This month I’m blogging on the theme ‘Adventure 1915’ – adventurous films at their 100th birthday. To Francesca Bertini for the first entry!
It’s a treasured spy cliché – the agent who falls in love with their mark. In Diana l’affascinatrice, Francesca Bertini plays a woman torn between her espionage duties and her love for the good Captain Argo (Gustavo Serena, doing double duty as actor and director).
At least in the surviving print, not much context or depth is given to the characters. We don’t know where they are from, or any real details about their schemes – but the conventions of spy stories are all there (spies, seduction, stolen plans), with the audience free – or expected – to fill in the blanks. In fact, only three characters are named: Diana (renamed Wanda in the surviving print), Captain Newse (Argo), and Diana’s spy accomplice Amari (Robertson). Although we see Diana communing with other spies, attending a soirée, etc, any other people on the screen are largely incidental to the story.
The seduction proceeds; despite Diana demonstrably fulfilling her mission, her associate Robertson becomes suspicious (and jealous), leading to voyeuristic shots like the above right. Diana l’affascinatrice makes the most of its lavish interior sets, and some lovely exteriors: the boating excursion, car rides, the façades of grand buildings. Evidently that blew the budget, though, because the obviously painted interior dilapidated tower hideout from which Robertson sends his missives (using the local pigeons as messengers!) lacks the authenticity of the other sets.
Why have such a hideout, especially when, elsewhere in the film, we see Diana and Robertson sending messages by Morse code? To allow for this to happen, of course:
The ending is abrupt and leaves questions remaining; I suspect that there was more material there originally, as it lacks a proper dénouement. Given that 25% of the footage is missing, it’s hard to judge it as a film – most of the main plot points seem to be intact, but perhaps the missing footage gave more depth to the characters. It may also be that the footage was already excised by the time it was shown in Belgium, with the local title writers working around that fact. There are also frequent jump cuts in the surviving film, and the intertitles are a little disorganized.
Film history hasn’t remembered this film, and if it didn’t star Francesca Bertini it wouldn’t be notable at all; even so, it’s one of her minor films. But even though the plot is total boilerplate, she does very good work in Diana l’affascinatrice. Much is made of Bertini’s realism, and rightfully so, but watching this film you see why she deserves the title of diva. Bertini is very savvy at working her angles in front of the camera, always positioning her face and body to her best advantage, and accomplishes this without appearing artificial – not an easy thing to do, especially in a film that doesn’t use close-ups and has fairly static cinematography. Her screen presence is assured and confident – this is a woman who knew what she was doing.
Just as in L’Amazzone mascherata, Bertini’s character wields a gun at one point, and I found it interesting to compare the two shots. In both she is wearing dramatically swinging clothing, but in Diana l’affascinatrice‘s shot Bertini is angled much more towards the camera, and draws attention to herself more with the hand in her hair; I’d say she owns the moment more than in the earlier film.
While Bertini does get a few operatic moments, acting-wise the centrepiece of the film is an impressive scene in which a seated Diana is considering her situation, caught between duty and love. She is animated, passionate even, convincingly anguished without being overdone. I also really enjoyed some of the smaller moments: her irritation/agitation at the time it is taking Robertson to search for the plans; her hand movements as she crosses her legs, thinking. Although it’s a shame that we don’t get any close-ups shots of Bertini in Diana l’affascinatrice, the film shows a woman at the top of her game in acting within the given cinematographic conventions.
The diva directives
Running down the by-now-customary list of diva film properties:
Copious costume changes. This film shows off Bertini’s commitment to an excellent wardrobe. I noted around a dozen different outfits, or one per five minutes.
Headwear that borders on the avant-garde: Bertini has several excellent hats in this film, though none stood out as particularly radical.
A necklace of notable length. As in L’Amazzone mascherata, Bertini wears a dress-necklace to the ball she attends. Was the dress-necklace a general trend at the time, or just a Bertini thing?
Symbolic naming. Diana was, of course, the Roman goddess of the hunt.
Mirrors. It is probably not coincidental that right after Diana is accused of betraying the cause, we see her at the mirror – a visual indicator of the question of which side she is really on.
A dramatic scene involving flowers. It seems that Menichelli was not the only diva inclined to take a nibble.
Trials and tribulations. The difficulty of being a successful spy when falling in love with your mark; betraying your colleagues; explosives; lack of a proper ending to your story.
Diana l’affascinatrice in distribution
As far as I can tell, Diana l’affascinatrice was never distributed in America, although it circulated in Spanish-speaking countries under the title Diana la fascinadora – via the Media History Digital Library, references can be found in Cine-Mundial, the Spanish-language offshot of Moving Picture World.
In the Netherlands, the film circulated under the titles Diana, de vrouwelijke spion (the female spy) and Diana, de verleidster (the temptress), and it screened in centres across the Netherlands. Here are some newspaper adverts for the film:
De Telegraaf, 24 Feb 1916, advertising a screening at F. A. Nöggerath’s Bioscope-Theatre in Amsterdam; the Rotterdamsch nieuwsblad, 13 May 1916; the Leeuwarder Courant (Friesland), 09 June 1916.
Diana l’affascinatrice also made it to Suriname, albeit a bit later.
De Gooi- en Eemlander (Utrecht province), 24 Jun 1916; Suriname koloniaal nieuws- en advertentieblad, 25 Feb 1919.
Interestingly, most of these screening are not registered at the Cinema Context website, which itself indicates that there were several runs of the film, including later Dutch screenings in September 1918 and then 1921.
Here’s also a mention in Turin newspaper La Stampa on 08 September 1915, which tells of audiences flocking to Diana l’affascinatrice‘s “four great acts of original dramatic action”. The four-act structure was not apparent in the surviving print of the film, at least to me.
In summary: a relatively undistinguished film, but very stylish mise-en-scène, and Bertini acts with aplomb. Could you resist this?:
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Diana l’affascinatrice. Dir. Gustavo Serena. Rome, Italy: Caesar-Film, 1915. The film is preserved by Cinematek (the former Cinémathèque Royale Belgique), where it survives under its French-language title Wanda l’espionne. The censor-title is dated 06 January 1922 – I wonder if it was a reissue, or if it hadn’t been shown in Belgium before then? Available to view here on the European Film Gateway.