Sunday, January 17, 2010

Metafilm Double Feature: 8 ½ (1963) and Nine (2009)

Secret Movie Confession: The first time I watched was on Wednesday. I know, I know, it probably means I've only just become a "true movie fan", and this whole time you've been reading the rants of an uneducated poseur. Oh well. A few nights before my cinematic transformation, I saw its modern musical counterpart, Nine. Eh. This is going to be a long post, fyi.

Both films focus on lauded Italian auteur Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni)- shifted to Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) in Nine- who acts as a stand-in for Fellini himself. Guido is struggling with his most recent script, which despite being nowhere near finished has launched a bustling production crew into action with casting, costumes, and sets. He seeks refuge and relaxation at a spa but is followed by the movie staff, and therefore constantly hounded by producers, actors, journalists, and crew members. He reaches out to various women in his life, both in reality and in memories, as well as to a visiting cardinal, with the hope that one of them will be able to cure his creative dry spell.

In , the main women include his fussy mistress Carla (Sandra Milo), his affectionate but fed-up wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée), her snarky best friend Rosella (Rosella Falk), his muse and lead actress Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), and in memories, a prostitute (Eddra Gala) he met as a child. In Nine, they are his mistress (Penélope Cruz), his wife (Marion Cotillard), the no-nonsense head costume designer (Judi Dench), his muse and lead actress (Nicole Kidman), a seductive American journalist (Kate Hudson), and in memories, his mother (Sophia Loren) and the prostitute (Fergie).

Both films act as reflections on the women in Guido's life: how he's treated them, how they cope with his numerous flaws, how they unquestioningly love him for some reason, and how he constantly fantasizes about them. Both offer some insight into the creative process, and expand upon the high demands of fame. One of these films says something, the other says absolutely nothing. Can we guess which?

I saw Nine first, so let us begin there. This is not a very good movie. The script diverges from the source material quite significantly, transferring attention almost solely to the women in Guido's life and away from the pressures of his lifestyle and his loss of imagination. It's basically a series of short skits, each devoted to one woman, who each get one song (with the exception of Cotillard, whose role is slightly more expanded). This is an ok premise, but the thing is, the music isn't very good, and the characters are extremely underwritten. Generally with a musical you pass with one or the other, and this has neither. With the exception of "Be Italian" and "Cinema Italiano", the songs are boring and unmelodic, and the only person who can actually sing is Fergie.

The cast is definitely notable, but no one is able to effectively use their skills. As Guido, Day-Lewis becomes a cliche of the hip 60's Italian artist, with his ever-present sunglasses, cigarette, and hunched-over manner. He is a caricature, and an unlikable one at that. Dench is always enjoyable, but is in it too briefly, as indeed none of the actresses are there for very long. It's really Cotillard who manages to stand out, primarily because the role of Luisa is a bit more complex. She makes the best of the poor writing and underwhelming musical numbers, emerging as one of the best parts of the film.

Nine isn't horrendous, it's just not that great. It looks amazing, with Marshall making good use of backlighting and dynamic staging. I like the "musical in Guido's head" thing, even though he's just recycling the trick from Chicago. It makes sense in context, since so much of the story is really just Guido's fantasies and perceptions. While the music isn't very good, the numbers are fun to watch, with sexy costumes and a nice back-and-forth effect between real life and the imaginary. To be honest I thought this movie was generally alright until I watched and saw how much had been stripped away from the original film's central themes.


, on the other hand, is a pretty good movie (though admittedly I'm not adding it to any "best movies ever" lists). The focus here is much less on sexy ladies constantly trying to bang Guido, and more on his internal struggles and fleeting memories. There is more talk of the script and movie itself, and what he wants to say with it. I liked the dreamy feel of the film, and the seamless blending of fantasy and reality. It's a lot simpler in style than Nine, but also more striking.

Mastroianni's characterization of Guido is more interesting and layered, and he becomes a more likable character. Unfortunately, he's still kind of a doofus with really messed up views about women, so it was hard to always be on his side. The main people I could get behind were Rosella (who becomes the Dench role in Nine), who was just entertaining, and Luisa, who was generally awesome. She is a strong character with excellent style who doesn't put up with Guido's bullshit.

With we get a clearer picture of Guido as a person, and how his choices have affected his work and personal life. We see his dreams of a more unified and overflowing existence, his desires to have everything all at once. It's funny at times, but for the most part just sort of quietly despondent as both the audience and Guido realize he can only feel fulfilled in his fantasies. He wants too much and reaches too high, and is therefore constantly setting himself up for disappointment. But it's hard to feel too sorry for him, as it's clear his situation is entirely his own doing, and he has probably reached this point multiple times without learning from his mistakes, and will continue to do so. It's an interesting message and an at-times beautiful film, but ultimately a little too slow and ambiguous. Also, perhaps a little too male-oriented for me to relate.



  1. I admired 8 1/2 more than I really enjoyed it, but I think it's one of those movies that'll age well on repeat viewings. Though I'll only watch Nine if it sneaks in for a best picture or acting nomination. Otherwise I'm fully content with not watching it until DVD time.

  2. I haven't seen 8 1/2 either. It's my secret shame. Marion and Penelope kick ass in Nine. Everyone else is somewhat useless and ridiculous (see: Nicole Kidman's "cameo"). I was hoping for so much w/this movie, and it was so disappointing.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. I love 8 1/2, because it's a pretty self-effacing look at oneself by the director. I don't think we're supposed to side with Guido completely. I love the dream sequence of the house of women, it's pretty damning. As much as I like Cruz and Cotillard, Hollywood needs to cast singers or just dub like they did with Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. Not all singers can act, and not all actors can sing (see the awful Sweeney Todd, for example).

  5. seeing Nine actually made me a bit hesitant to see 8 1/2. It has something to do with my reluctance of the Man exploring his Past through Women trope. From your review it sounds like Fellini pulls it off very well (it's a classic for a reason, am I right?), so I won't let Nine get to me for 8 1/2.