The Music of
I Knew Her Well

Like so many popular Italian films of the 1960s, the soundtrack to I Knew Her Well is loaded with hit songs from the era. Antonio Pietrangeli employs the music in a unique manner, not just setting the film in a specific time and place but also offering commentary on the action, using the radios and record players on-screen as a sort of Greek chorus. Here are the songs in their order of appearance in the film.

“L’eclisse twist,” Mina
“Addio,” Mina

Mina was one of the most successful Italian recording artists of all time: a versatile, controversial figure who toggled easily from straightforward rock and roll to traditional ballads to torch songs. Pietrangeli employs three songs by Mina in I Knew Her Well. The first comes near the beginning, when Adriana turns on the radio in the beauty salon as her employer attempts to seduce her; the song, “L’eclisse twist,” was a hit single by Mina that also appears with the opening credits of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1962 L’eclisse. We hear only two lines—“The clouds and the moon / Speak to lovers’ hearts”—but their tenderness couldn’t be further from the images they accompany. Later, Mina’s “Addio”—written by the film’s composer, Piero Piccioni—plays on the car radio while Adriana and a male partner dance in the headlights during a night journey to an isolated lovers’ lane. Reflecting both her emotional sincerity and her status as a creature of pop culture, Adriana sings along to lyrics that read like a preemptory good-bye to her temporary lover:

Every new day
Brings a new world with it
And every love that dies
Is the end of a world
It’s too late
Too late for us

“Le stelle d’oro,” Peppino di Capri

To mark the next stage in Adriana’s evolution—her new look and hairstyle, and her first meeting with a small-time publicist who promises to get her exposure in a magazine— Pietrangeli sneaks in a few seconds of Peppino di Capri’s “Le stelle d’oro,” an upbeat pop number that sounds like it’s emanating from a radio in the busy courtyard. The song comes across as pure bitter irony here, as Adriana pays for the agent’s dubious services while di Capri sings about the “golden stars” of the song’s title.

“Sweet William,” Millie Small

In one of the film’s many jarring edits, Pietrangeli cuts to Adriana as she and her lover, Dario, dance to “Sweet William” in a sparsely populated nightclub. “Sweet William” is an irresistible song by Millie Small, the daughter of a Jamaican plantation owner who found success as a singer in the UK under the literal tutelage (including lessons in diction) of record executive Chris Blackwell. In the context of Adriana and Dario’s relationship, however, the song’s upbeat expression of love becomes unsettling:

I love sweet William
Yes, he’s my boy
And I’m his little doll
His favorite toy

He brings me candy
And kisses too
Because I’m stuck on him
I’ll stick to him like glue

Oh, I need Sweet William so
I’ll never let him go
And I know our love will grow

I love sweet William
Yes, he’s my thrill
And who will marry me?
Sweet William will

“Oggi Ź domenica per noi,” Sergio Endrigo

Pietrangeli follows this with another blunt edit that smashes “Sweet William” directly into “Oggi Ź domenica per noi” (Today Is Sunday for Us), by the singer-songwriter Sergio Endrigo, which plays in the background of a restaurant where Dario’s behavior begins to annoy Adriana. Dario—who forces a waiter to trade places with him and attempts to prepare an omelet in the restaurant—contrasts pathetically with the song’s lyrics, especially in light of the following day’s revelation that he left Adriana behind in the hotel, their bill unpaid.

Today is Sunday for us
I will leave my world
And come with you
Wherever you are

Today, forget yourself
And the boredom will go away
For a day with me

“Mani bucate,” Sergio Endrigo

“Mani bucate,” another song by Endrigo, follows, playing almost in its entirety as Pietrangeli executes a stunning single-shot sequence that zooms out from the canal, as seen from Adriana’s window, to her puttering around her apartment. The first song in the film that Adriana plays on her beloved portable record player, “Mani bucate” sets an appropriately melancholy mood.

You could never hold on
To anything for long
Not even a sincere smile
Though you had the whole world
In your hands
You lost everything, even love
Tossed aside without a care
Now you’re left empty-handed

You could never hold on
To anything for long
Not even an honest friend
You had so much
And always gave it away
To just anyone
You lost everything, even my heart
Tossed aside without a care
Now you’re left empty-handed

“Lasciati baciare Col. Letkiss,” the Kessler Twins
“Roberta,” Peppino di Capri

As “Mani bucate” comes to a close, Adriana’s reverie is interrupted by a phone call from a man she briefly dated in the past, whose name and identity she can’t remember. After a quick flashback, Pietrangeli cuts to Adriana’s turntable, which plays a sequence of two pop songs—an oompah novelty by the German duo the Kessler Twins and another ballad by Peppino di Capri—as she makes a date, changes her clothes, gets ready to go out, then agrees to babysit for her neighbor instead.

“What Am I Living For,” Millie Small

Leaving the film to composer Piero Piccioni for the next forty-five minutes, Pietrangeli doesn’t feature another preexisting song until Millie Small’s “What Am I Living For,” which introduces the film’s centerpiece scene, a party where Adriana gets her closest glimpse of the world of celebrity.

“More,” Gilbert Bécaud

While the film’s opening song, “L’eclisse twist,” references the Antonioni movie, Pietrangeli refers to another film when Adriana plays a single of the then ubiquitous international hit “More,” here performed by the popular French singer Gilbert Bécaud. This song was the main theme from Mondo cane, a dubious but highly influential 1962 documentary that collected random scenes of “perverse” behavior from around the world, in an attempt to shock and titillate viewers. It’s not hard to draw parallels between the practices shown in Mondo cane (the beheading of bulls, fishermen force-feeding sea urchins to sharks) and the horrifying examples of selfishness and cruelty depicted by Pietrangeli. And the juxtaposition of the song’s fantasy of all-consuming love (“More than the world has ever known”) with the banal reality of Adriana alone in her apartment is yet another of Pietrangeli’s reminders of the empty promises offered by popular culture.

“E se domani,” Mina
“Abbracciami forte,” Ornella Vanoni
“Dimmi la veritą,” Sergio Endrigo

Next begins an extraordinary sequence of songs, all literally kicked off by Adriana as she jostles the record changer with her foot. Mina’s “E se domani” offers more fatalistic romanticism (“If tomorrow / I suddenly lost you / I’d be losing the whole world”), and as the song reaches its emotional climax, Adriana’s eye makeup is running down her face in black streaks. When she turns to look in the multiple panels of her dressing-table mirror, she stares directly into the camera at the viewer.

When the doorbell rings, Adriana rushes to wipe away her tears and starts the next song, “Abbracciami forte,” by Ornella Vanoni. Another ode to an impossible love (“Hold me strongly and forget me / Hold me strongly and forgive me”), the song would also have been familiar to Italian viewers as the one that won Vanoni the top award at the prestigious Festival of Songs in Sanremo, Italy.

Adriana opens the door as the song continues. She receives a piece of mail from Luciano, a young neighbor boy with whom she dances to “Dimmi la veritą,” by Sergio Endrigo. As Endrigo pleads with his lover to tell him if “something has changed” between them, Adriana and Luciano dance slowly, until the boy runs away in embarrassment.

Another quick edit takes us to a club where Adriana dances frantically to Piccioni’s score, reconnects with an abashed Dario, and stays on the dance floor until the end of the night, leaving with a man who takes her out on a motorboat, to a restaurant for pizza, and finally to an aviary, where the couple sit in their car, enraptured by the sounds of the birds inside.

“Toi,” Gilbert Bécaud

At dawn, Adriana drives home in her car while Pietrangeli lets Gilbert Bécaud’s “Toi” play in full. For three minutes, we watch Adriana drive with a blank stare as the lyrics speak of a love lost:

You . . . Whom I never thought I’d meet
You . . . Who appeared to me in the same old city
You . . . Whom I’d looked for all over
You . . .

Who appeared to me
Amid a crowd of nobodies
You were there for me
Time stood still
And for a moment
We lived life together

You . . . I’d known for centuries that you were mine
You . . . A gust of happiness for me alone
You . . .

You’d have given me
The impossible
But my moment passed
And you said no

Though Adriana kicks her turntable into action for one more song—an instrumental version of “Lasciati baciare Col. Letkiss”—Bécaud’s expressions of angst and loneliness are, fittingly, the final lyrics we hear in the film.