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Criterion: La Dolce Vita

LA DOLCE VITA, FEDERICO FELLINI, 1960

While ultimately a distinctively Fellini arthouse project, La Dolce Vita is also an ambitious, sprawling epic. There’s a lot of story to tell, and it does so through a tightly structured sequence of loosely connected scenes, taking place mostly during the night or at dawn after the night’s events are over. There is not so much a plot as a sequence of episodes that say a little something about the hidden side of Rome, and a lot about the lead character of Marcello, even if he happens to be often be a passive observer during many of these adventures.

At the core is a statement on the media, and given that it’s about celebrity and media, it was ahead of its time. In fact, the term ‘paparazzi’ originated with the film because the photographer that works with Marcello is named Paparazzo. When the American/Swedish actress of Sylvia exits her airplane, a mob of photographers await, and she milks the attention by posing and even making a second, more photogenic exit from the plane. It is a negotiation between the two worlds, and she does a little dance with them, specifically with Marcello into the evening. He is a reporter and is part of the machine, yet he does not quite lower himself to the vulture-like behavior of the photographers.

Marcello, played by Marcello Mastrioanni, is not the most scrupulous individual. He is engaged to a woman that he tolerates, yet does not seem to adore. He is ill at ease basically everywhere he goes, and is always on the pursuit for something better. Whether this is a better looking or more intriguing girl, or a more fun time, he is never pleased with his situation. He seldom acts out, but instead shows his dissatisfaction through his nervous energy. Even when he encounters his father in a later scene, having not seen him in ages, he is not pleased with the way the night unfolds and tries to get away. The only time he raises his voice is when his fiancé finally calls him out. Even then he runs away, only to come back later and reconcile.

Many of the most notable scenes are when Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) is on the screen, whether running up the stairs, dancing to rock and roll music, or walking in the fountains. To Marcello and the audience, she is magical, but she is fleeting. She is not his or ours. She is the unobtainable, and that reminds Marcello that his world of the media can interact but not intersect with the celebrities that he engages. There’s a later scene where he enjoys the company of Nico (of Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol fame) as part of a group that tours an abandoned castle. Like Marcello, she is just a bystander, a participant. It is during this scene that the rich heiress friend and part-time lover Maddalena (Anouk Aimee) finally professes love to him and suggests marriage, but even that is a mirage. The moment the words escape her lips, she is intertwined with someone else’s embrace and hides from Marcello. He never does find her again.

The title means ‘the sweet life,’ but for Marcello, life is not so sweet. He finally stops being merely a passive participant at these late night gatherings near the end, and decides to become active in the party by humiliating a drunk girl and covering her in feathers. It is a sadistic side of him that, aside from the tift with his fiancé, doesn’t materialize elsewhere in the film. It is here that he physically and violently rejects this world, yet he is stuck with it. He cannot leave.

little girl

His encounter with a young and pretty teenager is what accentuates his misery and hopelessness. Her beauty affects him, but she is a child and not something to pursue. The presence of this childish innocence divides the film in half, and then punctuates it by returning at the end during what is, in my opinion, the best ending in Fellini’s career. The girl doesn’t belong to the world of galas and gatherings. The child’s innocent life is not obtainable, but in a different way that the life of Sylvia and the celebrity are unobtainable. The girl tries to talk to Marcello, but he cannot hear her over the noise of the ocean. After muttering and gesturing and getting nowhere, he leaves her with a slight movement of his hand, not quite a wave, and returns to the world to which he belongs and hates. It is a powerful, unsatisfactory, yet beautiful and moving end to a film.

Film Rating: 9/10

Supplements:

The Eye & the Beholder. This is a short featurette about the perspective of the film, beginning with where the girl gazes into the camera. That ending is compared with Godard and Truffault. The narrator also draws attention to a nod from Steiner to the camera that takes place so quickly that you could almost miss it. He then walks into another room and the perspective changes. It is a daring way of acknowledging the narrator, and distancing it from the point of view of Marcello. We are seeing the film partially through the lead characters eyes, but also through our own.

1965 Interview with Fellini. He Does not like to evaluate, analyze or rank his films, but then he does name La Strada and 8 ½ based on where he was in his life. More importantly he talks about why he shouldn’t comment about the meaning of his films The work should speak for itself. His voice clouds the work and interpretation. My favorite part of the interview was when he discusses how film is hypnotic, and you can control heartbeats and how people breath. In that way, film is a certain type of magic.

Lina Wertmuller Interview. Also a Director that would eventually have a successful career, she worked as an Assistance Director with Fellini on La Dolce Vita and 8 ½. She talks about Fellini and what made him tick. Some of her comments were humorous. One out there comment was that he likes asses. Yes, asses, and I don’t mean donkeys. One time he stopped a taxi and got out so that he could an ass. She bought a tiny bikini and that set Fellini off.

Scholar David Forgacs. This is a short, critical look at the film. He talks about how this was a transitional time in Italian history, and how the film juxtaposes the new, vibrant and economic Rome with the ancient history. He uses the opening shot as an example, with the helicopter carrying a statue of Christ over the ancient aqueducts. He talks about the Ekberg performance, and how she had already been a celebrity in Rome while working there, and had been photographed in the fountain. Fellini reconstructed what was a media event.

Antonello Sarno, Italian film journalist. Sarno talks at length about the production details. He talks about how Dino de Laurentis backed out and how Fellini had trouble finding financing. Aside from that, he discusses anecdotal details about the production, such as how the fashions were designed. One interesting story was that there were 1,000 bystanders at the fountain scene. He also talks about the film’s legacy, and how through its popularity, it became a brand, put Italy on the map.

Marcello Mastrioanni Interview. This is an audio interview that shows several still images throughout. Marcello talks about his engagement with the project, and how he had been a working actor in Italy that wanted to do something substantial. He wanted to work with Fellini because of how much he liked his films, especially I Vitelloni.

Criterion Rating: 8/0

The Essential Jacques Demy: Lola, Bay of Angels

THE ESSENTIAL JACQUES DEMY

So begins my journey into the world of Jacques Demy. In the interest of disclosure, I’ll admit that I’m not a major fan of his work. Yes, that sounds like sacrilege to many Francophiles, but a major part of that is my limited exposure. I’ve pretty much only seen The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and clips here and there of other movies, such as The Young Girls of Rochefort. I try to keep an open mind, and with this stacked new box set release, I can dive into his career from the beginning. One of the major selling points is the presence of his ex-wife and widow, Agnes Varda, who I adore. I especially like her Le Bonheur, which has a Demy-like feel to it and was released around the same time of his major films. She will be prevalent through these discs, and there will be some documentaries of hers later.

LOLA, 1961

Criterion-Lola-Cover

Demy’s first feature came in the midst of the New Wave. In fact, he probably got his shot thanks to the successful efforts of Louis Malle, Francois Truffault and Jean Luc Godard. Lola is in the spirit of the New Wave. The narrative and plot do not follow a formula. There are a number of different characters with intersecting plotlines, and no direct narrative.

Lola, played by Anouk Aimée, and Roland, played by Marc Michel are the pivot points for these characters. There is also an American sailor, a mother and daughter, and the off-screen presence of Michel, Lola’s first love, who she is still dedicated to after all these years. Roland is a lost dreamer, who was just fired from his job for being tardy and has no regrets about it. He finds purpose when he encounters Lola, a long lost friend that he hasn’t seen in years. They rekindle their friendship, and it becomes immediately clear that he wants something more. Meanwhile, Lola is having a tryst with the American sailor, while still longing and waiting for her first love and the father of her child, who she is convinced will come back someday.

The mother takes to Roland, and the teenage daughter finds herself charmed by the sailor, but not in a romantic way. The sailor is fond of Lola, but he will be leaving soon for Cherbourg and knows that any sort of commitment is not realistic. The mother is a lonely war widow and single mother who seems to have affection for the Roland, but he does not look at her in that way. He sees her platonically, just like the sailor sees her daughter, and like Lola sees Roland. Demy juggles these complicated character motivations with delicacy and explores the nature of human relationships. Basically, his message is that oftentimes what you want does not want you.

Lola was filmed with a low budget, just like many of the early New Wave films. The Criterion print had a lengthy and arduous restoration process, overseen by the Demy estate, but was an uphill battle because the original negative had been lost. They had found a print and worked to get it as close to the original as possible, which was demonstrated in a special feature about the restoration. Unfortunately the print looks terrible, and not quite up to par with most Criterion releases. That said, since this is an ‘Essential’ box set, the movie has to be included as long as the restoration allows the film to be watchable, which it does. This first work is most essential in seeing the roots of what the filmmaker would become. Some have called it a musical without music (although there is one song performed by and about Lola). It’s themes will reoccur in his next films, whether they are nouvelle vague or mainstream musicals.

Movie rating: 8/10

Special Features:

This disc sets the stage for what will be a stacked set of special releases. It contains most of Demy’s early shorts, including his first filmed project, Les horizons morts an 8-minute depiction of a lonely man. The most impressive short in my opinion was Le sabotier du Val de Loire, where a pastoral family makes clogs. What makes this short special is the care and fondness for the subjects. It is more about their way of live rather than the clog-making process. It reminded me of Robert Flaherty documentaries, only without being staged or embellished. There are four shorts in all, which vary in quality, but are still worth seeing.

The documentary about the restoration is interesting, although you can tell that they are making some excuses for why the print is so poor. Mathieu Demy oversaw the process, and his input was primarily how to preserve the artistic intent rather than creating a technically perfect restoration. Since his part was mere snippets, I’d rather not play the blame game, but given the condition of the print, I think a little bit of artistry could have been sacrificed for clarity.

BAY OF ANGELS, 1963

One thing that is immediately apparent when watching Demy’s second feature is that it is a grander production. It may not measure up to his later color films, but it is ambitious. The main draw is that he cast Jeanne Moreau, who at the time was queen of the New Wave, having starred in Elevator to the Gallows, The Lovers, Jules et Jim, and La Notte. Despite her track record, her role as Jackie was a departure for her. First, she ditched her reknowned dark hair for a platinum blonde. Second, the character was hopelessly addicted to gambling, completely self-centered, impulsive, and basically a wreck of a person.

Like with Lola, the male lead is a meek, naïve, lovesick young man, this time named Jean, who basically becomes Jackie’s lapdog. He tries his hand at gambling in a local casino, has some beginner’s luck and a large windfall, which he then uses to take a trip to Nice for more gambling. There he runs into Jackie at the roulette tables. His luck rubs off on her, and they bond for adventures in Nice and Monte Carlo. He begins the movie being reluctant to fall into the trap of gambling, and disturbed to hear the pathetic stories of Jackie’s addiction. They have a roller coaster of winning and losing, and eventually he becomes like her. He makes poor decisions, mostly because of his romantic desire for her. She treats him like a puppy dog, and at one time admits that she is using him for his luck.

While I was impressed with the look of the film and the performances, particularly Moreau, I had some problems with the film. The major plot hole for me was that the gambling was completely unrealistic. I’ve spent my time near a roulette wheel and have never seen someone win or lose in such quick and dramatic fashion. Then there’s the matter of the ending, which I won’t go into detail about. I’ll just say that it didn’t seem realistic given how the characters were developed.

Movie Rating: 6/10

Special Features:

This disc was pretty thin. There was a 12-minute interview with Jeanne Moreau that I enjoyed. There were a few dumb questions, which I thought she handled well. I liked how she talked about choosing roles and how she chose to work with directors regardless of the material. That worked out pretty well for her.

There was another, shorter featurette about the restoration. Since they had the master, the process was not as difficult.

Criterion Rating: 7.5/10 (both discs)