*23. JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (1965)

Giulietta degli spiriti

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“I remember I had some exaltation about color. I see colors not like they are normally – we see colors in the object. In this case, I saw colors, just as they are, detached from the object. I had for the first time the feeling of the presence of the color in a detached way.”–Federico Fellini

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Mario Pisu

PLOT: Juliet, a wealthy housewife, has reason to suspect her husband is cheating on her. She has always been attuned to the spirit world, and after a seance she begins seeing visions and hearing voices; one of the whispering entities tells her that her neighbor, the strange, sexually liberated Suzy, will be her teacher. As her marriage disintegrates, her visions become harder to distinguish from reality, until Juliet snaps and banishes the spirits.

Still from Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

BACKGROUND:

  • Fellini’s first feature-length color film (although his short segment for the 1962 anthology film Boccaccio ’70 was in color.)
  • Fellini took LSD (in a clinical setting) for inspiration in making this film. He found it “a little disappointing.”
  • Some of the biographical details of onscreen Juliet’s stories come from Giulietta Massina’s own experiences in her marriage to Fellini. The house seen in the film is the couple’s real house.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Juliet of the Spirits parades a host of bizarrely costumed Felliniesque grotesques across the screen in its 130 minutes, but aside from the perpetually smiling eye-of-the-storm Masina, the one who makes the biggest impression is buxom, bodacious Suzy (Sandra Milo). In one of the movie’s unforgettable scenes, she disrobes (offscreen) in the blink of an eye to demonstrate one of the hedonistic accoutrements in her bordello-like haven: a slide winding directly from her bedroom to her personal post-coital swimming pool.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Hermaphrodite swami reception; faceless purple nuns

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Like his previous 8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits is a Fellini trip where dreams and fantasies—the more baroque and colorful, the better—intrude into reality as a way to explore the psychology of the film’s protagonist.


Original trailer for Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

COMMENTS: Juliet of the Spirits is transitional Fellini—most obviously, in updating the director’s palette to the full color spectrum, but also in the manner it pushes the dream architectures toyed with in 8 1/2 further into the realm of the hallucinatory, defiantly announcing that there would be no return to the comfortable certainties of neorealism. The smash commercial success of La Dolce Vita (1960) and the artistic triumph of 8 1/2 (1963) had left Fellini with carte blanche at Cinecittà to create whatever extravagances he desired. What he desired was another plunge into the subconscious, this time with a feminine spin. For this purpose, he coaxed his wife Giuletta Masina out of semi-retirement to play an uncomfortably familiar role: a loyal spouse scorned by a husband who could not resist the erotic temptations his success brought him.

Fellini takes to color with the passion of a child playing with a new toy. As did many films of the mid-60s, he tests the lens to see what it can do, exploring the full color palette but favoring primary colors—the bolder, the better. Yet despite this new technicolor freedom, the color he most favors for his protagonist is white. The matronly Juliet usually dresses in plain white, like her faithful maids in their starched uniforms. White here is the sterile color of domesticity, even of bourgeois privilege. Suzy, who may actually be Juliet’s anima, also favors white, although of a less frumpy sort: her first appearance (on a swing in a dream) is in a white lace corset and silk hose. The more hallucinatory and unreal the scene, however, the more color Fellini splashes across it: the hermaphrodite swami Bishma holds his/her audience in a red hotel room, and Suzy’s palatial estate is a riot of yellows and lavenders, gauzy pastel draperies, and stained glass windows that traverse the rainbow. The deeper the dream, the splashier the color, and you can sometimes orient yourself in the film’s reality by observing whether Juliet is wearing white, off-white, or red.

Speaking of dreams, this movie contains a lifetime’s worth, along with flashbacks, visions, and hallucinations. Whatever the source of the vision, they all refer to Juliet’s psychology and/or personal history. The spirits Juliet sees are really internal entities, archetypes of her own mind: familial phantoms, religious troglodytes, manifestations of her repressed libido.Her flashbacks aren’t memories so much as carnival spectacles: in one, child Juliet runs around a giant circus set, dodging between the shirtless strongmen as her father enacts a childhood psychodrama of abandonment and escape. Another key memory involves Juliet rescued from martyrdom, as her grandfather defies authority and a line of faceless purple nuns to save the girl from being hoisted into the rafters amid fluttering cellophane flames. As the movie goes on, reality and fantasy blend, and it seems that certain characters aren’t really living people, but spirits. By the climax, the phantoms of Juliet’s spirit world leak into her everyday life: there’s a topless woman in her boudoir closet, strongmen and nuns take up residence in the living room, a suicide whispers to her, and a burning apparition threatens to ruin her garden party.

There is an inevitable, and somewhat unfortunate, tendency to read Juliet of the Spirits as a reflection of Fellini’s own thoughts about his wife, Giulietta Masina. 8 1/2 was nakedly autobiographical, and there the director’s wife was humiliated by his alter-ego’s refusal to abandon his mistress (played by one of Fellini’s real-life mistresses, Sandra Milo). Juliet seems like a script written to make amends: here is a starring role for his neglected wife, one that will show the pain of adultery from the aggrieved spouse’s perspective. Indeed, the tale is told from the wife’s viewpoint: husband Giorgio is in relatively few scenes, and when he appears he’s often cast in shadow or shot from behind or out of frame while the camera focuses on Juliet. His onscreen presence is explicitly de-emphasized. But although the film is sympathetic to Juliet, who smiles genially through all her indignities, it also depicts her as frigid, in desperate need of lessons (from Fellini’s real-life side-piece Milo, no less) in how to please a man. And in the end, the movie suggests—even pleads—that Juliet would be happier separated from her husband, so she would become a complete self-sufficient individual. It’s uncomfortable to consider rumors that Fellini and Masina disagreed about the significance of the ending, Fellini holding that Juliet has freed herself and become an independent woman, while Masina felt that the wife has been abandoned and forsaken. (Fortunately, Federico and Giulietta’s marriage fared better than Juliet and Giorgio’s, and they shared the dream of two gray heads on the same pillow before being buried together.)

Though now regarded as classic (if not quite top tier classic) Fellini, critical reception for Juliet of the Spirits was surprisingly divided. Some of the negativism resulted from the director’s treatment of his protagonist: Pauline Kael called the film (fairly enough) “peculiarly ungallant.” More commonly, critiques revolved around the old “style over substance” canard. Robert Brustein whined in the New York Review of Books that  “it is not the poet’s art [Fellini] employs in Juliet of the Spirits so much as the confectioner’s.” For Cartesian souls, Fellini’s new direction was frippery, a film art as  superfluous as showy the outrageously oversized bonnet Juliet’s sister wears that makes her face look like its headlining at the Hollywood Bowl. But to the maestro, this focus on style was not a whim or an indulgence; this new world of symbols and intuition was a destination, not a detour. Asked by Ian Dallas soon after the completion of Juliet whether he would return to depicting “external, historical reality,” Fellini quickly answered, “I think that even if this road is dangerous… I don’t think that one can come back. It’s necessary to try to go on.” His next stop would be the hallucinatory Roman epic Satyricon. Fellini could no more regress from surrealism back to realism than he could abandon color for a return to black and white.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… as the Fellini fantasies grow increasingly more bizarre, there comes the realization that these are not so much the fantasies of an unhappy woman as they are those of an imaginative film director with a huge budget at his disposal.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

“Above all, the film is just wonderfully … well, Fellini-esque… It’s a staggering reminder that — though his particular kind of surrealism has been infinitely imitated by generations of film, video and commercial makers — no one does it better than the master.”–William Arnold, Seattle Post-Intelligencer (2001 revival)

IMDB LINK: Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Juliet of the Spirits (1965) – The Criterion Collection’s Juliet page refers to the out-of-print DVD release and contains only a synopsis and three stills

Juliet of the Spirits (1965) – Turner Classic Movies covers Juliet with the usual collection of material, plus an essay by James Steffen and three movie clips

Juliet of the Spirits  – Roger Ebert’s entry on Juliet for his “Great Movies” series

Juliet of the Spirits (Film) –  TV Tropes entry

HOME VIDEO INFO: Unfortunately, the Criterion Collection’s single disc DVD of Juliet of the Spirits (buy), issued in 2010, is out-of-print and overpriced. A company called “Cult Films” offers an affordable region-free Blu-ray/DVD set of the film (buy); we haven’t seen it and can’t vouch for the quality. The best presentation of Juliet on home video by far is the entry in Criterion’s 15-disc “Essential Fellini” set (buy), which is beautifully restored and remastered. As bonuses, the Juliet disc includes Ian Davis’ interview with Fellini (also on the Criterion DVD) and adds an Italian TV segment on the filming with behind-the-scenes footage. The Blu-ray boasts two even more substantial extras: A Director’s Notebook, an hour long 1969 documentary directed by Fellini himself, and a 4K restoration of “Toby Dammit,” Fellini’s segment for the 1968 anthology film Spirits of the Dead.

If you don’t want to spring for the box set, a more affordable way to experience Juliet, of course, is on video-on-demand (buy).

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Mac,” who called it “[o]ne of my personal favorite weird movies… a great movie for the list.”  Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “*23. JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (1965)”

  1. Love this movie; glad to see it’s included. Reviews of it always seem to say that Juliet is depicted as a frumpy, frigid bore, which I understand even if I didn’t feel it myself. I suppose a quiet introvert is never going to come across well contrasted with a bevy of sexually charged beauties in gorgeous, colorful settings. But I found Juliet’s story so identifiable; she gave 1960s-style hedonism the old college try but just couldn’t fit in, which is how most of us feel, I think, by the time we get to middle age. The downside of that wild lifestyle could have perhaps been hinted at more in the film. But there is one great moment where Suzy and Juliet start to have a heart-to-heart up in a tree, and Suzy immediately gets bored and then distracted by some hot guys rolling up in a sports car. At some point in your life, you want deep, soul-baring conversations even more than you want to hang out with hot young people. It’s not a perspective that is often seen in film, a medium that excels at depicting the fun of youthful hedonism, and it’s a rare treasure to see both coexist in this film.

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