Summary: Nine has characters who represent characters of another film (Fellini‘s 8 1/2) but do not distinguish themselves to become characters of THIS film, thereby seeming like wandering apparitions
About one year ago, I went to watch a Gujarati play on the theme of ‘harrassment of women by their NRI husbands’, written and directed by an acquaintance who was pursuing his Postgraduate Degree in Dramatics. As this was a local play with a completely local cast, I decided to bring a buddy along for moral support in case the play stank. Unsurprisingly, the play proved to be a massive disappointment with its crude treatment of the subject matter and ridiculously unnecesary focus on supporting characters (like making the gravedigger the lead in Hamlet). Yet, to my bewilderment, people cheered on and gave it a standing ovation it didn’t deserve. I realized later that the antagonist in the play was a very popular name among Gujarati audiences, and so they cheered him on as he hammed endlessly, while I looked on bemused at all the beaming faces around me.
When the seven ladies of Nine (Dench, Cotillard, Cruz, Loren, Fergie, Hudson and Kidman) turn up one after the other in the opening musical sequence of Nine, I sat looking at the screen with the same bemused expression, and the question ‘What am I supposed to feel here?’ crossed my mind. These seven wonderful dames of acting may have caused a flurry of applauses had this been a live play (Nine is originally a Broadway musical), but they little impact when they such a grand entry on film for the simple reason that the entire thing is ‘filmed’.
I have not seen Fellini’s autobiographical classic 8 ½ either (on which both the play and the film are based), although the DVD does wait for me in the cupboard (will follow Mr. Roger Ebert’s advice in his review and catch the film tonight). This makes me more alien towards Nine but not too much because I have seen Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita’ four times and regard it as one of my favorite movies. So the parts which evoked a sense of familiary were Nicole Kidman’s ‘ideal woman’ character and Daniel Day Lewis’ ‘detached persona looking for a centre’, which Marcello Mastroianni played excellently in LDV. The main question here is: does Nine work as a musical and a movie independently in its own right? The answer is sadly a no.
The experience of watching Nine can be compared to visiting ‘Marina Abramović’s – The Artist is Present’ exhibition without having any clue of who she is or what she has done. The film has characters who represent characters of another film but do not distinguish themselves to become characters of THIS film, thereby seeming like wandering apparitions who don’t really care about each other or this film. They function like the (actually) moving portraits in the Harry Potter stories; they wink, they smile, they laugh, they cry like humans but in the end, they remain portraits. And the worst part is that they’re given such dark and ugly sets to sing and dance around, robbing all the richness off the mise-en-scène.
The reason for such unappealing sets is that all the performance pieces are figments of Guido Contini’s often prurient imagination. The protagonist suffers from artistic block after two of his films flop following a streak of critical and commercial successes. After one reporter boldly asks him during a press interview whether ‘he has nothing to speak about’, Contini performs a great escape and books a room for himself at a hotel under a pseudonym. His next movie ‘Italia’ does not have a script yet and its cast and crew are left stranded without Contini, who spends much of his time at parties and events dreaming and fantasizing about the women in his life. There’s angelic Claudia Jennsen: his inspiration, Luisa: his lonely wife, Carla: his sexy mistress, Lilli: his costume designer, Stephanie: an alluring reporter, Saraghina: a prostitute from his childhood, and lastly his Mamma. And unfortunately, everybody gets a number or two to perform (in Contini’s mind). This basically goes on in a repetitive manner till the end, where finally the plot decides to move another inch or two.
There is not one song I can recollect now, except ‘Cinema Italiano’ which too stays in mind only because of its irritating hook. The other reason I think the number is easy to remember is that it’s got a livelier and brighter set with performances we can actually see. The rest of the numbers are hampered by lack of light; if one has seen Gene Kelly’s super-duper-brilliant ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ he or she would remember the incredibly colorful sets and lighting which instantly evokes the performances to memory. The performers themselves in Nine aren’t memorable. Fergie, Dench and Cottilard know how to ‘sell a performance’; Fergie as most would know is an established singer-performer while Dench has a grande damme showstopper charm. Cruz is predictably sexy (with delectable bosoms) while sex-goddess Loren is motherly. And what about the man of the house: Mr. Daniel Day Lewis?
Oh, what a disappointment. Bringing a characteristic method approach to become Guido Contini, Lewis fails to get the ‘performance element’ that protagonists of a musical require that too in plenty. And I remember actress Meryl Streep telling in her interview with James Lipton that ‘she added the element of performance in her acting after being mesmerized by one of Lisa Minelli’s performances’; watch ‘Mamma Mia’ and you’ll get what she means. Actors in a musical should have the ability of selling themselves through their characters. Gene Kelly does it best. Lewis however buries himself deep within his character and makes his whole act damn gloomy. And he ain’t that good a singer either. Neither is he as addictive and infectious as Streep, who radiates even in her worst films. In fact, Lewis on a bad day digs the grave for his character and the whole film. That’s a tragedy.