Fellini’s masterpiece seems to have fallen from grace to some extent in recent years, at least critically – while still acclaimed as a great work, it no longer seems to be challenging Citizen Kane on those ‘greatest films of all time’ lists. Whether this is to do with current availability (it has been theorised that the success of certain films in last year’s Sight and Sound poll was helped by high profile Criterion Blu-ray editions allowing more people to re-experience them) or just changing tastes is open to question. In any case, this new Blu-ray release allows us to re-assess the film.
81⁄2 certainly remains popular with filmmakers, and it’s easy to see why. This is probably the definitive study of the frustrated artist, a filmmaker struggling with commercial pressures, the weight of expectations, the insanity of the industry, cynical critics and his own lack of inspiration. As such, it’s bound to speak on a very personal level to anyone who has experienced any or all of the above. This is the film that Woody Allen spent a chunk of his career shamelessly ripping off, but you can also see the influence – visually, stylistically, creatively – on directors as diverse as John Waters and Quentin Tarantino.
It’s also the 1960’s Euro cool movie, a film so perfectly stylish that you can take almost any scene and use it as a template for ‘style’. From the opening moments when Marcello Mastroianni (and let’s face it, few Sixties performers were cooler) appears in black suit, black tie and dark glasses, you know this will be as much a film that dazzles visually as it does intellectually.
The story, on a basic level, is very simple. Acclaimed film director Guido Anselmi (Mastroianni) is struggling to make the follow up to his last hit. Plans to shoot a science fiction epic are hampered by his own indecision and creative block, as he feels his creative juices drying up. Things are not helped by the fact that he barely has a moment to think, being bombarded by actors, agents, producers, writers and assorted hangers on as the film crew spend their time partying and jockeying for position amongst the maestro’s hierarchy. Further complicating issues are Guido’s mistress (Sandra Milo) and wife (Anouk Aimée), both of whom are on location, both aware of each other and both making demands he cannot meet. Unable to escape the pressures of modern life, Guido escapes into fantasies of control and memories of his childhood, both happy and sad, as he finally comes to realise that he is moving in the wrong direction and needs to reconnect with his creative muse.
Within that storyline, the film offers up a dizzying collection of sights and sounds – a large cast of supporting characters, all of whom are deliberately thin and one-dimensional (we only see them through Guido’s eye – or lens, perhaps), they selfish demands and self-absorbed hedonism driving the frustrated director quite literally to distraction. Fellini introduces and cuts between these characters with speed – we hear half-finished conversations, often intercut between each other, see characters pop up to demand something of Guido and then just as quickly vanish, while his every move is dogged by demands, pointless questions and sycophantic attentions. It’s no surprise that Guido is so confused. But again – this is clearly his interpretation of events, rather than a reality. And as the film progresses, it becomes clear that his indecisions and infidelities, neither of which he seems able to deal with, are dragging down those around him. Only the threat of his wife leaving seems to snap him back into reality.
Mastroianni, tired, haggard looking and aloof yet still effortlessly cool, is in top form as the frustrated, frustrating director, and the supporting cast which includes Barbara Steele as a proto-goth beatnik and Claudia Cardinale as possibly herself, are perfect. But this is very much Fellini’s film. It turns out that Guido is recreating his life on screen in the screen tests for his movie, and Fellini is very much doing the same with 81⁄2, a film that is somewhat (but not entirely) autobiographical (this is, after all, the follow-up to , so Fellini was certainly under much the same pressure of Guido). What better way to alleviate the frustrations of being unable to follow up such a huge success than to make a film about the frustrations of being unable to follow up a huge success?
The resulting film is like an onion, demanding that the viewer peel away the layers of truth, fiction, fantasy and satire to reach the truth, as the story goes through the levels of cinema – Fellini’s film, Guido’s film and whatever truth lies between and beneath. It’s entirely fascinating, always compulsive and so utterly stylish that you’ll barely notice the 138 minute running time, even though – when it comes to the bottom line – very little happens. This is cinema at its best, a visual, intellectual, stylish and technical masterpiece that remains remarkably fresh. If critics have lost interest in the movie, then more fool them.
This new edition comes with an detailed, but oddly uninvolving documentary made up of audio interviews and stills taken during the film’s production, and an interview with Lina Wertmuller (Fellini’s assistant director on the film) which is rather more worthwhile.