Nine (2009)

I’m not a musical person; in fact, I’m not much of a music person. I can see the appeal of the whole song and dance routine but it doesn’t do anything for me. So my interest in Nine (not to be confused with 9 or District 9) was purely built around the chance to see Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the greatest living American actors, on the big screen. Also, throw in the fact that the film is a kind of sequel/remake of the classic Italian film 8 ½ and I figured I had enough good reasons to invest my time and money.

At first I sat watching the film with mild curiosity. The tale of the fictionally famous director Guido Contini’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) nervous breakdown over the days leading up to the start of his next film seemed witty and amusing enough to keep my attention. He’s constantly bombarded on all sides over the project and when asked what the film is about he hesitates, still having yet to pen a single word of the script. There’s this gradual mental down curve and degradation that was fascinating to watch but maybe not much more.

And yet it all seemed pedestrian, simple, amusing. Then I thought about it for a minute. Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t act for just anyone; he’s held a selective career of top notch roles. What am I missing about this character? What’s the appeal? As the film developed and the musical numbers seeped into the film I began to understand: Nine was not simply interested in following the antics of this director as he struggled over what his next film would be but a complete immersion into the psyche of this fascinatingly troubled mind of Guido Contini.

The inspiration behind this idea comes from 8 ½, the aforementioned cinematic classic, that was this semi-autobiographical film by Federico Fellini which delves into is memories of being a director. In many ways Nine owes a lot of its ideas to 8 ½ and a number of scenes are actually taken directly from its inspiration. Yet these scenes aren’t flagrant plagiarism as each one has a different and drastic twist that makes the film a lot more involving on a dramatic level than I ever found 8 ½ to be.

And here’s where I’ll ruffle some feathers among my film buff readers by saying I think Nine is a better film than 8 ½, in part because it takes similar ideas and uses them as a way to flesh out this character. Take the famous Saraghina (played by Stacy Ferguson in Nine) scene where the director remembers his days as a young child where he would escape his catholic school to pay a prostitute to dance for him. The scene plays similarly in both films but where it is an antidotal aside in 8 ½ when seen in the context of Nine it further explains the Guido character.

And if you haven’t figured it out by now this is a film obsessed with a lot of raw sexuality. The film’s dance numbers are usually centered around being as sensuous as possible and play more like strip scenes and burlesque shows than the lighthearted dance numbers most might associate with musicals. Yet the PG-13 rating means that as sensuous as it gets you’re never going to see these fantasies taken to the natural end. In fact, it’s almost comedic as Penelope Cruz sings about having no clothes while striding out on stage dressed in some rather modest underwear. At times it seems a bit too indulgent but almost all the musical numbers are his lurid fantasies and glimpses into his psychosis.

As a musical I’m not if the songs and dance numbers are all that good. I’m not in a good position to judge the music but the songs are decent, nothing memorable but on a moment to moment basis it works for me as an expression of his psychosis. I will confess that “My Husband Makes Movies” was probably the closest I came to crying in the theater but it may have had less to do with the song and more to do with Marion Cotillard’s moving performance.

And this is a film with a lot of strong acting. Despite the fact thata lot of the women were cast for their inherent sexuality, they all give strong performances. As mentioned the standout is Marion Cotillard who plays Luisa, Guido’s wife, who finds him growing ever distant. Her vulnerability and bitterness alone broke this stone cold heart of mind. Penelope Cruz also is a standout as Guido’s mistress. There’s a silly playfulness to her but also this desperately dark obsession that wells its way up. And then there’s the man himself, Daniel Day-Lewis, who is strained both physically, vocally and emotionally by this film and holds up to deep scrutiny. Like 2007’s There Will Be Blood he brings an extra layer of subtlety and nuanced to his already complex character.

And perhaps just as complex as this character is the way director Rob Marshall and cinematographer Dion Beebe construct the visual style of the film. Yes, the film is blatantly staged, in particular the musical numbers, but that doesn’t stop it from being breathtakingly beautiful. The way they use warm and cool lights, often in the same shot, brings this fantastic contrast to the film. There are also a number of black and white scenes that look gorgeous and most certainly were inspired by the look by 8 ½.

Yet for as much as this film is about the look and style with the sexy women and musical numbers I found a deep richness in the story. There’s the obvious ideas about being a director that 8 ½ explored but beyond that I found there to be this interesting contemplation about the trouble facing any creative mind, how often there is this time where the mind exists in a void. “Page one,” we hear over and over again as Guido tries to think of even the inkling of how to start his production.

And then there are a number of brilliant scenes such as the one where Guido in desperation talks to the Pope. The Pope says he loves Guido’s films but wishes he wouldn’t show so much sex. The pope’s logic is that the audience can imagine what happens and he says Guido’s problem is that his imagination has no morals. The Pope isn’t wrong, but Guido’s response is to ask how can one restrict their own imagination? To me, this feels like it is the core problem of the film. It’s not that Guido can’t imagine anything, it’s that he imagination is so unbridled and grand he can’t focus it on anything.

I found his struggle with this conflict endlessly fascinating. It’s a broad, bold and daring picture, perhaps too flamboyant for its own good but not in bad tastes. For me it delivers on all fronts. It’s a beautiful picture with gracious style, a moving tale filled with fantastic performances. It’s a film I look forward to revisiting because I know for sure there is more to be found in the richness of this film and while many might not be able to get past the style I found it to be surprisingly substantial.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing