Every now and then, a titan of world cinema comes up with a work so over-the-top, so overflowing with stylistic excess as to verge on self-parody. The mind reels with such vivid examples as David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Luna, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. These films, while integral in shaping their directors’ oeuvre in terms of thematic concerns, recurring motifs, and signature gestures, seem to have swollen up with a disturbing exaggeration and distortion of hitherto familiar elements. Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965) is one such opus.
One might easily suspect that it is this very film indeed that put the Fellini in “Felliniesque” (a term that forevermore made the name synonymous with unrestrained, delirious fantasy). Juliet of the Spirits is the cinematic equivalent of spin-art (picture a birthday cake thrown on a potter’s wheel), and one is hard pressed to imagine a more vertiginous, intoxicating work.
- Theatrical trailer(s)
- Familiar Spirits, a 19-minute interview with Fellini by Ian Dallas
After the opening credits have rolled to the strains of Nino Rota’s insanely melodious score, the viewer is confronted with a disorienting visual and auditory assault. Juliet of the Spirits is Fellini’s first feature-length venture outside of black and white, and the lollipop Technicolor is so lurid and over-saturated that it makes your teeth hurt. The expository setting, which presents the title character and her domestic help in mad preparation for a surprise anniversary party, is obscured and deflected by an immediate onslaught of outlandish costumes, fun-house décor, and frantic camera movement. We never even see Juliet’s face until the camera has swirled around a fractured, refracting rainbow of garish gowns, headgear, and wigs. One is almost tempted to suggest that the film is more about hats than anything else (which might make it the perfect double-header on a bill with Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice).
Once the glitter has settled, the story begins to emerge. Juliet (endearingly played with wide-eyed amazement by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina), is a frustrated, frazzled house-frau. Her husband Giorgio (Mario Pisu) has forgotten their anniversary, and he returns the surprise by landing on the scene with an eccentric entourage of uninvited guests. The nuptial festivities warp into an impromptu séance, and it soon becomes apparent that Juliet, who “sees magic everywhere,” is blessed with highly developed psychic powers. Giorgio, on the other hand, is gifted with his own brand of ESP: Extra Sensual Deception. It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to figure out that Giorgio’s vague yet frequent professional travels afford him the perfect subterfuge for conducting his dirty business with other women. As her suspicions coalesce, Juliet is plagued by an eruption of intrusive visions, hallucinations, and voices that luridly mirror, echo, and coincide with her increasing emotional distress.
Juliet’s mental affliction, coupled with the desire to reel in her spouse, leads her on a journey of self-discovery that is visited along the way by a circus parade of half-baked mediums, besotted spiritualists, and occluded occultists. When she secures a rare audience with the hermaphrodite “Bishma” (embodied with lascivious decrepitude by Valeska Gert - the notorious lesbian and silent movie star of 1920’s Berlin), the ancient oracle’s only advice is to don fishnet stockings and “ply her trade.” Juliet’s flesh-pot next-door neighbor Suzy (Sandra Milo), whose Welcome Wagon is firmly hitched to her ample caboose, takes her under her wing in the role of sexual guide and mentor. Juliet’s chilly mother (the ageless Caterina Boratto), whose severe, unforgiving glamour reminds one of Zsa Zsa Gabor on dry ice, admonishes Juliet to wear more lipstick. The crystal ball consensus is unanimous: release your inner whore and make your husband your god. Red-light enlightenment is the only path to Nirvana. Juliet finds peace of mind, however, on her own terms. When she finally confronts the authority of her goulish mother and freak show of inner demons, her visions fade away.
It’s ironic perhaps that a film devoted to the world beyond appearance is so explicitly visual. Yet what’s displayed here has no resemblance to actuality. Any visitation of realism is exorcised by Fellini’s audacious, unrepentant embrace of the obviously artificial, phony, and fake. Indeed, the opening credits give higher billing to the synthetic fabric used to fashion Piero Gherardi’s phantasmagoric costumes and sets than to the film’s virtuoso cinematographer, Gianni Di Venanzo. The dark recesses of Juliet’s psyche are nakedly exposed by the spotlight’s glare: her Ziegfeld folly of interior visions, phantoms, and phobias steal the stage in a shameless performance of psychological exhibitionism.
It must be stressed, however, that this blatant revelation of one woman’s inner life is by no means betrayed or obscured by the excessive, cacophony of visuals. Similar to those faces which emerge with solar clarity from the tangled graphic ornamentation of a painting by Gustav Klimpt, the overabundance of visual elements in Juliet of the Spirits creates a paradoxical intensity of focus. Gratuitous excess becomes a distillation of pure essence. The camera work creates an oblique parallel to Juliet’s restless spirits. The cinematography is afflicted with an attention deficit disorder of its own – the camera’s ever shifting “pan-and-scan” mobility follows everything within its scope, capturing with rapid eye movement every bit of motion within its erratic frame of vision, whether central or peripheral to the action. Nothing is overlooked, and everything becomes apparent.
The only instance of an uncomfortable tension between subject and expression is perhaps the final, edifying shot. The hitherto claustrophobic, overstuffed screen space opens up to an extreme long shot of Juliet in the woods. The background of towering trees dwarfs her figure, but she is not diminished by the composition. While visually miniscule, she has essentially transcended her physicality and spiritual limitations by dissolving into the landscape. Her feet are firmly rooted in the ground as she marches with brave hesitancy toward the future that looms before her. Unburdened by cluttered imagery, the finale is by necessity both humble and grandiose.
Juliet’s newfound lightness of being is a touch hard to bear. Freedom from neurosis creates its own void; and the one-with-nature, Arbor Day apotheosis seems strangely labored and off-key. The final recourse to a realistic evocation of nature (particularly to the degree that it’s used symbolically) seems out of place in a film whose preceding imagery has been based entirely on blatant artificiality. For once the trees look real, and one secretly yearns for the Rapid-Gro thicket of nylon props from earlier scenes. In its own way, verisimilitude is just as much a phony construct as a bouquet of plastic flowers, and perhaps a more authentically fake curtain call would have dovetailed more effectively with Juliet’s flights of fancy. Fellini has seduced us with his outward splendor, only to kill the mood by wrapping the money-shot in a cloak of false modesty.
Picture and Sound
As always, this Criterion release presents the DVD — Fellini’s first color feature — with sparkling, kaleidoscopic brilliance. There’s nothing worse than seeing a faded print of this film that looks as if it’s been washed and hung out to dry, and the unwavering chromatic fidelity of this transfer is a rewarding virtue, to be sure. The only discernable blemish is a stray hair here and there which sprouts up occasionally at the edge of the frame, plucked no doubt from one of Juliet’s Crayola Crayon assortment of wigs. Likewise, the pre-stereo soundtrack gives full justice to Nino Rota’s lilting score, which is so central to the movie that it truly forms the mono nucleus of Fellini’s creation.
In addition to the standard trailer, a 1966 broadcast interview titled “Familiar Spirits,” has been summoned from the vaults of BBC in which Fellini chats with Ian Dallas, who played the role of Maurice the magician in that director’s 8½. Fellini discusses his unconventional methods of filmmaking with gesticulating abandon, and it is a delight to hear him pontificate in his faltering, falsetto English. He even discusses his experience with LSD (administered by a doctor, of course), and it is no surprise that he was disappointed by it. Indeed, Fellini has always held the key to the “doors of consciousness,” and his career can be viewed in retrospect as a 30-year acid flashback.