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 and the spirit world begin to haunt her waking life. Accompanied by a vapid, restless woman on the town, she visits an epicene oracle, an ancient Tiresias-like guru who squeaks out the secrets of the sexes in marriage manual exhortations; prodded by her moralistic sister, she hires private detectives to prove her husband’s infidelity, and to learn the identity of his mistress. Evenutally, Giulietta takes up with Suzy (Sandra Milo), a well-appointed courtesan who lives in the sumptuous villa next door. Suzy bears a remarkable resemblance to one of Giulietta’s dream figures—the circus bareback rider who ran off with her funloving grandfather in a Wright Brothers airplane—and she is clearly meant to represent the pleasures of the sensual life. Under the spell of Suzy’s pagan vigor, Giulietta examines the intricacies of her love chambers (one bright yellow room features a slideway down to an interior pool, for refreshing dips after sexual intercourse); she accompanies Suzy, in a mechanical basket, up to a tree house, where the courtesan, in a bikini, awaits the embraces of two young men; she witnesses a mass orgy, performed by costumed celebrants who make love in every corner of Suzy’s house; and finally she is tempted to go to bed in the yellow room with Suzy’s godson, an angelic-looking young man in the costume of a Hindu ascetic.
This last temptation Giulietta successfully overcomes through the intervention of her tutelary spirit—an image of herself as a young child in a convent-school play, being martyred on an artificial pyre. When her husband decides to take a pleasure trip with his mistress, and Giulietta is frustrated in her efforts to confront the woman directly, her spirits get out of hand; and in a final phantasmagoria—where religious and sexual forces battle for her soul—she is brought to the brink of suicide. Giulietta, however, passes through this crisis, and, defying her mother for the first time in her life, extricates her child-self from the burning stake, thus freeing herself from religious guilt. This symbolic action results in the exorcism of the offending spirits (a few favorites, presumably, will be allowed to remain) and, inhaling deeply, she walks into the air to face reality with a smile. The camera pulls away on a sweet domestic-pastoral tableau—Giulietta in front of her house, protected by very tall trees.
The film is well-photographed, and some of its ideas are interesting as a series of visual balances—the conflict between sex and religion, for example, is illustrated by a contrast between a bevy of blowsy whores with smeared lipstick and exposed breasts, and a somber procession of hooded, faceless nuns in black habits. Still for all the obvious expertise, the conflict itself has no more depth than a secularized morality play; while the development of the action despite the manipulation of dream images, owes less to Strindberg than to soap opera. I am well aware that narrative line is of little importance in this film, but it is still disturbing to find what little plot there is so predictable and sentimental; and the climax, dependent as it is on Giulietta’s defiance of a mother who is of marginal importance in the action, is simply arbitrary and contrived.
The film has even less validity as a study of character, for the female protagonist is convincing neither as a woman nor as a human being. This is partly the fault of Giulietta Massina who invests the heroine with hardly any flavor or grace: she wanders through the role like a sleepwalking Hausfrau, her expressions limited to a dull stare and a Gioconda smile. Not having seen Miss Massina since Nights of Cabiria, I was deeply depressed to note how the years have dulled her bright eyes, conventionalized her mischieveous spirit, and slowed her nimble actions. But then her husband must share a large portion of the blame for this performance—the part, as written and directed, offers few opportunities for expressiveness. Giulietta is simply a sponge, soaking up visual experience, a passive witness to expert cinematography, whose responses and attitudes are commonplace in the extreme. Nor are the supporting characters much more interesting: each is characterized either by some sensationalist quality (a nymphomaniac-sculptress who adores well-oiled male models in jock straps) or by some cliché (a Brazilian rancher who fights bulls, twirls a cape, strums a guitar, and recites the verses of Garcia Lorca). One finally begins to regard Fellini’s company of wealthy dilettantes, homosexuals, sensualists, intellectuals, and sex-hungry matrons with something approaching déjà vu.
Juliet of the Spirits, as I have suggested, is most successful as an ocular feast, and Fellini still manages interesting cinematic effects. But no feast can be limited exclusively to dessert, and even the sweets have a way of evaporating. Fellini’s use of color, for example, while vivid and daring at first glance, is ultimately too garish to serve his purposes. Since Giulietta’s waking scenes are as extravagant as the dream ballets in Hollywood technicolor musicals, the spectator has no way to distinguish reality from hallucination—during a good part of the film I, for one, wrongly assumed that the flamboyant Suzy, her incredible house, and her mechanical basket were merely figments of Giulietta’s overactive imagination. Fellini’s strategic error is to superimpose fantasy on romance; but there is not sufficient difference between the two styles, and he compounds his error by his choice of background music—a tinny ragtime score, dominated by saxophone and piano, which marks every action that should be real and convincing as a piece of romantic nostalgia. In short, where Fellini could once be trusted implicitly, his choices have now become eccentric, doubtful, and random, and one begins to suspect that he will sacrifice anything—form, character, coherence itself—for the sake of a sensational image or an ingenious effect.
I hope that with his next picture he will leave the orgies and rituals of the haut monde, about which he is playful but confused in his attitudes, and return to the streets, the towns, and the beaches, for his sense of reality obviously needs some nourishment. I am not suggesting a revival of Italian neo-realism, a dead end from which Fellini was one of the first to offer escape, but rather a return to a more solid foundation on which to build his fantasies. He might, as a matter of fact, profit greatly from a study of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, another film about a woman in the grip of hallucination, for this harrowing work, though crammed with shocking psychotic images and frightful interior journeys, is from first to last an utterly truthful account of a human soul in torment. At the present moment, Fellini is using his camera as an expensive toy, and his love of luxury is accounting for a lot of fakery and sham. Unless he can learn to control his excesses, his films, I suspect, will continue to deteriorate until they become mere stimulants for the jaded appetites of precisely that world that he travesties and mocks.
December 23, 1965