Commentary Magazine


Fellini's Fall

By now, given the mass defections from the already thinned ranks of the Fellini camp that have been caused by Fellini’s Casanova, the “sociology” of Fellini’s reputation has almost replaced the film itself as a subject of interest. There have been mixed reactions to Fellini films before, but Fellini’s Casanova is, it seems, liked by nobody, and, with its release, the popular image of Fellini as genius-impresario has begun to be subjected to a widespread revaluation. Even admirers of such late Fellini works as Amarcord seem caught with their defenses down, while a veteran defector from the ranks of Fellini’s admirers like Pauline Kael can dismiss Fellini’s Casanova in a paragraph as something she walked out on.

I came to Fellini’s Casanova myself as someone who’s been in and out of the Fellini camp from the beginning, having liked The White Sheik but not La Strada, I Vitelloni but not La Dolce Vita; and, as someone who liked 8½ but little else of Fellini’s since, I looked on the looming approach of almost three hours of Fellini’s new film as something of a punishing prospect. If this sounds like preparation for saying I liked Fellini’s Casanova, it’s decidedly not; still, I don’t feel I can curtly dismiss it either. For if the film is, at least in part, another of Fellini’s grandiose denunciations of mankind’s follies and our civilization’s decadence, it has, for me, something lacking in La Dolce Vita, Fellini Satyricon, and Fellini Roma. Pauline Kael has justly criticized the disingenuousness of those earlier films, with their director at once staging spectacular orgies for our supposed moral condemnation while obviously relishing his De Mille-like role of carnal-circus master. But the Fellini of his Casanova seems to me to have got beyond this, and to have, in a sense, grown into the attitudes struck by those earlier movies: to have gone beyond moralizing into a visceral revulsion at the pleasures of the flesh. The hedonistic enslavement to appetite one sees depicted in Fellini’s Casanova may be nothing new in Fellini’s films, but the feeling behind it has acquired a conviction, and, with it, an authority, that, for me, it’s never had before.

Indeed, it’s probably the film’s total absence of bawdiness that has accounted for much of its critical rejection. Fellini’s Casanova is filled with scenes of fornication from beginning to end, but it would be hard to imagine a more joyless and anti-erotic representation of the subject, or one further from being the Felliniesque turn-on many were apparently expecting. The film’s depiction of love-making has been stylized into a series of clockwork movements, with all the participants remaining clothed, and clothed in undergarments of such a complexity of straps and wires as to make the people seem as much mechanical contraptions as the toy bird Casanova carries to his amatory rendezvous, and whose comically flapping wings serve as accompaniment to the grim calisthenics of the great lover and his sexual partners.

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Yet for its lack of eroticism, Fellini’s Casanova offers several compensations, among them that much of this new film, with its muted, brown-toned look, is visually arresting and some of it (like the spectacular opening sequence) even beautiful, in striking contrast to the gaudiness of most of Fellini’s other recent work. And even more important is the fact that, following the opening sequence (a nocturnal pageant in which throngs of masked Venetians hail Venus as their queen), approximately the first third of the film is funny (albeit in a similarly muted tone), and at times very much so; the sign—“Remember that this is a comic film”—which Fellini affixed to his camera while shooting 8½ might apply equally here.

Much of this effect probably owes to Donald Sutherland’s performance of the principal role: Casanova as a desiccated fop, strutting like a cock, and forever seen posing in profile, a faint, simpering smile on lips from which a torrent of grandiloquence is ready to flow at a moment’s notice. As Andrew Sarris has noted, this is Fellini’s first film since 8½ with a real actor in the lead; is it mere coincidence that it should also be the best, most distanced, Fellini work since that earlier film? And though several people have remarked on the associational links provided by Sutherland’s having earlier played a Fellini-worshiping director (in Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland), the previous Sutherland performance of which his Casanova most reminded me was his “witticism”-spouting dandy in Start the Revolution Without Me. Indeed, spurred by a reminder of that film, one may find oneself half hoping that Gene Wilder, Sutherland’s co-star in it, would show up to lend a hand in this one.

The middle part of Fellini’s Casanova could, at any rate, have used Wilder, for beginning with the increased coarseness of the sequence in which Casanova attempts to impregnate an elderly worshiper of the occult and continuing throughout the lengthy section recounting the one “great love” of his life, the film drags badly, and even turns somewhat murky in its appearance. Following these longueurs, things pick up with a scene in which Casanova (after windy orations on the “considerable moral preparation,” knowledge of the body’s fluids, and other requisites of his skills) proves his superior capabilities (on a reluctant partner) in a public competition, and another in which, having been stood up by a woman for whom he vows he’ll wait all his life, he’s immediately distracted by a hunchbacked girl with a prehensile tongue in a scene which comically captures the ebb-and-flow rhythm of human capacities as they’re tested by a marathon copulation.

But generally, in the film’s later sections, the emphasis is rather less on the earlier dry comedy than on a mocking pathos, as Casanova, claiming a wealth of talents, seeks a position at various courts, and then gradually sinks deeper into decline and, finally, a dotage made up of delusions of past accomplishments and reveries of old amours. At one point, there’s a distinctively Felliniesque episode in which Casanova encounters his crippled mother in an empty theater, and there’s a welling up of tenderness, guilt, reproach, and that complex of emotions which has always accompanied the appearances of mothers of grown sons in Fellini’s films. When we last see Casanova, he’s been retained as librarian in some court, where he boasts of the place he’s earned in posterity for having written some forgotten novel, and endures the abuse of the other servants, who paste his picture on the latrine wall and deprive him of his macaroni. At the very end, an old man with watering, red-rimmed eyes, he muses, “Last night I had a dream,” and we see his dream of being young again, and returning to the beloved Venice from which he’s been exiled most of his life, to be reunited there with one of his myriad lovers. It is Isabella, a life-sized automaton, whom we’ve earlier seen Casanova woo, showering unheard endearments on her no less ardently than on any of his human partners. In his dream, he takes her in his arms and they dance, until both of them stand fixed and revolving, as if on a moving pedestal, he, as much as she, seen as a mere mechanical thing.

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In its chilly way, this last scene is strangely affecting, but the problem with it, as with the film as a whole, is that there’s nothing in it that one doesn’t see at the outset, with the very first depiction of Casanova practicing the art of love, from his mechanical exertions in the sexual act itself—groaning, his expressionless eyes bulging and spittle forming in the corners of his grimacing mouth, as his head is seen from below popping comically in and out of frame with the rigid rhythm of someone doing push-ups—to his futile and pathetic attempts to use his amatory prowess for self-advancement afterward. Structurally, the film simply inventories the procession of Casanova’s conquests (plus a few near misses) as their line lengthens to encompass the range and variety of womankind, from nun to alchemist, virgin to bawd, hunchback to giantess, love of his life to automaton; the focus on the bed is, in fact, so exclusive that Casanova’s prison escape, though referred to as a masterpiece of cunning, courage, intuition, and the like, is allowed, indifferently, to take place off screen.

Indeed, in the exclusivity of its focus, what this least erotic of works most resembles is one of those pornographic films in which only the shapes and faces change while the same act is repeated over and over. The great fear of the fictional director in 8½ was of having nothing to say; the director of Fellini’s Casanova (unlike the director of Fellini’s other recent films) has something to say, but one thing only, which having said he can only repeat with superficial variations, hoping to hold his audience, in the consequent absence of intellectual content, by stunning its senses. But, perhaps inescapably, the effect of this, stretched over nearly three hours, is grindingly static.

This is a serious failing, to be sure, but to acknowledge it isn’t quite the same as saying, as does Pauline Kael in her dismissal of the work, that Fellini’s Casanova represents the inevitable failure of an artist’s attempt to make an epic of his alienation, as though the film’s failure were one of scale, and the expression of alienation properly reserved for more modest works. There is something egomaniacally outsized about Fellini’s Casanova, with its assumption that its director’s disgust at men’s loveless pursuit of sexual pleasure is the sufficient stuff of which a three-hour spectacle can be made. And yet, if Fellini’s new work has even former admirers recoiling from the nakedness with which he’s made a spectacle of himself, it seems to me a little late in the day to object to Fellini’s work for his having made himself into spectacle. Indeed, it’s in the self-dramatizing nature of Fellini’s art for him to have done just that: for the ostensible world and its inhabitants that we see depicted on the screen to merge with and become ultimately indistinguishable from the film-maker’s states of consciousness. Some artists (Hitchcock comes to mind) project themselves onto an external world, investing its objects with their feelings and anxieties, without divesting it of its hard-edged objectivity. Fellini devours the world outside, dissolving the boundaries between object and ego, seeing all, solipsistically, as only the chimerical manifestation of the world within. There is no longer an independently existing Rome or The Satyricon but only Fellini Satyricon and Fellini Roma, and it can hardly be complained that Fellini has scrapped the Casanova of the autobiography when it’s, so plainly Fellini’s Casanova that we’re given to see.

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Yet, more and more, these displays of self-expression go against the grain of contemporary taste, and the once settled reputation of Fellini as a great artist has increasingly been called into question. Nor can one expect that the reviewers’ hostility toward Fellini’s Casanova will prove merely to be a case of a film being badly received in the popular press but later finding its champions in the pages of the little magazines, as was the case with Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a film the new Fellini resembles in the spreading thin of its cold distaste for its subject across a vast historical canvas. But Barry Lyndon, for all its self-consciously antiquarian devices, somehow conveyed the air of a modern, even avant-garde, work, while Fellini’s Casanova, with its theatrical stylization and highly wrought surface strikes us as hopelessly old-fashioned. Fashion has passed Fellini by; in the early 60′s, when English professors were busy in the literary quarterlies discovering that film could be an art, Fellini, like Bergman, seemed just what the doctor ordered. But Fellini has proved to lack Bergman’s gifts for adaptation to contemporary trends, and Persona and Juliet of the Spirits, made in the same year, seem to belong not only to different sensibilities but to different centuries. In the age of Brechtianism and semiology, self-expression itself has become a discredited, and discarded, value. It’s the distanced irony of a Barry Lyndon which is congenial to the modern temper, while there’s something in the way Fellini’s films nakedly flaunt their maker’s feelings that’s almost embarrassing.

Still, what Fellini’s Casanova and Barry Lyndon share, beyond their both being epics of their maker’s alienation, is the sense of being works that are terminal, dead-ended: works that pursue a drastically limited but authentic vision to its last reaches. And while I don’t really like either film—how can one like works so coolly aloof from the human condition?—I have a certain grudging admiration for both of them, and rather more for the Fellini. Perhaps it’s because there is an authenticity now to what had previously been posing that I find certain dream elements in Fellini’s Casanova—a. giant stone head dredged up from the canals of Venice, some expressive landscapes, Casanova’s last glimpse of his mother, a brief, comic audience with the Pope, the closing dance with the automaton—resonant, and even haunting, in a way that nothing in Fellini’s work has been, for me, in over a decade. And though it’s a long way from what I once described as the “oceanic compassion” which suffuses (and sometimes softens) Fellini’s early work to the new film’s remote withdrawal from the follies flesh is heir to, some spark of the earlier work’s pathos still burns. Kubrick keeps his cool in a way Fellini is incapable of doing, but he has dissociated himself entirely from his characters, and, when he wants to move us (as in the deathbed scene of Barry’s son), he can only jerk tears. Fellini may openly loathe his Casanova, and liken him to a doll at the close, but there’s something irreducibly, however distantly, affecting in the figure of that broken old man of the penultimate scenes, as we see him railing at the injustice of a world that denies him his macaroni.

He’s ridiculous, to be sure, as only a human being, in all his vanity, can be. But he is a human being. And, even in his extreme and grotesque state, we can recognize in him not only something of Fellini, but someone akin even to others as wholly free of vanity, pettiness, and the exploitation of one’s fellow creatures as we ourselves.

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