Sunday, September 12, 2010
#149: Juliet of the Spirits
Juliet of the Spirits might be the Felliniest movie Fellini ever made. The film is also as reflective in a purely surreal way of Fellini's home life as 8 1/2 was in an almost literal way of his professional life, casting Giulietta as a lonely wife stuck in an elaborate kaleidoscope with a cheating husband and a life she never planned on having. The director surrounds his wife and frequent star with virtually every trick he has up his sleeve, including exaggerated caricatures in extreme close-ups and complexly staged establishing shots, startling fantasies about vague and completely obvious Catholic guilt, and over-the-top-to-the-point-of-being-dull bourgeois friends and neighbors, stumbling through modern life and struggling to keep up with their perceptions of themselves.
The movie is so jam-packed with visual flair from both the elaborate sets punched with vivid colors (this was Fellini's first film in color) and the non-stop dance of flamboyantly dressed characters that it's easy to forget that the plot is extremely simple: a woman suspects her husband is cheating on her, hires a private investigator, discovers the truth, and struggles with her new perception of life. Of course, the movie isn't really about any of that as much as it is an interaction between Fellini and his wife. Most likely because she isn't in his most famous films, La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, Masina does not receive nearly enough credit for Fellini's success as a director. The star (and almost certainly the core) of two of his best films, La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, Masina is truly one of the great movie stars of all time, and even here, where you get a vague sense that she doesn't actually want to be in the movie, her performance anchors a film that might otherwise slide off into the mystic. Not just because Giulietta is playing Giulietta, the movie feels like a conversation (or perhaps an argument) between husband and wife. Fellini is trying to convince Masina to, you know, get with the free-wheeling times, man. Clearly, Giulietta and Giulietta are both having none of it, and while the final scene of the actress walking into the woods was apparently interpreted differently by director and star with the former believing it meant she was free and the latter believing she was alone, I have to agree with Masina here. Fellini entirely fails to win the argument here, though one suspects, mostly because he clearly loves his wife, despite his indiscretions, that his heart wasn't in it from the beginning anyway.
That's kind of where Juliet of the Spirits falls apart. The crazy goings-on are not really that crazy: much like the serious-as-death orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut, the scene here of Masina passing by lovers embracing each other seems less sexy than rote. In fact, I was reminded of Kubrick's late (and severely underrated) masterpiece often during Juliet of the Spirits. Like Juliet, Cruise's doctor is drawn into a surreal night of temptation and self-reflection by a severe case of jealousy. And like Fellini, Kubrick uses an unappealing balance of malice and affection to tie his two characters together. Of course, Kubrick's characters have an enormous amount of hang-ups they are unaware of, while Juliet is very aware of her increasing number of them, especially her religious upbringing, coupled with a sense of love as doomed endeavor represented by her drowned classmate, who late in the film beckons Juliet to join her. But these hang-ups actually seem to prevent the film from being as dark as Kubrick's, making Juliet of the Spirits maybe Fellini's most lighthearted film since The White Sheik.
Piled on top of that emotional baggage are the film's extreme (and often seemingly superfluous) uses of color. The movie's palette is so ridiculous that at one point Juliet wanders through a house draped with patched curtains that feature every color in the rainbow and stretch multiple floors. They seem to be there simply to remind viewers that this is, in fact, Fellini's first movie in color. But they aren't even the most impressive uses of the format here, as scenes in nature pop with greens and blues in beautiful fashion; this is truly a spectacular visual feast, even if Fellini's meager attempts to find his way out of a bind might leave you empty and alone at the end of the night.