Frederico Fellini’s 8½ is, and this is explicitly stated, a selfish film. I use that word instead of the more common “personal” because I think personal movies tend to be more generous. This is a filmmaker hashing out his own problems publicly and honestly, leaving behind plenty of scraps from which the audience is free to pick up anything that resonates with them. But that is secondary to the director’s reckoning with his own frustrations.
The film opens with a striking scene depicting an anxiety attack. Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) is stuck in a traffic jam, surrounded by cars full of judging eyes, until his own car becomes something of a claustrophobic oven. He escapes, but his freedom is short lived, as he is lassoed down while flying over a beach, like a kite. So he retreats to a luxurious spa to recover.
Guido is a film director who is stressed out over his latest motion picture, a sci fi movie which he has filled with obvious references to his own life. As anyone who’s read anything about 8½ can tell you, this reflects the Fellini himself, who also filled the movie with autobiographical elements. He had set out to make a movie about someone dealing with some sort of creative block and ended up giving himself that very problem. So Fellini decided to transform his own experiences into that movie. Indeed, even the title “8½” refers to the fact that this is Fellini’s eight and a halfth picture, having made six full length movies, two shorts, and co-directed another movie.
Guido’s time at the spa is constantly interrupted by others affiliated with his sci fi film. Leading the charge is the producer (Guido Alberti), who is constantly reminding Guido of his responsibilities and all the pressures he’s under regarding cost, schedules, and reputation. Guido invited a critic (Jean Rougeul) to help him sort out the story, but instead he constantly berates it, offering Guido little guidance. Other distraction arrive as well, like Guido’s latest mistress (Sandra Milo), who he mostly ignores, and his friend Mario (Mario Pisu), who is himself distracted with a young new girlfriend (Barbara Steele). Things get even more complicated when Guido invites his wife, Luisa (Anouk Aimée), who brings her own little entourage.
As hinted by that first trippy scene, the movie’s full of surrealistic touches. It’s more than willing to show dreams and the memories in line with the rest of the narrative without comment, all in service of putting us in Guido’s head. What we learn is that apart from his creative frustrations, he obsessed with women. His wife, his lovers, his acquaintances, and even his own mother are never far from his mind. Past the halfway point there’s an extravagant fantasy in which Guido lives in a sort of harem with all the women in his life. They dote on him until he tells one of them she’s too old and must move upstairs, as is the rule. Then the women revolt and he literally whips them back into shape, after which his wife, who is dressed like a maid, begins cleaning the floor while talking about love.
In the end, Guido realizes that trying to make a that helps everyone is impossible, and instead he has to focus on helping himself. Which leads me to my frustration with 8½ – it expects more from me than I want to give to it. I’ve never been particularly interested in dissecting film; picking out the meaning of camera moves, the storytelling in the mise en scène, the secret language of editing always seemed to be missing the point, which is that a movie should work regardless of all those things.
I hope that doesn’t make it seem like I think 8½ is a bad movie, I absolutely recognize the craft on display and it’s prodigious influence on cinema is obvious and deserved. And I owe it a debt, as 8½ was hugely important to many other filmmakers that I adore, like Martin Scorsese, who calls it one of his all-time favorites. Furthermore, I’m writing the review minutes after finishing the movie, after having to watch it at the last minute to get this review posted, well, not on time, but not too late. But there you have it, my 8½ hot take.