Juliet of the Spirits
Federico Fellini told an interviewer recently that he was trying to make his films approach the condition of poetry, but it is not the poet’s art he employs in Juliet of the Spirits so much as the confectioner’s. Fellini’s latest work is a huge helping of Italian ice cream, covered with marshmallow topping, chocolate sprinkles, butterscotch sauce, and great gooey spirals of aerated whipped cream. It is a concoction clearly designed to be consumed: and after two-and-a-quarter hours of soda fountain specials—birthday-cake decor, appetizing costumes, spectacular memory-fantasies, technicolor spectra inspired by Vincente Minnelli, yellow wigs and crimson beards, dream caravans from the sea, seances, orgies, and succulent courtesans—one emerges from the theater as from a debauch, glutted and blearyeyed, yet with a curiously empty feeling in the stomach and a flat taste in the mouth.
For the film is specious and hollow, in addition to being very boring; and its failures bring into focus what has been bothering me about Fellini’s more celebrated successes: they are indebted less to true perception than to carnival showmanship. I should say at once that I am a great admirer of Fellini’s early films, especially I Vitelloni. So long as Fellini concentrated on road children, street waifs, and small-town loungers, he managed to keep his passion for spectacle controlled by honesty and impartiality, and his love of the fantastic (a band marching single file down a lonely country road; a berouged old homosexual actor declaiming on a beach) always came as an imaginative variation on an authentic theme. Ever since La Dolce Vita, however, when he first displayed an infatuation with decadent Roman society, his films have grown progressively more vulgar, luxuriant, and self-indulgent, and have even lapsed occasionally into trickery and charlatanism. What compromised these later works was the director’s ambivalent relation to his satiric objects. In La Dolce Vita Fellini revealed himself to be deeply attracted by the very things he was pretending to ridicule or expose (upperclass orgies, intellectual parties, Catholic ritual and pageantry, Anita Ekberg’s chest); and in “8 1/2” he dropped the mask of impersonality entirely, initiating some superficial explorations of the unconscious which, for all their disarming self-irony and technical dazzle, seemed to me little more than a cinematic acting out of his own autoerotic fantasies, resolved by an outrageously dishonest conclusion. In Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini’s artistic flashiness and moral ambiguity are even more conspicuous; and while the fantasies he invents are now supposed to belong to a middle-aged housewife, they are still more appropriate to a Hollywood producer with a gaudy mind, or a pubescent male weaned on girlie magazines.
Juliet of the Spirits is about Giulietta, an unattractive, imperturbable lady of the haute bourgeoisie who is afflicted with an unfaithful husband, an unloving mother, a domineering sister, and a frivolous circle of friends. Discontented with her unsatisfying relationships and lack of purpose, she grows increasingly subject to hallucinatory memories: phantoms from her past …