"Movies have now gone past the phase of prose narrative and
are coming nearer and nearer to poetry. I am trying to free my work
from certain constrictions--a story with a beginning, a development,
an ending. It should be more like a poem, with metre and cadence."
Thus Federico Fellini, in a recent New Yorker article by Lillian Ross, speaking about his latest film, Juliet of the Spirits. What he describes is not a new impulse in filmmaking; it has been felt by (among others) such varied directors as Vigo, Ozu, and Godard. 8 1/2 made clear that--however successfully--this theory was beginning to affect Fellini. Now, with Juliet, which is much less satisfying, the question arises as to whether the theory is plan or rationalization: whether Fellini is making films as he really chooses, out of a possibility of choices, or whether, like so many artists, like his own last previous hero, he is hard up for material but wants to keep working.
The story is, as he says, the least of it. The wife of a prosperous businessman, living in Fregene, a seaside town near Rome, suspects that her husband is having an affair. She employs a detective agency, and the suspicion is confirmed. She goes to the rival's house to confront her, but the dramatic moment is spoiled: the rival is not at home and speaks to her only on the telephone, nonchalantly. Her husband, unembarrassed by her discovery, tells her that she is exaggerating his friendship with the other woman, then leaves on what he says is a business trip and what she knows is something else. At the end she faces, not desolately but candidly, her life, her position, her enlarged yet more securely confined self.
Thus it is not by plot but by texture that this picture asks to succeed. Near the beginning, some friends bring a medium to Juliet's house, who summons a woman's spirit to speak to her. (It is a wedding-anniversary party.) This symbolizes the opening of Juliet's senses to a more complex world than the one of husband, children, and canalized friendships to which she had been limited. In the course of the film she becomes closer and more confidential with a friend (Valentina Cortese) who is a social and sexual floater; she consults another medium whose atmosphere and message are purely sexual; she allows herself to visit a beautiful and beautifully kept demimondaine (Sandia Milo) who lives on the estate next door. These experiences are meant to make her explore her past in analysis and fantasy, are meant to explain her present, her impotence and powers, the geography of her femininity.
The parallels with 8 1/2 are obviously intended to be obvious. This film is its female counterpart--Hers to hang next to His. The age of the two protagonists is about the same--the moment of realization that all is not to be realized. There are mediums here as against the mind reader in 8 1/2 the female boudoir fantasy as against the male harem fantasy, the counterparts of childhood memory. (Here a school play and a libertine grandfather instead of a comforting mother and a fat whore.) But the effect of these elements is not nearly as striking as in 8 1/2, and because they develop small pathos or mystery, we become conscious of them as attempts at virtuosity.
8 1/2 was, in my view, a work of little profundity, but it had vivid, interesting characters--particularly the three leading ones; it had a crux of considerable moment; and its cinematic effervescences bubbled, relevantly and amusingly irrelevantly, out of the protagonist's pertinent prepossessions and concerns. But Juliet is pallid as written and, to make it worse, the person of Giulietta Masina (who is Mrs. Fellini) contributes much less to this character and portrayal than Marcello Mastroianni supplied in the other film. Her fantasies and fantastic adventures seem unrelated to her--they seem neither to spring from her nor to affect her or us as they are meant to; she just plods modestly through. There is this rather dull, reticent, little woman, and then there are these varyingly interesting, unconventional cinematic shenanigans. The picture is schizoid, and because of its schism, even its ebulliences have less glitter than they might have had.
Let us not ask Fellini for the formal drama he says he never intended. Still a poem of character should proceed from a character capable of poetry, in a situation likely to evoke it. Juliet is so near vapidity that her possibilities for anger, frustration, illumination are limited. A wife--particularly an Italian bourgeois wife--may not have problems as susceptible of graphic illustration as a film director's, but these are very small thorns indeed on which a very bony little bird is asked to impale its bosom. The resultant lyric is not greatly affecting. One feels that more could have been made of these same materials. She is the Plain One in a family of beauties, including her mother; thus is a kind of refugee in the citadel of wifedom. But we never feel any genuine anguish when the citadel is shaken (she knows it will not be destroyed); we do not move with her through any felt progress to a new view of marriage or herself or even of her very plainness as protection. There is only a quite discrete, extrinsic sense that, with a much slighter base, Fellini is trying to erect the same coruscating structure as before.
But no film made by Fellini can be visually commonplace, particularly when the hyperbolic clothes are by his long-time collaborator Piero Gherardi and when the cinematographer is Gianni di Venanzo, one of the best alive. The dream and recollection scenes are deftly composed and edited. The tiny obscenities (like the two small girls doing the twist) are slipped in as jokes that are jokes on themselves. The theatrical bizarrerie, the subliminal references, the volatile rhythms produce the unique, unmistakable Fellini style. There are the dependable Fellini hallmarks: a walk through the woods by a party of widely spaced persons (as in Variety Lights and La Dolce Vita) and fun with clerical costumes (the nuns in The Temptation of Dr. Antonio, the nuns here). Yet even visually this film disappoints. It is Fellini's first full-length color film, and the color, if we consider the director, is unremarkable. When I visited him on a Juliet location last year in Rome, he said he was "very uncomfortable" about the color. "In a black and white film, the audience collaborates. They see a tree, they supply the green, they see the sky, they supply the blue. In Technicolor, there is the green, blue, and so on. It destroys the collaboration between the audience and the film. How to replace it? How to provide another kind of mystery, of suggestiveness, to replace it?" His apprehensions seem to me well-founded, his solutions unsatisfactory. Indeed there seem to be no solutions; the use of color is, for the most part, self-conscious, nervous, unused. Generally, it seems added, not integral, and much of it is either blatant or old-fashioned. Blatancy: into the neutral tones of the opening scene, a bright red hat is splashed. Old fashion: the spangled drapes in the mistress' house are from a thirties musical. The obligation to have ideas about color seems to have forced Fellini even closer to the surface of his materials, visual and textural, than otherwise might have been the case. In black and white he might have been able to concentrate, to play, more effectively.
For that last element is his chief strength. As I have noted before, the years have decreased the depth of his work, have increased the exuberant dazzle of his cinematic style (except, so far, in use of color). Surely his best course is to make a virtue of this condition, really to exploit it. What distinguishes him from other directors of his eminence is humor. Bergman has proved his lack of it in his comedies. Antonioni rarely even attempts it. Kurosawa has humorous touches but they are almost always grim, not high-spirited. Fellini alone looks on the world's woes, human travail, with a mischievous eye. Comedy is by no means automatically synonymous with shallowness, but if all Fellini is now capable of is delightful frippery, then let him delight us. Perhaps, in discontent with the limitations and irrelevance of formal drama, it is this that he is moving towards, rather than what he calls poetry. 8 1/2 was a cascade of bitter, funny, scintillating if not deeply probing jokes on himself: for the silliness of his situation, of his century, of the plight of art, for the silliness of ever having been born. But Juliet is not nearly impudent, incisive, mischievous enough. It is almost as if he were inhibited, as if he did not feel the freedom to make the same cynical fun about a woman, about a wife, about a woman's life, as he did about himself.
Stanley Kauffmann is a film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann