dario (Jean-Claude Brialy).
The title becomes a satirical reference, how well did Adriana’s male companions, agents, colleagues, acting teacher, neighbors, know her. Indeed how much did we as an audience know her after all. Or did she really know herself, her true-self, her id. There were never a dull moment in her social life, negotiating jobs through her leeching agent (Nino Manfredi) who would readily pimp her at any moment; dancing with a pubertal boy along her jaunty 60s pop music looping in the record player, with occasional kicks for the player to function. There was a moment of sweet and honest talk only when Adriana met a boxer (Mario Adorf), a non-intellectual “loser”, whom she just ditched as causally as she met him, unaware of how much meaning she had given him.
It seemed to be too much things invoked to feel emptiness, but when there was momentary quietness, we saw melancholy in her eyes. Perhaps Adriana’s life was so empty that she needed to be constantly occupied, perhaps she was too aware of her humiliation and exploitation that if she stopped and contemplated for a second, it would be unbearable. The cruelty was best exemplified on Baggini (Ugo Tognazzi), a has-been star and tap dancer who tried to persuade and impress his now famous friend Roberto (Enrico Maria) and a producer by dancing almost to heart attack. The scene was unusually long in enhancing the unsettling effect of witnessing how far a man could sacrifice his dignity with a slim chance.
Naive as she may superficially, Stefania Sandrelli portrayed Adriana of a deeper, self-reflexive layer with the capricious laugh and the uncanny glare. She was more dimensional than meets the eye. Director Antonio Pietrangeli often focused women under a changing Itay in his films, like the four prostitutes-turned-restaurant owners in Adua and Friends (1960) or the provincial woman placing an ad for her future mate in The Visit (1964). In I Knew Her Well, Pietrangeli produced a thought-provoking female character study, ending it with, though not an original one, a heart-breaking no-return decision from Adriana. Perhaps she finally able to know herself, and be her true-self, even with a great cost.