When I think about Italian cinema, and I think about beauty, the very first image in my mind is undoubtably Anita Ekberg (who was actually Swedish) in Fellini's La Dolce Vita.
That image of her is so iconic in my mind, but I've only seen half of the film. I've seen hundreds and hundreds of films, and somehow, only half of La Dolce Vita. I’m secure enough in my understanding of cinema to admit that there are masterpieces I simply haven’t watched yet.
As an artist, I am very visually driven. The most beautiful films often star the most beautiful women (and sometimes the most beautiful men), but of course these things are subjective. That scene is staggeringly beautiful, and I'm afraid to watch any more Fellini because I am afraid it will either appeal to me too much, or not enough.
Both of these things are frightening to me as a filmmaker--I get disheartened easily. If any film is too similar to the images that dance through my own mind, it seems fruitless to make my own films. But at the same time, if the films to not live up to the glory I have envisioned for them, I have no chance to make that glory for myself because those images I held in my mind out of expectation have been dashed from it forever by the real images that play out on the screen.
Beauty in cinema and beauty in actresses are linked in my mind, but I'll try my best to separate them. What makes Anita Ekberg so radiant in La Dolce Vita? The key thing that stands out in my mind about her look is her hair and her eyebrows. Eyebrows are the frame of the face, and hers in La Dolce Vita are dark and thick.
They extend slightly longer than one might expect. When one measures the points on one's eyebrows, I believe the eyebrow is usually to end at a line drawn from the edge of one's nose to the outer corner of the eye. Where that line eventually intersects the brow, that is where the brow should end.
On Anita Ekberg, that imaginary line is drawn from the edge of her nose to the end of her eyeliner, rather than the natural edge of her eye. It extends the brow just slightly, visually pulling her features further apart. Another fascinating thing about her look is the color difference between her eyebrows and hair.
It is a very stark look, for one's eyebrows to be much darker than one's hair, and part of the reason it is so effective is because the film is shot in black and white. In the scene in the fountain, she is entirely contrast--polarized between black and white. Black dress, white skin. Black eyebrows, white hair.
Contrast is such an exciting thing visually, and there's a million ways to apply this. I would love to see someone with blue eyebrows and orange hair someday. Maybe even the other way around. Some things are still a bit too daring, though.
Moving on to films that I've actually seen.
I put a screening on once where I showed two films together. The first that I showed was Luchino Visconti's segment of Boccaccio 70, which is an omnibus film with a lot of wonderful Italian directors, all doing sort of modern stories kind of inspired by Boccaccio's Decameron. The segment by Visconti is my favorite. The story is utterly fascinating and fabulous, and the cinematography is absurd. There's a lot of usage of that super quick kung-fu kind of zoom, especially zooming in on kittens. There are a lot of kittens in the movie.
Competing with kittens for the audience's attention is Romy Schneider (who again was not Italian, but Austrian). In the film, she plays an extremely wealthy woman who is coming to terms with her husband's infidelities.
We watch her get ready to go out during the film, bathing (she never gets her hair wet) and throwing on a Chanel suit. Her makeup defines the '60s look for women who were not trendy teenagers. Her cat eye is demure, she eschews the nude lip for pink, and even wears blush. Her makeup is simpler than many of the look we except from the '60s, and it's a version of the '60s that I often use to do my own makeup.
I admittedly haven't seen Boccaccio 70 in a while--probably over a year. Part of what is so particularly beautiful to me about Romy Schneider is something ineffable and hard to articulate. A lot of it is her smile; I don't think her smile would be the same without that particular shade of pink lipstick, and the way that just a hint of it is picked up in the apples of her cheeks. That pink is such a '60s color to me, even though the '60s were all about pale lips.
Monica Vitti is another actress whose beauty comes from her affect as opposed to a deliberate choice of hair and makeup. To me, beauty is all of these things combined; it doesn't come down to just products, or bone structure. It’s the Gesamtheit, the whole.
The film I showed after was my favorite film of all time, Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura. I showed these two films together because they both touch on a very specific thing: the Italian bourgeoisie. Wealth is often impossibly tied up in beauty; if I had as much money to spend on products and salons as a Hollywood actress, I would probably look like a Hollywood actress.
In the '60s, fashion was becoming democratized by stores like Biba. Fashion was no longer exclusively for the wealthy. It was for everyone, particularly the youth. L'Avventura was made in 1960, before that democratisation was really happening. 1960 was basically still 1959, and a lot of Monica Vitti's looks in this film are indicative of the 1950s.
My favorite thing about her look is her hair. In the 1950s, women's hair was set very particularly to create curls and waves, and often would be subjected to all sorts of substances meant to hold the hair in place and have it keeps its shape. In L'Avventura, Monica Vitti's hair has a messy quality to it. It has a lot of movement, but it never loses its height. It blows about her face in a big blond cloud as she dashes from rock to rock searching for her friend Ana. Beautiful.
Of course, I could dye my hair blond and try to trace her eyeliner perfectly, but I will never be Monica Vitti. I will always be Jill.
What most interests me about these actresses and their beauty in the cinema is how to lift little things from each person to combine, and allow myself to have my own sort of ineffable beauty that is all my own. "Beautiful" isn’t one definable thing, and all of these actresses have a beauty that is entirely their own. There are billions of different kinds of beautiful, and for me, so much of us comes through in 1960s Italian cinema.