The most immediate reaction to the opening moments of Juliet of the Spirits is the sensation of color; it was Fellini’s first color film. After that, the film is a jumble of mixed feelings, twisted interpretations and puzzling messages. For some, it is the same story of of a husband living his best life, but this time told from the perspective of his meek wife who spends most of those wild nights home alone while her man is out partying. For others, it is a continuation of Fellini’s previous two films (La Dolce Vita and ) and their theme of the no-holds-barred, raucous, boozy, drugged Italian ‘60s (for those of a certain wealth and fame status, anyhow). With either hermeneutic lens – the homely, lonely wife excluded from the “Sweet Life” or the final effort in a trilogy on the orgiastic bonanza of the Cinecitta golden days – the main takeaway from Juliet of the Spirits is that the plot does not much matter.

The basic synopsis of Juliet of the Spirits is that protagonist Juliet, played by Fellini’s wife and the star of his earliest hit films, Giulietta Massina, is unhappy in her marriage to Giorgio (Mario Pisu), a social event organizer who she correctly suspects of fooling around. Juliet has something of a mid-life crisis, gets involved in several strange occult rituals and begins hallucinating all sorts of fantastical visions. She also gets acquainted with her seductress neighbor, Susy, played by Sandra Milo in basically an exact mimicking of her role in . Susy’s life involves a mirror on the ceiling above her bed to get new views of her love-making, a slide leading from her bedroom to a swimming pool to freshen up after some wild sex and a basket-winch in the middle of the forest that leads to a treehouse-cum-love shack. These are not some of Juliet’s visions; they are real. But they help generate Juliet’s confusion at her surroundings and society; it is as if, while she was in her kitchen playing the happy, dutiful housewife, the world has passed her by. What happens in the second half of the film is difficult to describe – even challenging to discern, to be frank, and wide open to interpretation – but it seems that Juliet has a sort of spiritual/personal epiphany that leads to a sort of psychic break. She is awake and alert, for the first time. She sees things as they really are. This comes after a few interactions with some high-tech private investigators who take high-res photos of her cheating husband; it is like she was initiated into the new age of seeing things as they are after working with men who literally see things as they are.

So is the theme of the film a look at the same fissured husband-wife coupling of from the wife’s perspective? Or is it the final film in a trilogy on the ‘60s for the burgeoning creative class? The former interpretation cannot go very far; if Fellini is embodying a women’s view, he sucks at doing so. Juliet of the Spirits makes Juliet look conservative and meek while Giorgio seems more attuned to the zeitgeist, having delightful forays with gorgeous women. The latter approach, however, has some promise: it shows how the sweet life of fame and fortune – and liberated sexual mores and widely available narcotics – eventually devours itself. The side characters in Juliet of the Spirits – the initiated who are trying to show Juliet how to have a good time – are all vapid lunatics desperately seeking anything to fill their hedonistic lives with a modicum of meaning. This is, then, the more open-ended reading of the film; plus, it keeps Fellini in conversation with the works of his fellow Italian master/contemporary, Michelangelo Antonioni, who was also exploring that same creative class’s descent into madness, conspiracy and the occult, even including the power of the photograph (in Blow-Up). This same ‘60s emptiness/delirium was a major theme in two recent definitive works on the decade, the TV show “Mad Men” and the novel and film Inherent Vice. That Juliet of the Spirits was Fellini’s contribution to this body of cultural products gives the film enduring relevance today.

When viewing the film in a chronological procession through Fellini’s filmography, which is of course what our “Oeuvre” series asks the reader to do, Juliet of the Spirits is of monumental importance. For most Fellini commentators, this is the film where he finally lost the plot, literally. His films after this become much more about spectacle and image and much less about narrative or character development. Juliet of the Spirits is the transition film, the last effort that holds some fidelity to the notion that cinema is a storytelling medium. After this, Fellini is less a bard and more a showman; he was so famous and so beloved that he could make any film he wanted and his post-Juliet films were more reminiscent of the circus stunts he loved as a boy than the cinematic tales he crafted in the ‘50s. This characterization seems mostly true: few of his post-Juliet films are highly regarded, for instance. While this view is flawed, it does mostly hold and Juliet of the Spirits is less a coherent narrative and more a phantasmagoric procession of bright, beautiful images, visually loud set design and upbeat music, with a camera that never stops moving and actors whose basic movements are more like dancing than walking. Every film after this leans ever more into producing stentorian images without regard to the plot. As Roger Ebert said, Fellini shifted from making films to making literal moving pictures.

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