Famous film director Guido Contini struggles to find harmony in his professional and personal lives, as he engages in dramatic relationships with his wife, his mistress, his muse, his agent, and his mother.
A lavish insight into the creative process.
'(But) before I started making 8½, something happened to me which I always feared could happen, and when it did, it was more terrible than I could ever have imagined. I suffered my greatest fear, director’s block." – Federico Fellini
Not many lavish musicals have concerned themselves with examining the wellspring of an artist’s creativity (with the possible exception of Xanadu....)
Director Rob Marshall dives stridently into such waters with Nine, his luscious, star-laden adaptation of the hit Broadway production, itself based upon Fellini’s own struggle to overcome a metaphorical brick wall whilst prepping his masterwork, 8 ½ (1963).
Daniel Day-Lewis is Guido Contini, a man considered the 'maestro’ of 1960s Italian cinema by his adoring fans, but an emotional and creative cripple to those within his inner circle. As he readies for the first day of principal photography on his bold epic 'Italia’ (Australian audiences will draw satiric parallels to the ego-centricity of daring to define a country by a film’s title), the pressure takes its toll – he flees the journalistic daggers of a fiery press conference, to hole up in a distant seaside enclave.
But those that suckle from his creative teat are not lost easily– his shallow, ruthless producer Dante (Ricky Tognazzi), and his deeply-enamoured mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz) soon impose themselves upon him, tightening the screws and foreshadowing the inevitable breakdown. Thrown into this psychological maelstrom are Contini’s angelic wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) and Contini’s chief costumer and confidante, Lilli (Judi Dench). In next to no time Contini is a sweating, crying wreck of a man and certainly in no fit state to helm a career-defining cinematic work.
Stir into the mix the sultry, sordid magnetism of scarlet woman Saraghina (Stacy Ferguson, aka 'The Black-Eyed Peas’ Fergie), the sexual allure of American Vogue journalist Stephanie (Kate Hudson), the movie-star majesty of Contini’s muse Claudia (Nicole Kidman) and the overwhelming emotional presence of his deceased Mamma (Sophia Loren)... well, you can see why an actor as devoted to characterisation as Day-Lewis chose to make his musical debut in Marshall’s film.
Such thematic and narrative structure could amply sustain a tuneless drama if done right, but Rob Marshall is both a master visualist and great story-teller (not everyone loved his Memoirs of a Geisha, but I thought it captured the novel’s tone perfectly). The introduction of Nine’s musical interludes and their representation of Contini’s internal struggle is nothing short of wonderful. To symbolise the essence of the crumbling man that is Contini, stand-out numbers such as Fergie’s 'Be Italian’, Hudson’s 'Cinema Italiano’ and Day-Lewis’ own 'Guido’s Song’ are superb. Further defining the troubled director’s self-perception, and shining a torchlight on the women who both adore and abhore him, Cruz’s sizzling 'A Call From The Vatican’, Dench’s 'Folie’s Bergere’ and Loren’s 'Guarda La Luna’ are standouts. If Kidman’s 'Unusual Way’ lacks a little oomph, it is by no means the actress’ fault – she is terrific as the archetypal, Deneuve-esque movie-star.
Day-Lewis walks an emotional razor’s edge in the film and is mesmerising; his moral decay and barren creativity are brought to life via a twisted, marbled physicality. But the acting honours are pulled out from under him by Marion Cotillard, whose brittle yet shimmering Luisa pulsates throughout the film. Her tunes, the tearjerking 'My Husband Makes Movies’ and the daring 'Take It All’, are wondrous. Flashback scenes, capturing the purity of her young character before fame consumed her spirit, are heartbreaking.
Rob Marshall found a lot more fun to be had with the trials and tribulations of fame in his last toe-tapper, the Oscar-winning Chicago (2002) – Nine elicits a few character-driven laughs (notably Cruz’s crowd-pleasing 'I’ll be waiting here, with my legs open") but it is by no means a comedy. No, Nine is a searing, carthartic dissection of the creative process; as much as it celebrates the trappings accumulated by those who succeed, it is also an engrossing examination of the deeply-troubled mindset that gets them there. That it should achieve such depth within the musical genre puts in the same league as the works of the true maestro, Bob Fosse – namely Cabaret (1972) and All That Jazz (1979). It’s that good.