After a game of doubles on Saturday afternoon on Highbury’s leafy green tennis courts, the fiancé, a couple of friends and I headed back to the friends’ house to zonk out with biscuits and cups of tea in front of a film.
It was rather decadent to be watching a film, snuggled up inside, curtains drawn, on a beautiful late summer evening and so we picked a suitably decadent film to watch – Fellini’s 8½.
It’s a wonderful film – beautiful, lush, mad, and … well soporific. We all briefly drifted off at various points. Perhaps it was the shock of an hour’s exercise followed by a post-chocolate-digestive-binge sugar low. Perhaps it was also the black-and-whiteness and the long periods of the film where the only music is the sing-song intonation of Italian voices.
But falling asleep seems like an appropriate reaction to a film which begins with a dream, and through which fantasies and memories are seamlessly intermingled with reality, giving everything a dreamlike, surreal air.
The following evening, the fiancé asked me what it had been like to watch 8½, ‘as a woman’. Point being that the main character – Guido – is a suave film director who has several affairs as well as a wife. At the film’s climax, he fantasises about a harem of all his lover who shower him with adoration; when he needs to control his women, he does so with a whip.
‘Dream on,’ I felt like saying to the fiancé.
But although Guido comes across as a bit of a schmuck, there is something so beautiful, so opulent, so fantastical about all his infidelity that I found myself not outraged by his actions, but actually rather impressed.
It brought to mind a book I read a little while ago called In Praise of Older Women by Stephen Vizinczey. This funny and poignant faux-autobiography takes the form of a middle-aged man recounting the love affairs of his youth. And, in case you haven’t guessed, he finds older women better – kinder, sexier, more fun, less oppressively serious – than younger ones.
But most of these older women of his are married. So he essentially goes through life having a series of illicit, often overlapping, affairs. And now all these women are contained within the pages of a single book – perhaps this is Vizinczey’s own version of Fellini’s harem of lovers. The women prance, preen, sprawl, splay through the pages, controlled entirely by the male narrative voice – just as Fellini’s Guido whips them into shape, or – as a director – tells them what to do.
In Praise of Older Women’s protagonist – András – grows up in Hungary, and most of his descriptions of unfaithful, thrilling liaisons take place there and (nice coincidence) in Italy, land of Fellini. But when András goes to Canada, people’s frigidity makes him lose his ‘cherished faith’ in older women. Vizinczey describes a particular episode when András goes to a residential university conference and tries to sleep with a flirtatious married woman. When they head off into the bushes, she begins to umm and ah about it; they finally get going only to hear her husband nearby, causing the woman to jump up and run off to him. The following day she is wracked with guilt until András tells her that she shouldn’t feel bad as they didn’t really do anything – they stopped before they even really started.
But instead of feeling pleased at this display of fidelity – or near fidelity – the reader’s sympathies lie with András. What a tease! What an outrage! What an idiotic housewife! There is definitely not even an inkling of good for her for returning to her husband.
Both In Praise of Older Women and 8½ are told from the philandering male’s perspective, and perhaps it is simply a mark of Vizinczey and Fellini’s achievements in constructing such persuasive protagonists that the reader/viewer sides with the man rather than the women. I think adultery is awful, vile, horrendous. But somehow, in these fictional worlds, it is transformed to something beautiful, sensuous and, well, human.
Guido’s chic and elegant wife in 8½ comes across as cold, harsh and petty when they argue about his affairs. Played by Anouk Aimée, she is certainly beautiful and stylish. But she is so cold compared to Guido, almost robotic, inhuman, unreal. Yes some of her coldness must be a protective reserve against his philandering, but take, for instance, this scene where she comes and visits him at the spa.
Her clothes are elegant but not feminine, she has short boyish hair, sensible glasses, a fragile boniness – she might break when he kisses her softly hello. She smiles when she sees him but it seems to be an involuntary reaction, quickly stifled. Perhaps this comes into relief best a few scenes later when she catches sight of one of his mistresses – an overdressed, voluptuous tart – and the two of them are portrayed side by side. One can see why Guido might want to have his tart and eat her.
I suppose the thing with 8½ is that it pronounces itself from the start as definitely not real life. Events are collaged together with dreams and fantasies. There is flattering soft focus and bleaching over-exposure; this is the world of shimmering silvery black-and-white cinema. And the cover of In Praise of Older Women is also in black-and-white. (Is it ironic that it makes adultery no longer seem such a black-and-white situation of bad philandering versus good fidelity?)
But life is in full colour, and there is no way of choosing flattering camera angles, doing clever cuts, bringing romantic music to a scene. And adultery, in real daylight, or in seedy lamplight, isn’t a beautiful thing at all. Blind eyes aren’t turned by ever-forgiving wives, and mistresses aren’t always at the man’s beck and call. Marriages are spliced in two and children are ferried from one half to the other.
So what did I think of the film, ‘as a woman’? Well, I thought it was beautiful and I thought it was bloody dangerous. It was seductive enough to make one feel that one could gracefully step into that shimmering world, cast off conventional morals, and twirl and swirl and fool around so lightly, so easily.
But, I suppose, even if one were to enter that world, there’s always the dreadful risk of ending up in a harem, being whipped around by a man wearing a bit of a daft hat.