Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Movies: "Nine"-- Brilliant

If Federico Fellini had directed Bob Fosse’s 1979 autobiographical musical extravaganza “All That Jazz”, it might have resulted in something very much like “Nine”, Rob Marshall’s smashing, exhilarating homage to Fellini and Fosse. “Nine” is based on the 1982 Tony-winning Broadway musical, which in turn derives its source from Fellini’s 1963 visionary film, “8-1/2”.

Like the Fellini film, Marshall’s “Nine” is a fantasy, a romantic dream-world, a portrait of an artist in creative crisis, a film about a director not sure what to say in his ninth motion picture, and it is also Guido's ninth picture, as creatively free and brilliant as anything on screen this year. Unlike” 8-1/2”, it uses brilliantly staged musical sequences to explore the creative malaise of its protagonist. Well-designed, impeccably photographed and staged, with pulsating sound and score, and astonishing performances , “Nine” made this reviewer glad to “be Italian”.

At the start of the film, Guido (the world-famous director played by Daniel Day Lewis with wiry charm , always in motion, always cool, always holding himself close to the vest) speaks during a press conference to introduce his ninth film, saying that “to discuss one’s creation is to kill it. You kill your movie…by talking about it”. It exists in the dream-life of its creator, and once it goes into production, the dream dies. For an occasional brief moment, a performer plays a scene and brings the dream perfectly to life, but then it fades again. In a way, that is how I feel about talking about this movie…it unfolds like a dream, it is tightly focused on this character, his creative agony, his attempts to cure his block through the validation that sex with beautiful women gives him.  It enters one’s senses and excites and inspires one in mysterious ways; it's like a musical Rorschach test.  I worry that I will kill the experience by speaking about it.

(But a writer must write…and I will do so gently, so as not to destroy the delicate object of my admiration!)

This could be the most intimate big-movie-musical ever made, and I suspect many viewers will not willingly enter the psyche of this self-absorbed character, nor wholly adjust to the movement from reality to fantasy and back. Yet even for those who do not identify with creative process, or who are uncomfortable with the personal revelations this character makes, there’s still the energy, the humor, the emotion, and the skill and the care that have produced an elevating, entertaining work. Of course, if you bring to it some knowledge of Fellini or his works (or have just seen “8-1/2”, which I recommend) the film might be even more satisfying.

The films of Fellini captured my young attention, and I am sorry to admit that his is no longer a household name. That may hurt this film’s reception with modern audiences. In Fellini’s heyday, the 1960’s and ‘70’s, college students and film-lovers worldwide regarded the work of Fellini with the same artistic appreciation as they did works by Antonioni and Bergman (neither of whom, I am afraid, are pop culture icons today, either). He was a generous artist, voluptuous with his imagery and unbridled in his imagination. After “8-1/2”, he moved away from sophisticated realism and turned to magical imagery, fantasy, dreams.

Marshall not only pays homage to the director, but also acknowledges Fosse, his primary inspiration, quoting from “Jazz” and “Cabaret” and even, in black and white sequences, “Lenny”. He is true to Fellini’s vision and stages his numbers in an effective and convincing representation of the inner world of his Guido/Fellini. If anything, I would have liked Marshall to do more within a shot instead of cutting too rapidly within a sequence; his precision here occasionally works against the imaginative dream-logic of his “director”. This is a minor quibble, however. Marshall is masterful in his handling of movement, either with his camera, or from his performers.

The highest praise I can give Marshall is that despite the amount of incredibly fertile material from which to borrow, and the influences available to be plundered, he makes this vision his own. Marshall’s emerging signature-style of confining his musical numbers to brilliantly lit, marvelously designed sets (a-la “Chicago”) is perfectly suited to the material here; and Day-Lewis is so convincing that Marshall manages to also convince us that what he has staged is coming from within the psyche of his protagonist. I would love to see Marshall attempt a musical version of “Fellini Satyricon!”

But enough analysis… this movie is fun. Day-Lewis can sing, too, and finds the perfect tone of irony to play reality and fantasy easily. Everything is about Guido--the name Guido is perhaps the most-repeated word in “Nine”--but Day Lewis plays up the charm of his character’s egotism. In “Guido’s Song,” his desire to be everywhere and retain his youthful energy spoke to me very personally.  With “I Can’t Make This Movie”,  Day-Lewis convincingly speaks to many who feel defeated by their own vision.

As the women in Guido’s life, each one is terrific, and most of them have excellent material to play. Penelope Cruz takes her spitfire image as Guido’s naïve mistress to new levels, and lets a sweet vulnerability shine through. Judi Dench, as Guido’s costume designer and confidante, has a surprisingly bravura turn belting out her memory of the “Folies Bergeres”. As Claudia, Guido’s long-suffering wife, I thought Marion Cotillard is more heartbreaking and more natural here than she was in “La Vie en Rose”. There, she proved her vocal prowess; here she is beautiful and strong, and when she confronts Guido after a painful screen test that recalls their falling in love, you may have a visceral response. She is a ferocious stage presence as well in her big dance number.

Kate Hudson is fine as the American journalist, but her number is superfluous .  Nicole Kidman has surprisingly little screen time, and her voice is the least strong of the cast, but she is required to look good, which she does, brilliantly.

Sophia Loren brings an incomparable authenticity to her role as Guido’s mother. No matter what she had to do for this film, I was supremely happy to see her on the big screen again, her presence as comforting as an Old Italian relative.

Last, and best…I am least familiar with contemporary performer Fergie, but I will start to pay more attention to her career. She is a blooming natural in her turn as Saraghina, the whore who fed little Guido’s boyhood fantasies. “Be Italian” is a showstopper, the best thing in the film, and Marshall works it like a visual and aural goldmine.

I enjoyed Marshall’s painstaking attention to period detail and his faithfulness to Fellini’s work. I was especially warmed during Kidman’s and Day-Lewis’ romantic scene by a fountain, reminiscent of “La Dolce Vita”, and like “La Dolce Vita”, includes a stray cat wandering the streets of Rome. (This was a small detail, and I was very happy they remembered to include it.)

I cannot understand the criticisms that have been leveled at this tremendously entertaining and satisfying movie. “Nine” requires an intensity of focus from a viewer, which the film rewards with a tightly moving observation of a complex and self-absorbed artist, one who must exercise his fantasies in order to recharge his creative energy.  The songs are not chart-topper material, but they never were, even when the Broadway show was universally praised.  "Nine" presents itself as big and brassy and accessible to the world, but it has complexities buried within it that many do not wish to see revealed. It is self-reflexive, much like Guido…and much like the Fellini of “8-1/2”.

I admired the film’s graceful final image. Rather than a Felliniesque parade, Marshall arranges all of the persons in Guido’s life in a silent tableaux on a scaffold behind Guido, where they will always be. Through his work, Guido has found his way to reconcile with his wife, thus freeing himself to create again; and as the dolly carries Guido, adult and child, up to the heaven of the studio floodlight, we hear the final word, the word Guido yearned to say all along: “Action!”

Bellissima! My favorite film so far this year.


  1. I've yet to see this, but this makes me so happy seeing a nice review of it.

  2. Andrew, thank you for visiting me! Please let me know when you have a chance to see "Nine". I enjoy your writing, by the way!

  3. This sounds like a great film! Your review was both very interesting and quite descriptive, which just goes to show how passionate your feelings are for this particular work. It's no wonder it is your favorite so far. Great job, Tom. I will definitely put it on my list!

  4. I didn't like this movie and I'll tell you why: it's all style but little substance. Rob Marshall irritates me for one reason: he directs all musical numbers as if they're the closing number. In Chicago, at least the story was strong enough to withstand it. Here, the story is such thin soup and poorly written that it collapses underneath the weight of the numbers.

    Then there's the casting. Miscast all around. I'm not a Daniel Day-Lewis fan and his style of acting drives me crazy. The inly one that emerged unscathed for me was Marion Cotillard.

  5. I agree, it's a tricky film.. which owes a lot to its source material. It's worth seeing. Tom, I look forward to your view. Bill, thanks for visiting and commenting...sorry you didn't enjoy it more!

  6. Great post and enjoyed Nine as well. I couldnt help but wonder what Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce must have thought sitting in the theater (as they both played Guido on Broadway and West End respectively). Perhaps the problem with filmgoers is there was not enough of a plot as with Chicago.