Julia / Juliet / Giulietta looks like a younger Rita Fairclough as was, with shortish hair, a ready smile but sad eyes. She suspects that her husband is having an affair so she employs some private detectives to follow him. Meanwhile her neighbour, a proud self-declared “slut” is keen to introduce Juliet to a less conventional lifestyle, starting with a séance.
There follows some traditional plot, some dream sequence and some batshit crazy fantasy which doesn’t really progress in a linear direction. There is, to quote Jean-Luc Godard, a Beginning, a Middle and an End, though not necessarily in that order. The film jumps along from scene to scene for 2½ hours, before it decides that it’s had enough and it’s time to stop.
This is the fourth Federico film that I’ve seen in the 100th anniversary of his birth, and it comes from a different era to the others. Although the original release date (1965) is only two years after that of Fellini’s previous release, 8½, both the content and the presentation seem to belong to a quite different genre. This is only partly because this is Fellini’s first film shot in colour.
All the Fellini films I’d seen so far (8½, La Dolce Vita and I Vitelloni) are imbued with the burden of post-war Italy, trying to find its place in the world. Juliet of the Spirits prefigures the technicolor sixties, with a cast taken more out of the hippy scene, and far more emphasis on spectacle than story. There are even a couple of limited significant parts for women, although these are largely shown through a male gaze.
There is a possible reading of the film which sees it as being about women’s liberation – in the final scene, Juliet escapes her environment and rushes off to who knows where? Does this mean that she is finally liberating herself? Well, if you leave scenes this ambiguous, people who are desperate to make sort of interpretation will seize on them.
But let’s look at the rest of the film. Early on, Juliet meets a guru called Bishma, who tells her “Love is your religion. Your husband is your god” (it may be worth noting here, that Juliet is played by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina). As the investigators come back with film evidence of her husband’s infidelity, Juliet is offered the chance of getting off with a handsome young man of her own. At the last minute, she dashes back to her husband and the security of family.
It is possibly also worth saying, that this is not a film about People like Uz. In the opening scene, Juliet’s various handmaids are helping her try on a variety of wigs. She may be in an uneven relationship with her husband, but there are plenty of people over whom she wields power. This makes it more difficult to empathize.
Notwithstanding any criticism, the cinematography is majestic. Most individual shots are full of detail and could be shown as an art gallery as a single picture. In fact, there is a case to me made for showing the film as an art installation which you can wander in and out of at will, and appreciate the beauty of each scene without having to bother about where this all is leading.
Yet there are aspects of the film that are unconvincing. First there is a lack of coherence in the story. Now there are those who believe that the look of a film is much more important than what it has to say. Now, I’m not one of those people, but if you’re just looking for something that’s beautiful to look at, then there’s more than enough for you here.
Maybe connected is the over-reliance (as far as I’m concerned) on mystics, tarot cards and séances. These seem to me to be more the province of the idle rich than of people who have to deal with real problems. It means that I can watch what is going on at a distance, but not really feel personally involved.
Nonetheless there is enough there to keep you watching to the end (even though I must repeat that no film needs be this long). It may not have much to say, but it doesn’t say it with a style and sophistication lacking in most other films. Go and see it, but keep your critical faculties open.