DVD Review Of Juliet Of The Spirits
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/15/07
Federico Felliniís first color film, 1965ís Juliet Of The Spirits (Giulietta Degli Spiriti), which was written by Fellini and longtime collaborators Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano, and Brunello Rondi, is, simply put, the female and color companion piece to 8Ĺ. Unlike that prior film, often considered Felliniís best, Juliet Of The Spirits was a critical and financial failure when it came out. The criticism of the film was too harsh for, while it is not as great nor good a film as some earlier Fellini classics, it is still Fellini, which makes it better than the overwhelming majority of films by others, for even when Fellini fails he succeeds at more things than most. However, like many of the first color films made by directors who started in black and white, Fellini seems to overdose on the new medium, with color schemes that seem off the charts, and which tend to bleed over into one another. However, given the oneiric quality of the film, this is not necessarily a bad thing, especially since this was at the start of 1960s psychadelia, and Fellini was supposedly affected by an LSD hit at the time.
Basically, Juliet Boldrini (Giulietta Masina- Felliniís real life wife) is a bored housewife who rightly suspects her wealthy public relations husband Giorgio (Mario Pisu) of infidelity, after their anniversary, when he mumbles another womanís name- Gabriella, a 24 year old model heís squiring around. Whereas the film, before this scene, was realist in the way that much of La Dolce Vita was, the seeds of doubt that are planted play havoc with Julietís mind, and much of the rest of the film takes place entirely in Julietís head. Even seemingly realistic scenes, such as when Juliet hires a detective agency to follow Giorgio and Gabriella, are tinged with psychodrama and images of repression, which make the viewer question if they are Ďrealí in the filmís cosmos, or merely the fantasies of Juliet trying to nail her cheating husband. Aside from her faithless husband, Juliet has other peopleís idiocies to contend with- such as a neighbor, Suzy (Sandra Milo), who is an old nymphomaniac who may or may not hold orgies- this is never certain, for this may be a product of Julietís imagination, in her palatial home. There is also her attraction to and influence by the occult- which stands in direct contravention to her characterís beliefs in Nights Of Cabiria, where Cabiria mocks the believers in religion. Juliet also has a cold mother, a boorish sister, and repressed memories of a Roman Catholic childhood that have scarred her in some way- possibly involving sexual abuse from an older male relative, although this is also unclear since the symbolism of the scene that explicates this is not definitive, and is open to more than one interpretation. However, the implications of abuse seem clear, and the way Juliet reacts to sex throughout the film do seem, to a modern eye four decades down the pike, like a textbook case of post-traumatic stress disorder in reaction to sexual abuse.
The film is so non-linear that to adhere to an A to B to C synopsis is pointless. Soon, Julietís mind is being run riot by demonic beings, and characters in hoods, who seem to have been let off a lot where a Roger Corman cheapie film was being shot. The whole film seems to become a nonstop parade of grotesques: sťances, ghosts with exotic names like Iris, gargoyle-like preening twits, semi-naked harlots, people wearing weird eye makeup, polyester atrocities, feather boas, and fake butterflies as body decorations, with rooms having dťcor that make the coming 1970s fashions seem passable, psychic fakers named Bishma, fat women awaiting oiled boy toys to stuff them, and demonic Catholic school teachers and principals who crucify the images of young girls, with many of these horrors being shot from the least flattering perspectives possible. Yet, unlike Ingmar Bergmanís Hour Of The Wolf, these grotesques are likely mere images of a scrambled mind, not pernicious beings ready to assail from without. And unlike Roman Polanskiís Repulsion, made in the same year, there is never the sense that Juliet is really being assailed from within either. It is almost as if her character is merely being tortured by Fellini, in the role of supernatural cruel puppetmaster. There is little intellectual sense to much of it. Yet, it does have power, in a nightmarish way. Usually, that sort of reference from a critic is a copout for a bad film or scene. My statement is not, for the worst parts of the film are its amorphous and anomically constructed scenes. But, those two qualities are not antithetical to emotional power, however scattershot.
By filmís end, itís no wonder Juliet seems ready to suicide, but something within her refuses to give in. Knowing what the 1950s did to fuck up American sexuality, is it any wonder that Julietís recourse to her crumbling world is to first think suicide? That she resists, however, is a good thing, not in the modern Politically Correct sense that she is now Ďempoweredí, but that she has learned to simply not care so much- about life, sex, nor her past. The film ends with Juliet leaving her suburban dream home, numbed as Cabiria was at the end of Nights Of Cabiria, and wandering off toward the trees, where Suzy has her treehouse for nude sunbathing, finally free of her guilt and anger, yet still as lonely as she was before she realized her loneliness.
Yet, there is something missing from this film, which, given its running time of 137 minutes, is an achievement in itself. What is missing thing is coherence and believability. The coherence factors in as far too much of the film is just an ejaculation of random images, splashed with color, that have no cord that binds them all together. Fellini puts too much into the laps of his audience, rather than guiding the viewer and allowing some imbuement by them. Total imbuement is not art, for an infinite amount of interpretations is a manifestation of laziness on the artistís part, while quite a few interpretations can be seen as greatness and trusting an audience to take the seeds sown and grow as much as they will from them. It is a delicate balance, but here Fellini errs on the side of too little artistic control. That is not to say there is not brilliance, such as the treehouse sequence with Juliet and Suzy, or some of the flashback sequences which hearken back to Felliniís circus obsession, or the scenes where Juliet is viewing her husbandís filmed trysts from the detectives she hired, and controlling her emotions. Then there is the scene where she goes to Gabriellaís home, waits for her husbandís lover, speaks with her on the telephone and is dismissed as being no threat to the mistress in a tone that is both mature and despicable, then waits for her return in the flesh, only to be shown the door, hours later, by Gabriellaís domestic. It is perfectly realized, and an emotional gut punch that is all conveyed purely through Masinaís brilliant acting by eyes alone. But, the connecting threads of the film are too seemingly ad hoc, random, and weak to sustain the whole film, which could have easily lost forty minutes and been greatly improved.
Believability plays a part in the overindulgence of sex references and scenes, such as when a younger, fey would be lover of Julietís, at her neighborís home, makes his move, and all the neighborsí orgiasts are intently listening at the door. This sort of scene is not only not believable for the character, as well as clearly a fantasy sequence, but it is simply not the way any woman really reacts to an infidelity, and rings emotionally false. I wonder how much more improved the storyline would have been had Fellini allowed Masina a co-writing credit, and not simply relied on his three male co-writers to sketch the mind of a woman betrayed? Too much of the film plays as a puerile, if occasionally brilliant, male fantasy of what a woman fantasizes about in many situations, but, as a female-based fantasy itís downright silly at times, not to mention borderline offensive (for those who give in to such things). What woman, for example, would ever want something like Suzyís bedroom water chute, which leads from her bed to a heated swimming pool? The phallic and vaginal implications of this are manifest, and seem like something awaiting a proper usage in Woody Allenís 1973 Sleeper, but it is something even the most horny and nymphomaniacal females would likely laugh at. Any normal cuckolded woman would be having nightmares of her husbandís sexual romps with his mistress, not imagining her own revenge trysts. Also, Fellini does not even present Juliet as a woman who could ever conceive of some of the fantasies she does in this film, for she seems to be a dour, cerebral woman who indulges her moronic and cold relatives, inane domestics, and loves playing in her garden as a substitute for sex and intimacy. Giorgioís infidelity is not only explicable, via the filmís presentation of their life, but possibly necessary for his sanity, for Juliet seems to be an Eisenhower era American hausfrau transplanted to Italy. That critics have wondered whether this film was a mea culpa for Felliniís own muddled sex life- filled with infidelities with men and women, is, for once, the rare time when a work of art seems to have been serving a biographical purpose primarily, and not an artistic one, and can rightly be criticized for that fact.
The DVD, from The Criterion Collection, is a solid transfer, but, again, it lacks an English language dubbed soundtrack, and while the film is shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the colors seem to bleed a bit, as they do in the early Technicolor films of the 1940s. This should probably be expected since Fellini was new to the medium. There are only two extras- a trailer composed of movie stills which seems incomprehensible, as well as a twenty minute interview, Familiar Spirits: An Interview With Federico Fellini, from 1966, by the BBC. The interviewer is Ian Dallas, who played an English magician in 8Ĺ. The interview is not the best Iíve seen with Fellini, who struggles in English, but it does give a bit of insight into Juliet Of The Spirits. What really is a shame is that there is no audio commentary track for the film.
As for the technical aspects of the film? Cinematographer Gianni di Venanzo seems to have been overwhelmed by the newness and use of color and spends too much of the film aping some of the distorted point of view shots that Ingmar Bergmanís cinematographer Sven Nykvist perfected, only not as well as Nykvist. Even Nino Rota, Felliniís masterful musical composer, seems to be lost through most of this film where the filmís visual images are often at emotional odds with Rotaís score, which ranges from gorgeous classical music to atrocious jazz scats. Fortunately, despite her characterís dourness, Masina again shines in this role, as she did in her earlier Fellini classics, La Strada (as Gelsomina) and Nights Of Cabiria (as Cabiria). Playing someone discomfited through the film is not an easy thing, yet never does the viewer think she is acting. While the screenplay may be overdone, Julietís reactions to what is going about her are perfectly consistent with how a normal person would react to such bizarreness. This is quite a bit more than one can say with Woody Allenís dull re-imagining of this film, a quarter century later, with Mia Farrow as the titular Alice.
While Juliet Of The Spirits is not a masterpiece like Nights Of Cabiria nor La Dolce Vita, it is not a failure, and holds up much better than the similarly themed Robert Altman film from 1977, Three Women, where we get the mental breakdown of a single woman who fantasizes herself into the lives of two other women. Juliet never goes that far, yet the film is never as resonant as Ingmar Bergmanís more brilliant film from the same year, Persona, in showing the inside out destruction of a mind, for Juliet never gives in, even as she is being targeted, it seems, for destruction from the outside in; and while that might make her a more admirable character than the pair of women from Persona, it does not make for as compelling a film. Juliet Of The Spirits is therefore a good and interesting film, one that will likely reveal a few hidden depths upon rewatch, despite its flaws, but it is not one for the pantheon. However, as a failure, and from a master, it is still leagues above many of the jewels in the crowns of lesser filmmakers. This is something about Juliet Of The Spirits that is perfectly appropriate.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Unlikely 2.0 website.]
Return to Bylines