In Pursuit of the Cinematic

Nine could have been a great deal more, but it’s still highly enjoyable in parts and intriguing throughout

Fergie is fierce yet playful, holding her own alongside so many established film stars. {{name}}
01 February, 2010

A FILM BASED ON THE BROADWAY musical of the same name, in turn adapted from an autobiographical film by an iconic director (Federico Fellini’s), Nine comes to the screen with complicated credentials. The story, however, is simple: a famous Italian film director facing writer’s block retreats to a seaside town to try and work in peace, but is haunted by the influence of the various women in his life. He misses his mother; his marriage has lost its sparkle, and his mistress is growing increasingly neurotic. Plus, he suffers from being too easily recognised. Before long, his producer has tracked him down, and the whole film crew has arrived on the scene. With just ten days to go before the shooting begins, has he any hope of recovering his inspiration?

Many of those looking forward to Nine will be fans of Rob Marshall’s highly successful musical adaptation, Chicago. He also adapted the less successful but visually stunning Memoirs of a Geisha from the bestselling book of the same name. Both are films about the tensions between glamourous women and business-minded men, and this is the idea Marshall brings with him to Nine as well. Scriptwriters Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella seem to be trying to capture some essence of the Italian character, as the hero does in the film-within-a-film, Italia. But one is left to wonder if Italian culture can be boiled down to this simple male-female dynamic without losing what makes it fascinating in the first place.

What made work was, in large part, the strength of its characters. In Nine there is plenty of talent on display, but it’s not quite the same thing. The central character of Guido Contini needs to be introspective for the story to work, but he is often far too heavily mired in self-pity, and it’s difficult not to become frustrated with him to the point of losing interest in his plight. Daniel Day-Lewis brings his trademark brooding intensity to the role. He can certainly play tortured, he just doesn’t quite convince as the charismatic man all these women would have fallen in love with.

The women are a mixed bunch. Far and away the best is Penélope Cruz as Guido’s mistress, by turns ravishingly sexy and heartbreakingly vulnerable. She knows how to dance, and shows this to us, as she delivers one of the film’s strongest musical numbers, Take it All. Marion Cotillard is impressive as Guido’s long-suffering wife, though she never quite rises up to her Oscar-winning screen presence in La Vie en Rose. Instead she displays a fragility reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn, to whom she is deliberately compared by way of costumes and lighting. The film is sprinkled with many such references and they make for some of its stronger moments. A chorus line number that looks back to Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel is heart-stoppingly good, and Nicole Kidman has fun doing Anita Ekberg by a fountain, in tribute to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

Unfortunately, Kidman here shows none of the charisma she brought to Moulin Rouge, one of the most successful film musicals of modern times. As the famous actress grows increasingly disillusioned with Guido, she needs to be distant, but it’s hard to believe that the two ever really had any chemistry. More striking is Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie, who plays the prostitute Guido encountered as a child (we see a lot of the young Guido, whose age the film’s title apparently refers). Singing the title track, Be Italian, she is fierce yet playful, holding her own alongside so many established film stars. The song also highlights one of the film’s weaknesses: most of the casting has been done without emphasis on musical talent. Though everyone involved can sing, there’s a general lack of confidence in the numbers and few truly stunning musical moments. The orchestration is strong but without complimenting vocals it sometimes seems overwhelming, verging on the bombastic.

A refreshing aspect of the casting is that we haven’t simply been presented with what Hollywood usually assumes we want to see. In celebrating female beauty, Nine doesn’t limit itself to skinny, youthful heroines. Kate Hudson plays a voluptuous Vogue reporter with gusto, and Dame Judi Dench gets her own turn in the spotlight as Guido’s costume designer and confidante. Sophia Loren is gorgeous, albeit disappointingly bland, as Guido’s deceased mother, the one woman who literally haunts him and whose love he seems to crave as strongly as he rejects that of others. Working closely with his regular cinematographer, Dion Beebe, Marshall brings these women to life—flaws and all. Make-up doesn’t always flatter; wrinkles are not concealed. The camera’s admiration, and Guido’s, is nevertheless tangible. So while the film may objectify women (a point Kidman’s character challenges), at least it presents them as they really are.

That’s not to say that Nine isn’t glamourous. In fact, this approach to beauty works very well in combination with the artifice of theatre and film it is celebrating. As we see the changes created by costumes and lighting, we appreciate the value of the creative process Guido is engaged with—the magic of the movies. The theatrical sets created within the film are fantastic, with plenty of sequins and glitter. It also helps us understand how Guido has been seduced by the very images he has made, to the point where he is no longer sufficiently in touch with reality to produce art that means anything.

Understanding Guido is one thing; sympathising with him is another. It’s always a challenge to present a complicated character like this in a way audiences can identify with. He’s famous, he’s successful, he’s rich, he has a beautiful wife and a stunning mistress, so what is he complaining about? It’s up to Day-Lewis to carry us through this and convince us that the greater meaning he seems to be seeking through his art is at least as important as his everyday problems. His success in this regard is limited, partly because his Guido doesn’t understand or accept his own responsibility for the problems in his life, making it hard for viewers to relate to him. There are moments when we can really feel for him, when he seems like a lost child, but he’s also aggravating like a spoilt child, and love - including that of the audience - seems to be the last thing he needs.

This leaves Nine hollow at its core. For much of its length, Guido seems more like a narrator than the protagonist, simply linking together a series of scenes in which the actresses get to do their thing, again leaving us wondering why he - and not any of them - is the star of the show. Breaking things up further is the arrangement of the songs that don’t blend into the action but emerge as distinct pieces slotted between dramatic episodes. It’s a curiously old fashioned style. In some ways it suits the nostalgic mood of the film, which is set in the 1960s, but largely, it insinuates that the script, like Guido’s in the film, is cobbled together frantically at the last minute.

Nevertheless, Marshall’s direction is often the strongest during the songs, when he has fun demonstrating that he can juggle a variety of styles. Hudson’s number, Cinema Italiano, is crisply shot in black, white and silver, perfectly capturing the go-go girl energy of the swinging decade yet reminding the viewer of the more recent work of real-life Italian maestro Paolo Sorrentino. Cotillard’s second song, by contrast, is edgy and aggressive, evoking the grittier side of film noir. The use of colour is superb throughout and there are restrained motifs, like the curling shadows of sculpted iron railings that provide visual continuity between these vivid fantasies and Guido’s real life. As the fantasy world gradually crumbles in on itself and Guido’s artificial sense of himself breaks down, the film’s palette becomes gradually more muted, allowing us to look for different kinds of beauty in the world that surrounds him.

With so much talent at its disposal, Nine could have been a great deal more, but it’s still highly enjoyable in parts and intriguing throughout. It may be that, having failed to attain the heights to which it aspired, it is actually more interesting as a piece of art, itself a reflection on that central narrative carried through from Fellini’s musings on his own career. It is when we fail that we are better able to understand ourselves as human beings.

Opens in Indian theatres this February.

Directed by Rob Marshall; written by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella; music and lyrics by Maury Yeston; director of photography, Dion Beebe; choreography by Marshall and John DeLuca; production designer, John Myhre; produced by Marshall, DeLuca, Marc Platt and Harvey Weinstein; released by the Weinstein Company.  With: Daniel Day-Lewis (Guido Contini), Marion Cotillard (Luisa), Penélope Cruz (Carla), Judi Dench (Lilli), Stacy Ferguson (Saraghina), Kate Hudson (Stephanie), Nicole Kidman (Claudia) and Sophia Loren (Mamma).