Madeleine Han, Stanford University
Dreams, memory, reality—each is indistinguishable from the others in Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, a film which follows a disenchanted director named Guido Anselmi on a psycho-artistic journey through his own life. Along the journey, Guido meets Claudia Cardinale, an actress and Muse figure whom he casts as his ideal woman, and they embark on a car ride to an abandoned village where Claudia begins to imagine her role in his film. The sequence makes use of high contrast lighting, camera movement and shot reverse-shots to obscure the divide between the physical and the mental landscape of the scene, thereby giving weight to the subjectivity of the female protagonist.
The sequence opens with close-up shot of Guido characterized by high-contrast lighting and resultant strategic abstraction of his visage, both of which highlight Guido’s lack of character-ness. The sequence begins with Guido’s recounting a film about a flâneur-esque male protagonist who meets “the girl of the spring,” who is “beautiful,” “authentic” and “radiant.” He proclaims the relation of the girl to the film’s male protagonist: “There’s no doubt that she’s his salvation.” Throughout Guido’s narration, Guido’s face is never totally present on the screen. The close-up shot displaces him, rendering him a bobbing figure in the moonlight; the light falls on Guido’s face in a way that reveals only a part of his face at a time, the rest of his face rendered as dark and unreadable as the car interior behind him. The combination of Guido’s narration and obscuring of his face—of his identifiable characteristics, of the emotional and physical readability that would turn him into a fleshed out, human character—renders Guido a disembodied voice in the scene, suggesting that he is, perhaps, less of a character than a stand-in for the directorial figure.
András Bálint Kovács once claimed the “auteurial voice” in modernist film can exist personified in a character and/or narrative self-referential procedures; indeed, Guido transitions from recounting the film to “directing” Claudia. Toward the end of his recounting of the film, Guido transitions from the third to second person: “You’ll be dressed in white with your hair long, just the way you wear it,” he remarks to Claudia. Guido’s direct remark to Claudia affirms his presence in the film not as a fully developed character, but rather as an authorial figure of sorts who dictates what is to happen in the present sequence. Indeed, the film cuts to a frontality shot of the two characters sitting side-by-side in the car as they pull up to their destination. After telling the story of what is to occur in the sequence, Guido effectively disappears from the shot as a body and thereby as a present character. Claudia, on the other hand, stares beyond the screen, her face fully visible in the high-contrast lighting, The camera cuts to a panning point-of-view shot of the scene Claudia is in the midst of surveying, with the camera’s panning placing emphasis on the sprawling emptiness of the landscape before her—of the vastness of the void into which she is about to project herself.
If Guido is the director, we might, indeed, expect Claudia to be the directed—but the juxtaposition of the void-like landscape and her singular occupancy of said void implies Claudia’s character is more complicated than that. The shadowy obscuring of Guido and the parallel spotlighting of Claudia marks a transition into what Kovács calls the “psychic landscape,” a landscape that serves as a physical “continuation of the character’s inner world.” Indeed, the film cuts to a scene of Claudia on a balcony, clad in the white dress Guido said she would wear. The camera zooms in on her taking a candle downstairs to the shadowy, abandoned village-“set” into which she pulled up with Guido, who is notably absent from the entire sequence, even though Claudia is supposed to be Guido’s “salvation.” The sequence cuts to a wide shot of Claudia, whose white costume distinguishes her, visually and figuratively, as a singular and independent agent in the void into which she has descended. The following shot is an extended close-up of her face, her features rendered stark by continuous high-contrast lighting, the panning camera following her every movement, capturing her every expression; rendering Claudia both subject, manipulating her landscape by setting the dinner table that has appeared in the void, and spectacle. But the camera’s close tracking of Claudia’s movements and expressions capture her delight, rendering her a spectacle that, at the same time, retains an emotive quality that is distinctly human. The camera subsequently cuts to a transition scene zooming out on a void without Claudia, revealing that the preceding sequence was a fantasy—a part of a mental landscape that, as the following shot reverse-shot of Claudia in the car will reveal, was Claudia’s.
The absence of Guido in Claudia’s fantasy; her singular occupation of the filmic landscape; and the camera’s prioritizing of her subjectivity, considered in light of the fact that Claudia is both spectacle and, as it turns out, spectator “seeing” herself, complicates the stock conception of Guido as director and Claudia as directed. The final shot of Claudia in the sequence is an extended one: She continues to gaze out at the landscape sprawling in front of her, with a small smile and look of resolve on her face. Unlike Guido-as-director, Claudia seems more than just a figurehead for the actress. Rather, she is a distinctly human character with the critical capacity of self-reflexivity: Just as easily as she can project herself into the character Guido “directs,” subverting elements of his direction through the total elimination of the presence of the male for whom her character is meant to be a vessel for redemption, it is just as easily that she can pull herself out of said projection and recognize herself in said projection as playing a role. At the end of the sequence depicting her projection, Claudia turns to Guido in the car with an expectant smile and asks: “And then?”
Indeed, perhaps what the scenic subversion of Guido’s comment on Claudia as salvation and accompanying cinematic prioritization of Claudia’s subjectivity suggest is how the director wants viewers to live their own lives. In other words, perhaps the director puts Claudia forth as a model for the ideal viewer of the avant-garde film. Claudia allows herself to entertain Guido direction on her own terms, subverting Guido’s conception of her as passive spectacle by retaining her human quality. This subversion, coupled with Claudia’s ability to return from the vision—her ability to recognize that the role Guido wants her to play is the stuff of his dreams—may serve to demonstrate the power of individuals and their intellect to engage with multiple subjectivities that overlap with reality; to immerse themselves in the constructive visions or works of others—but never to the point where critical judgment is lost, for when the viewer walks away from a painting; a play; a film, the viewer is left with nothing by which to consider and extract meaning from the spectacle but his or her own subjectivity.
Fellini, Federico, Angelo Rizzoli, Ennio Flaiano, Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, Rossella Falk, Barbara Steele, Venanzo G. Di, Leo Cattozzo, Nino Rota, and Terry Gilliam. 8 1/2. Irvington, NY: Criterion Collection, 2001.
Kovács, András Bálint. Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2007. Print.