We expect a lot from the artists we love. Their work can feel so personal to us, so specific. That's how we fall in love with them in the first place, like the chance meeting with a new lover. They look at you and you look at them, and a spark is made. We want to drink from their creative fountain as much as we can. The risk is that their fountain may run dry or that, all of a sudden, the flavour changes. We turn to them and demand, what has changed? Why have you changed? Why can't you just stay as you were?
As much as we might expect a lot from those artists, it's nothing compared to what they ask of themselves. Artistic and commercial success is the dream, but with it comes the responsibility of being a practising artist. You need to produce, and produce something your public and fans actually want to see. What if one day, you can't? What if the work becomes stale or familiar? What if commerce takes over? What if, deep down, you know you don't have anything to say?
This is the nightmare that began to intrigue legendary Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini in the early 1960s. Fellini was already regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers in the world and an Italian icon, having created taboo-smashing hits such as 'La Strada' (1954), 'Nights in Cabiria' (1957) and 'La Dolce Vita' (1960). The latter in particular had made him an international sensation, attracting accusations of blasphemy by the Catholic Church while also earning Fellini the Palme d'Or at Cannes and an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. Within a few short years, Fellini had not only shifted Italian cinema on its axis, but influenced music and fashion. In that sense, Fellini was facing just such a dilemma. With such enormous success and with so many eyes on him for what he would do next, he must have felt enormous pressure to deliver.
It began with an idea, outlined in a letter to his friend and fellow filmmaker Brunello Rondi in October 1960. "Well then," he wrote, "a guy (a writer? any kind of professional man? a theatrical producer?) has to interrupt the usual rhythm of his life for two weeks because of a not-too-serious disease. It's a warning bell: something is blocking up his system." He had no title or character or story, just the notion that he wanted to explore an artist caught with the most terrifying case of writer's block. In order to prevent himself from suffering the same fate, he began scouting for the film before he even knew what it was, hoping he would find it along the way.
All of a sudden, he found himself in front of his crew, ready to begin filming, with sets constructed and actors cast and... still no idea what the film was. All he had was a title, '8½', referring to the number of films he had directed. Deeply embarrassed, he told his team that he had "lost the film" and the project was scrapped.
And this was the moment Federico Fellini finally worked out what his film was about.
In one of the greatest acts of cinematic autobiography, Fellini turned these struggles into the text of the film itself - the story of an acclaimed film director named Guido Anselmi (played by one of his great collaborators, Marcello Mastroianni), who retreats to a health spa on the eve of starting production on his next film. His excuse is nervous exhaustion, but in truth, he has no idea what the film is going to be about. His escape is short-lived, with the production office moved to the spa so he can continue to work. Producers are asking for budgets, actors are asking about their parts, production and costume designers are asking for guidance and beginning construction, and every single person asks the same question - where is the script? Rather than admit it doesn't exist, Guido continues to throw his team off the scent, all the while immersing himself in psychological navel-gazing and his worst indulgences in the hopes that something, something will come to him.
We begin in a tunnel, full of cars in a traffic jam. From inside his car, Guido sees all the other people in their cars staring at him, passively watching as his cab fills with smoke, suffocating him. Finally escaping, he flies away, soaring freely through the sky, until he realises there is a rope around his foot and two men down on a beach begin pulling him back to earth. With a tug, Guido plummets to the ground, and just as he hits, he wakes up in a cold sweat. With this short sequence, Fellini lays out Guido's paranoia, those around him watching him drown and holding him back from the freedom and frivolity he craves. In the process of becoming a great director, he has trapped himself in a prison of fandom and expectation.
At the same time though, we can only have so much sympathy for him. Guido is one of the great anti-heroes of cinema, a man so intoxicatingly charming and yet so pitifully juvenile at the same time. Rather than be honest and get himself out of this situation he resorts to his basic programming, turning on the charm that has gotten him out of every difficult spot, a charm that is the key weapon in every director's arsenal. While there's endless comedy watching him duck and weave through the professional film crew and the pompous intellectual elite, we also watch the blatant deception he continues to pull on his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée) with his ongoing affair with his mistress Claudia (Claudia Cardinale). He has so much arrogant confidence in his ability to charm his way out of anything that he doesn't even bother pretending as well as he once did, first arranging for Claudia to visit him (at a different hotel, of course), and then inexplicably begging Luisa to visit only days later, completely aware of the danger of being caught again. It's alright though, he thinks, I got Luisa to stay last time, surely I can do so again. There's a strange strain of self-destruction to Guido, a need to both reject, embrace and cultivate chaos all at once. He is a man dancing on the edge of danger, but like many an artist, the knife's edge is the most intoxicating place to dance.
The landscape of '8½' moves between the reality of the spa retreat, with its holy water treatments and frivolous evening entertainments, and Guido's wild and fractured imagination. His mind escapes into the past, a surrealist dreamscape where his parents can be perpetually disappointed with him and where all the women he has ever loved or lusted after can be revisited. In this beautifully subtle way, Fellini is acknowledging the connection between the artistic and the personal, that all of Guido's work (and arguably, the work of any artist) is connected to where they have come from. If he is unable to crack this film and is forced to face artistic annihilation, there may be personal annihilation at the same time. What his imagination also offers though is control, where he can take these disparate elements of his past and make them do what he wants. Perhaps this is what makes the role of the director so attractive; the superhuman ability to make the world (well, a world, an artificial world) bend to their will, to hold the whip and set the pace and make sure that all the players are exactly where you want them to be. In the most sublime sequence in the film, he imagines himself in his childhood home, the grand master of a harem made up of all the women he has ever wanted, bowing and subservient to his every will and whim. It would be disgusting if it weren't so wonderfully preposterous and delusional.
At the spa retreat itself, Guido is surrounded by visions of his future, a mortality that is racing to catch him. In his impossibly well-cut black suit and tie, and his chic black sunglasses, he's a vision of masculine Italian style, but he also sticks out like a sore thumb. Everyone around him is in the final years of their lives, hobbling to the fountain for the medicinal mineral tonic or shuffling awkwardly around the dance floor. He carries himself with the air of someone who doesn't belong here, yet he does belong here. His body and his mind are starting to fail him; he's not as fit and virile as he was. His impotence as a man is as horrifying as his impotence as an artist. Maybe this is why he needs to continue the façade of the film that doesn't exist or the marriage he knows doesn't work or the affair he can't let go of with a woman he doesn't respect. If he can maintain the façade of all these things, where he is the centre of the universe, then he can hold back the clock from taking him sooner than he wants. And it's a façade he sees all around him - every older man has a shockingly young woman on his arm; every ageing woman is alone, dressed as opulently as possible. This spa is a fantasy world in itself, a desperate attempt to hold back death as much as possible.
Some of the most powerful moments are those rare ones where Fellini leaves his hero and allows us to sit in the pain he has caused others or the frustration he leaves in his wake.
And yet, for all the sympathy the film has for Guido, it is still able to pass judgement. His struggle is real and relatable, but his actions are still those of someone crippled with self-obsession. Some of the most powerful moments are those rare ones where Fellini leaves his hero and allows us to sit in the pain he has caused others or the frustration he leaves in his wake. In the most devastating, he asks Luisa to watch the screen tests he has done with young actresses for the film. She watches in horror as he directs these women to act like her, as he sees her, frustrated and hurt. He can acknowledge this in his art, but can't acknowledge it in their relationship, making his complicity in their misery all the more upsetting. It's as if he's begging her to turn on him, knowing he will win her back and once again prove the power he has.
There are also the moments where his imagination turns on him, and the avenues he goes down to seek answers - such as a meeting with a visiting priest - just turn out to be further excuses for procrastination. In one of the funniest and most crippling sequences, he joins a party visiting the set being built nearby for his film - a gigantic spaceship. No one knows why Guido's film needs a spaceship (even Guido), but hundreds of men crawl across the scaffold to build it and his producer pontificates in empty words about its importance to Italian cinema. All the fantasy and folderol of the film are there to mask the noose tightening around Guido's neck, and this frivolous spaceship is his failure as an artist and as a man writ large.
As it must, it all comes crashing down, and Guido is faced with the personal and artistic annihilation he has run from and flirted with, and just as it had been for Fellini himself, this becomes the moment where the film he has tried so desperately to find steps into the light and reveals itself. And just as it had been for Fellini, it is the choice to get rid of the bullshit and strip himself bare, to take all these anxieties and turn them into shadow and light, to gather together the many faces that have occupied his time on this earth and bring the crazy circus of his existence to life. In the end, and at its best, art is truth, and after spending so much energy trying to create the perfect fantasy kingdom for Guido Anselmi, the truth will be the thing to lead him to salvation.
'8½' is a film of intoxicating power, shockingly modern and wildly imaginative from its first frame to its last. It feels as if you've fallen into a dream, a cinematic wonderland where the subconscious dances at the edges of the frame, occasionally poking its head in with gleeful anarchy. And yet, for all its spectacle and its extraordinary performances, its honesty is what hits the hardest. Watching an artist in an act of self-immolation can feel incredibly indulgent, but Fellini does so with generosity, specificity and grace. He understands that the beauty and the bullshit are necessary when in balance, and that to be an artist is to jump between. The influence of the film is immense, written into the DNA of every attempt by every filmmaker to make a film about themselves. At their worst, such as Rob Marshall's unfocused 2009 film version of 'Nine', the stage musical adaptation of '8½', the lead artist doesn’t have anything to say in the first place, making the whole endeavour feel frivolous and pointless, precisely the empty self-indulgence Fellini actively avoids. At their best, such as Bob Fosse's equally-astonishing masterpiece 'All That Jazz' (1979) or even Steven Spielberg's recent triumph 'The Fabelmans', understand that self-critique must come with at least an ounce of forgiveness.
Perhaps what makes '8½' tower above them all is its immediacy. Federico Fellini was about as powerful as any director could hope to be. He had fans begging for his next film, financiers willing to bankroll even the slightest of ideas and collaborators ready to follow him anywhere he wanted. Rather than taking the time to consider them, he thought only of himself and embarked on a venture without the first clue of what he was doing, and in the process let them all down. '8½' is an admission of guilt, an acknowledgement of fault and a statement of responsibility. It is Fellini's act of atonement, his journey to forgiveness and his statement on the artist he was, the artist he had become and the artist he wanted to be. It is about as immense a film as you could imagine, and as magnificent as you could ever hope for.
Men might rather fool everyone into making a movie they haven't written yet, set themselves up for failure, orchestrate to have their wife and their mistress in the same place, concoct elaborate daydreams about every woman they've ever wanted to fuck, act as if they know what they're doing, get the producer to build a giant spaceship set for no reason, let it all come crashing down and then turn that into a movie than go to therapy, but when the results are '8½', can you hardly blame them?