"Men have such funny fantasies, you know?"—Suzy (Sandra Milo)
In a maze of mirrors, Juliet (Federico Fellini's real-life spouse Giulietta Masina) tries on dresses and wigs as if she is assembling her very self. She hopes to impress her husband on their anniversary. But her husband Giorgio (Mario Pisu), caring little for privacy, invites their crazy friends, including the flamboyant psychic Genius, who is invited to "read Juliet's vibes."
From that night forward, Juliet sees ghosts everywhere. As she is tempted by romance—and suspects her own husband of an affair—she is haunted. Has the spirit world opened up to her, or is it all merely a reflection of her own sexual anxiety?
Juliet of the Spirits is a turning point for Federico Fellini for more reasons than that it was his first feature in color. Certainly, the color is important: Fellini turns his circus dreams into pure sensation, eye-popping brightness that becomes almost tactile, from Genius' plum jacket to the green expanses of the landscape surrounding Juliet's villa. In this regard, Criterion's restoration of Juliet of the Spirits is most welcome, displaying the vibrant hues in remarkable detail. Legend has it that Fellini dropped acid before making this film, but anyone who has seen his masterpiece 8 1/2 can attest that Fellini really did not need any additional boost to hallucinate striking images.
Oddly, Fellini remarks that he was "disappointed" with his LSD experience in a 1966 interview with the BBC called "Familiar Spirits." Included by Criterion as the only real supplement (along with a scratchy trailer made up teasingly of still frames), the 20-minute segment features Fellini discussing the artistic freedom he felt after La Dolce Vita to realize his filmic visions (and order women around!), leading to his breakthrough in 8 1/2. While the camera seems to focus a lot on his manic hand gestures, Fellini chats about his use of improvisation and his questions about the nature of reality. But the real secrets to Fellini's films are never discussed, perhaps because the films speak for themselves. Fellini's obsession with artificiality, ghosts, shifting sexual identity—and particularly the battle between lust and spirituality (and its almost Freudian connection to childhood in his films)—these themes play out in the visual carnival of Fellini's personal dreamscape, even when the protagonist resembles a woman.
Consider Juliet's recurring vision of her grandfather's seduction at the hands of a circus ingénue (played by Sandra Milo, who pops up repeatedly in the film as the embodiment of female sexuality under various names). The carnival atmosphere begins to resemble what can only be described as Fellini's revenge on Von Sternberg's The Blue Angel, with Juliet's almost rabbinical grandfather, symbol of male sexual repression, struggling with the pure feminine. But all this libido runs counter to Juliet's other dreams: of herself as Joan of Arc, suffering spiritual torment for her desires.
Love and religion. If all this sounds familiar to Fellini watchers, it should be. If Juliet of the Spirits has one key failing, in the wake of the brilliant 8 1/2, in which the director becomes his own subject and explores the psychological underpinnings of his art, it is that Juliet merely repackages 8 1/2 from a woman's perspective. Or, let me rephrase that: it repackages 8 1/2 from what Fellini thinks is a woman's perspective. The key here is casting. Placing his own wife Giulietta Masina in the lead (and sometime mistress Sandra Milo as the seductress), Fellini stages his own psychological struggles in a roman à clef in drag. We learn no real insight into female psychology, because Fellini is not really exploring any view of the world but his own. Perhaps the real Giulietta is aware of this: her cryptic smile throughout the film is like the Mona Lisa. It only reminds us that we know more about the artist than his subject. Compare this to Fellini's fellow post-neorealist Antonioni (in a film like L'Avventura), where female characters are sharply defined. But in Fellini's world, characters, especially women, become types, manifestations of the artist's dream landscape. Fellini gives us the oversexed aging artist, the debauched rich girl, the gullible fashion maven, and plenty of nuns and wide-eyed children. Whether ghosts or mortals, they all seem projections of Juliet's struggle between lust and spirituality, formed in childhood and aggravated by jealousy over her husband's deceit. We are always inside Fellini's head in Juliet of the Spirits, even when the film pretends to be inside Juliet's.
But that is always what you get with a Fellini film. If you are willing to play that game, then Juliet plays it fairly well, though not as sublime as its predecessor 8 1/2 or as exorbitantly as its descendent Satyricon. But it has its share of brilliant set pieces. In one memorable sequence, Juliet visits the villa of her friend Suzy (Sandra Milo, again). Suzy, clad like a pop-art Mephisto in a nylon batwing collar (the bizarre nylon fashions in the film are so instrumental that Fellini notes them in the opening credits), tempts Juliet with images of exotic vampirism and sexual release. Her house, complete with a post-coital waterslide from bed to swimming pool, is intended to "simulate the air of a brothel," if perhaps that brothel were designed by Oscar Wilde and Burt Bacharach. The imagery is stunning, but once it is over, we might feel that Juliet was right to flee from there after all: getting so deeply inside Fellini's sexual fantasies of libidinous women gets to be too much. Especially if we have seen it before.
From Juliet of the Spirits onward, Fellini's films would become increasingly self-indulgent. Juliet succeeds when it operates in full-bore hysterical mode, throwing everything but the kitchen sink on screen in an effort to impress us with its remarkable visual composition. In that area, Fellini has few equals: nobody can capture dreaming like he can. But when the film tries to develop Juliet as a human being, a psychological construct, we are always painfully reminded by that Mona-Lisa smile that we are really watching Fellini's own obsessions and we are learning nothing new about them. Criterion has done a commendable job presenting this visual masterpiece, but the lack of a commentary track and the inclusion of little in the way of supplemental material suggests that even they do not quite know where to put Juliet in the Fellini canon.
Federico Fellini is ordered to undergo therapy. Criterion is released for its fine restoration, but is admonished by this court for the lack of extras.
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Scales of Justice
• Interview with Fellini
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