Director: Federico Fellini
Stars: Giuletta Masina, Sandra Milo, Mario Pisu
Federico Fellini is one of those goliath names in world cinema, so esteemed by critics that their body of work becomes immediately intimidating. Venerated like Bergman. Like Godard. I remember vividly the first Fellini film I saw; La Dolce Vita. A shade too early in my maturity to love it the way I’ve come to, I found the opus challenging as I willed myself to see the bravura masterpiece others did. I see it now, but my younger self struggled, adjusting to the stylistic tics that I’ve since learned manifest more forcefully in some of his subsequent features.
My second was La Strada which presages La Dolce Vita by several years and shows comparable restraint. Between my troubled perception of the first and my experience of the second, I had begun to assume a level of austerity in Fellini that would ultimately come undone.
It was a long time before I saw any more. 1969’s Fellini – Satyricon challenged fully the false concept I had grafted, but it was Juliet Of The Spirits that shattered it completely, morphing my concept of the man from cynical intellectual to that of a playfully indulgent cinematic prankster.
Truth be told, I hated it at first. The opening scenes of Juliet Of The Spirits felt glaringly discombobulated. His first colour feature, I was struck by what seemed like an incoherent and garish mishmash of characters and colours; an assault on the senses that I feared would dominate the picture to follow. How enlivened I became, then, when the chaotic, overcrowded feeling of the beginning gave way to a streamlined odyssey of forward thinking, surrealist cinema.
Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina plays the titular Giulietta (or Juliet, for English language viewers). Mid forties, a little frumpy, fading into the background of her unfaithful husband’s life, alienated from an existence she feels small within, Giulietta meets a strong-minded and free-thinking woman of many names or personas played by the voluptuous Sandra Milo. Under the guise of neighbour Suzy, Milo’s multifaceted character becomes Giulietta’s guide into thinking liberally, not just about her sexuality, but also her place in the world and how she views herself in comparison to her husband.
Like a sexy Willy Wonka, ‘Suzy’ takes Giulietta on a journey of discovery through a series of fantastic locations devised by Fellini; a heightened imaginary land built on the dreams of Hollywood movies, sex fantasies and fairy tales.
It’s an extravagant party of a film. Watching it again thanks to the exceptional (and overdue) blu ray re-release from CultFilms*, and knowing what I was in for, the opening scenes of busy camera moves and cluttered frames were far more favourably received. For one I could more fully appreciate Fellini’s experiments with colour.
Juliet Of The Spirits approaches the change with gusto. The costuming throughout is rainbow coloured and elaborate in design. House guests peacock about like refugees who have wandered off from a nearby mardis gras. The lighting choices, too, break from his former neo-realist leanings for something more overtly stylised. Look, for instance, at the stark contrast early on between the deep green hue of the lawn and the illuminated blue of the garden hedges. You get the sense of a master coming to grips with a whole new set of tools, a whole new set of possibilities. This playfulness sugarcoats the entire production, complimented by the fanciful score by Nino Rota.
‘Suzy’ is loosed from the well of memory, appearing only after Giulietta has a flash recollection from her childhood. It appears to me as though Giulietta is in actuality guided by her own realisation and awakening; an event embodied by Sandra Milo in a sort of proto-Tyler Durden role. She manifests again briefly when Giulietta is challenged by a local mystic who advises her that her husband is her God. Milano appears on horseback like a warrior who has arrived to challenge the notion and battle on behalf of her protagonist.
By externalising this argument for sexual liberation and greater self-worth, Giulietta is able to allow herself to accept it more gradually, working to her own pace. She allows herself to become convinced, though she is clearly bewitched from the start.
Fellini admits there is a lot of their marriage on the screen, and if his own identity was fractured and dissected through his prior film, 8 1/2, then Juliet Of The Spirits represents a concerted attempt to balance the scales, in the process creating his first film to wholly forefront a female character.
This recognition from a male filmmaker of the caged desires and fears of a woman in her forties was approaching radical, even in an era of daring European cinema, and for this reason the film is argued as feminist, affording Masina the opportunity to play a fully rounded and examined woman. Shy, modest, self-critical, but infused with yearnings, it is a gift from Fellini to his wife and by extension all of us who derive great pleasure and fulfillment from films that prioritise women.
The argument against its feminist credentials lie in the male gaze that still resolutely permeates the film. Sandra Milo’s flamboyance and overt sexuality is tracked by a camera that positively leers. She is a great beauty, and there’s a clear argument that Giulietta, too, is infatuated with her. This could potentially be an expression of latent bisexuality or, if the reading above is to be taken, her own extrapolation of what society expects from beauty… a set of terms dictated by the fantasies of men. More simply, Giulietta may have just used the on hand reference point of her neighbour as a template for her guide to self-discovery. No answer is given. This inconclusiveness only adds to the exotic cocktail the film becomes. It is by definition multifaceted, unresolved, open to interpretation.
It is worth noting, too, that Fellini readily objectifies men also. Here and throughout his career.
Ultimately it is a picture of womanhood painted by a man; an outsider looking in. For that matter, this essay emerges from the same perspective. As an outsider, Fellini appears fascinated. By this point in his career, after the explosion of 8 1/2, the world was eager to share in his enthusiasm.
Yet, Juliet Of The Spirits is never the film people name first when talking of his achievements. I’m still barely initiate in his filmography. I have much to see. Yet as far as the journey has taken me so far, this is my pick of the pack. The attempt to see through the eyes of another sex may be flawed, but the attempt itself is easily admired, especially when the results are as dazzlingly stylish as those on offer here.
In the middle of the film Giulietta passes by a tall white picket fence, and the movement of the camera following from the other side causes her image to appear to stutter, like looking at images conjured in the turning motion of a zoetrope. That sense of peering in fills the film. Fellini explores an internal world here. The generosity comes in his invitation to join him.
*the release includes a new audio commentary from the wonderful Kat Ellinger which I’m very much looking forward to listening to. I haven’t yet for fear of throwing bias on my own feelings about the film.