Review: Nine

nine one sheetFilms are dreams, whether the director is aiming for hyper-realism or whether we’re allowed to fly through the odd, the dreamy, the troubling of their imagination. Director Rob Marshall recognizes this and his Nine is a sexy, engaging, stylish and enlightening journey through the imaginative life of Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his many loves.

At the beginning of the film, Guido, a famous Italian film director clearly modeled after the brilliant but eccentric Federico Fellini, explains why he doesn’t want to talk about his upcoming movie project: “You kill your film, mostly by talking about it. A film is a dream.”
The very first frames of Nine open with Guido sitting on the vacant set of his upcoming movie Italia, then seamlessly shifts into a dance number that introduces us to his major loves, his mother (Sophia Loren), his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard), his lover Carla (Penélope Cruz), the blonde star of his new film Claudia (Nicole Kidman) and his muse Lilli (Judi Dench).
Set in Italy in the mid 1960’s, Guido is struggling with his next film project, it’s ten days before shooting begins at Cine Cettá and he has no script, not even a real idea of the storyline, because he spends so much of his time in his head, in his fantasy sequences within which women fawn over “Maestro Contini” and do steamy, sexy burlesque dance numbers in the skimpiest of costumes.
I love the self-conscious style of the 1960’s Italian cinema, where style and appearance was often more important than storyline, where making sense was less important than being cool, and where everyone brooded and had a perpetual wisp of cigarette smoke partially obscuring their face. Much of this is lovingly caught in Nine and when you add in lots of sexy, beautiful women and great dance numbers, it’s on my short list for best films of 2009.

Nine works on a number of levels, including its basic premise – which I always enjoy – of the challenges of making a creative movie as the subject of the movie. Nine was originally a Broadway musical, in which Guido is the director of a musical, but the basic concept works perfectly when switched to cinema. Guido’s journey from being self-centered to being forced to acknowledge the difference between his fantasy world and the reality around him, even as things fall apart, is in many ways also a core journey to adulthood.

Guido is an escapist and we see many scenes where he withdraws from the world around him and focuses on a poignant or intimate memory or whirls away in an astonishing fantasy sequence of perfect women who are perfectly willing. His films offer the same escape for his audience, but as is emphasized throughout Nine, his most recent films no longer hit the mark. Is he too wrapped up in his own world to even be able to share it anymore, maestro or not?

nine publicity still

Claudia (Nicole Kidman) and Guido (Daniel Day-Lewis) besieged by paparazzi

A telling moment in the film comes early, when Guido is forced into hosting a press conference. He jokes with the press after trying is best to escape and avoid the issue, and finally a journalist asks a serious question, to which he responds “You want me to be serious in a press conference?  I thought I was the clown in this circus?”  He then escapes into a fantasy sequence and then quite literally sneaks out the kitchen and runs out of the hotel while everyone’s attention is on Claudia.
The tension between how he envisions life proceeding and the different ways that things actually unfold is the leitmotif of Nine, even as we in the audience can clearly see how everyone around Guido bends and forgives so that the maestro has the creative space he so desperately needs to create his next masterpiece. “You’re just an appetite,” Louisa finally tells him, “no-one can help you find your way.”
The film also operates on another level as a loving homage to classic Italian cinema. From the outfits to the beautiful exteriors, the colors, the lyrical patter of dialog and in particular the wonderful music from composer Andrea Guerra all help create a film that feels like, just maybe, it was made forty years ago. It’s terrific, and the dance number Cinema Italiano, featuring the singing and dancing of Kate Hudson, is a standout.
The acting is splendid in the film. In fact, it wasn’t until later, reading the credits, that I realized that Guido Contini was played by Daniel Day-Lewis, the same actor who starred in the aggressive films There Will Be Blood and Gangs of New York. The lead actresses in the film did a great job exuding the sensuality and, at times, raw sexuality that so defined Italian cinema and culture in the 1960s, and I’ll give a special shout out to the talented Judi Dench, who amazed me with her nuanced performance here, a role quite different from her Bond film work. She sings! She dances!  Who knew?
Nine has extended black and white sequences and many of the fantasy dance numbers flip between B&W and a rich Technicolor. There’s a nod to the vérité style of classic Italian films too, with heads in the way of long shots, people walking past the camera during exteriors, and other touches of reality. Amazingly, cinematographer Dion Beebe’s most recent project prior Nine was the abysmal Land of the Lost, though he was one of the many crew that director Rob Marshall brought from his previous musical, the critically acclaimed film Chicago.
Nine is a film within a film, a story both of the challenge of creating art, of the dilemma of the artist finding inspiration in their imagination while having to live in reality, and it’s also a film about making a film, about the art of filmmaking, not the business. With its superb music, sexy dance numbers and thoughtful storyline, it’s one of the best films of 2009 and we’ll hear it mentioned for at least one or two Academy Awards when they’re announced.
Me?  I look forward to seeing it again soon.

3 comments on “Review: Nine

  1. Your website is great. You put a lot of effort into analazing a movie. I pesonnaly didn’t like NINE. To me it was a real pitty that a director who came up with such a perfect movie as CHICAGO could do something so bad. NINE is mechanical, it’s like they wanted to have a maximum of famous names in it to get production money and then they had to give each actress a moment of glory by having her perform her song. This was soooo contrived. To many actresses with small roles. No one of them manages to shine out and Penelope is realy ridiculous in her role of pushy mistress. The moment I saw the trailer I knew it would be bad and I was happy I just waited for renting the DVD. In a theatre I’d have been pissed at the waste of money.

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