I love the black and white / I love the play of light / The way Contini puts his image through a prism... / I love the dark handsome guys with their skinny little ties dressing mod looking out of sight / I love to watch them as they cruise with their pointy leather shoes wearing shades in the middle of the night... / I love his Cinema Italiano /He makes me feel w/ Cinema Italiano / My life is real with Cinema Italiano /He is the king of Cinema Italiano...

So sings Kate Hudson's sensually vapid Vogue journalist in the swinging sixties of director Rob Marshall's Nine, a musical epode to the true maestro of the macabre subconsious, Federico Fellini. In an ode more befitting her mother's Laugh In days, Hudson's silver go-go boot-wearing Stephanie serenades the fictional Fellini, Guido Contini, about how his overly-aesthetic films have influenced fashion and the world's image of Italian style. The Cinema Italiano number is visually flawless and electric, probably one of the most crowd-pleasing and catchy tunes. Set on a brightly-lit catwalk, beautiful male models strutting in their skinny ties, sparkling tassels shimmying on Fem-bot blondes, intercut with impossibly stylish black and white scenes of characters on yachts and speeding down streets in vintage mopeds. And then Daniel Day-Lewis' Maestro Contini making the final walk, like the much-hailed designer of a fashion line, to take in his adoring public -- a sing-song portrait of self-absorbed adulation and selfish delight. Of course it's meant to be a moment of oh-aren't-we-so-ironic reflection, but the affliction of Nine is that it's about an artist's creative downward spiral, and the movie itself falls victim to its own conceit. Like Narcissus who stared too long at his own reflection and remained trapped by it, so does Nine, in its perfectly crafted world of Cinema Italiano.

There is no end. There is no beginning. There is only the infinite passion of life -- Federico Fellini was indeed a virtuoso of subliminal psyche, transforming fragments of memories and dreams into abstract visuals that moved between realms of both the divine and terrifying. Women were both sensual objects of desire as much as they were predatory, savage beasts. Fellini's films represented his own struggles with religion, sexuality, and the mercurial nature of creativity itself. His 1963 classic, 8 1/2 , which Nine is based upon, is autobiographical, digging into his own creative process and using the women in his life to embody the challenges he must face as an artist, in both his work and his life. Moments of reflection ultimately lead to his own artistic resolution, and he finds the ultimate spark of inspiration to fulfill his masterpiece. The director ultimately discovers within himself, his own muse that drives his visions forward. This isn't about spoilers -- this is pointing out what Nine should have been, and that the spirit of Fellini deserved more than a flashy serenade of obvious references. 

The paradox of Nine is that it becomes too swept up in its dreamlike quality, and the hero becomes obscured by his own fame. Much like the film's main premise, that Guido Contini's mind wanders from the film he must create, the musical interludes with the women of his life start to railroad the film from introspection, right into a Britney Spears concert. Not to say it doesn't do it with outstanding panache and seductive style. We can forgive the reckless passion of Penelope Cruz's voluptuous mistress as she dazzles with a wicked rope dance, and the most interesting of female vignettes was Stacie "Fergie" Ferguson's take on Fellini's original Saraghina, the devilish temptress. She exudes a haughty, boastful pride, even at the expense of her self-worth, one coin at a time. Nine has the benefit of Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of Contini, imbued with the hue of Fellini's child-like perspective of the world, to save it in its moments bordering on misogynist overtones. If nothing else, Day-Lewis was probably one of the best cast choices, as it's hard to imagine any other actor possessing such a range that goes from masculine confidence to moments of crippling self-doubt, all the while keeping the audience at his side when so many other women have been left to ruin.

The two most interesting and least-used characters were Marion Cotillard's turn as the long-suffering wife of Contini, sacrificing her acting career to be the saintly Catholic wife, and Nicole Kidman's goddess-like leading lady, placed so high upon the pedestal she sings of, that the audience barely has a moment to fully appreciate her reason for being there. There is a beguiling melancholy in these two characters that never really get investigated beyond a perfunctory number or two. Cotillard's Luisa is at least given the chance to have the last word with her self-destructive husband, but we are left wondering why she would ever find a reason to let him back into her heart. 

While I adore Judi Dench and the iconic Sophia Loren, both their characters -- Contini's longtime friend and costume designer, and Contini's unquestionably loving mother -- are even more underused. Again, their numbers are beautifully crafted, they establish their relationship to the troubled director, but they only half-heartedly bring Contini back from his suffering, providing too little, too late. Even in his self-imposed exile, where you are to assume he's abandoned his hubris, you're never fully convinced over his reasons for returning to reclaim his kingdom of filmmaking dreams, other than for Nine to compose a finale that's trying to be clever. As always, it looked nice, but the audience feels shut-out from what should have felt like a heroic resolution.

Ultimately, Nine is about finding one's inspiration, rediscovering our talents as storytellers. We may think we rely on the muses around us, when in fact, we possess the greatest muse within ourselves, but often lack the courage to seek it out. Sadly, these resonant ideas become lost in the Narcissus of an all-star cast, beautiful sets, and the breathtaking surroundings of Italy. We are left with J'adore-worthy deliberate eye-candy, but longing for it to be more like shreds and tatters of a dream, meant for interpretation.

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  1. Beautiful description/review. Penelope played her character so well--when she made that "savage" face; I almost died! And Kate Hudson basically played her mother. ;) I sort of hated the line "Guido's p.o.v."

  2. When I was in school for musical theatre back in the day, a classmate was assigned to sing a song from Nine. I couldn't find a video recording of the show anywhere, and desperately wanted to. Can't even remember how the song goes now, but I LOVED it. Had no idea there was a movie version. Sorry to hear that it's distractingly narcissistic :(

    This is such a well-written review! Thanks for sharing.


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