Tuesday, January 12, 2010

At the weekend Owen and I braved the icy slush and saw Rob Marshall's film of NINE, Maury Yeston's Broadway musical improbably based on Federico Fellini's art-house classic "8 1/2". I am *still* undecided about the film.

I first became aware of NINE through Elaine Paige's cover of "Be On Your Own" on her STAGES album. I caught up with the cast album a few years later and have always loved the recording which preserves the late Raul Julia's typically stylish performance as Guido Contini the auteur film director caught in a professional and personal crisis. Showcased too are the scintillating performances of Karen Akers as Luisa, Guido's wife who is slowly becoming aware of his continual infidelities, the late Anita Morris as the purring sexpot Carla, Contini's current mistress and the show-stopping turn by Lilianne Montevecchi as Contini's French producer Liliane who can't understand why he won't make her dream musical set in the "Folies Bergere".

The show's success was attributed to Tommy Tune's direction, the overall style of the show - white set/black costumes - and the elegant, sparse score. The show went on to win five Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Score.

After a failed attempt to stage the show in the West End, it finally opened in 1996 at the Donmar Warehouse directed by David Leveaux with Larry Lamb as Guido, Susannah Fellows as Luisa, Clare Burt as Carla, Sara Kestelman as Liliane and Eleanor David as Claudia, Contini's actress muse who is also tiring of her role in his life. Leveaux later also directed a Broadway revival with Antonio Banderas, Mary Stuart Masterson, Jane Krakowski, Chita Rivera and Laura Benanti in the above roles - and Nell Campbell as Rivera's assistant!

Now... to the film.My problem with the film is Rob Marshall. Why does he keep working on musicals I like?? First CHICAGO and now NINE... couldn't he go off and do a film version of LES MIS? I have come to the conclusion that he is trying to be the new Bob Fosse.

Choreographer turns film director with screen adaptation of hit Broadway show (SWEET CHARITY, CHICAGO); makes film of between-the-wars girl desperate to be a star (CABARET, CHICAGO), makes film of director facing professional and personal crisis with Fellini-esque overtones (ALL THAT JAZZ, NINE) - to say nothing of the odd connections that CHICAGO was originally a Bob Fosse stage musical and that SWEET CHARITY was based on a Fellini film! He also borrows Fosse's notion that a film musical should not have characters just sing - in CABARET all the songs are shown only in the Cabaret, in ALL THAT JAZZ on what appears to be an empty soundstage in Roy Scheider's fantasies. Marshall was allowed this with CHICAGO as the score 'points' the songs as being Vaudeville setpieces - but in NINE he has all the numbers being shown in some strange 'other' place namely an empty... um... soundstage. I rest my case.

Along with the other great musical bette-noir Baz Luhrmann with MOULIN ROUGE, Marshall seems petrified of focusing on a single moment for too long, every musical number is cut and diced so much that you never get any real sense of the performer, the staging or the performance. Is he cutting so frantically because the actor he has cast isn't up to it - or to try and whip up some energy that is singularly lacking from his own rather stolid direction? It's almost as if he does not trust his material to deliver so feels he has to help it along but hinders it in the process.

There is one musical moment in NINE which rings emotionally true, when Marion Cotillard as Luisa sings "My Husband Makes Movies" and Marshall's camera for once comes to rest on her just singing - unsurprisingly it becomes the emotional core of the film for this very reason, because we are allowed to simply observe her character's sad resignation.

This flaw in his cinematic approach also means that as his style is so shallow he simply cannot make you care about his characters. He is not a good enough director to be able to bring depth to a non-musical scene and he refuses to let you observe them when they come alive through song. Again as I stated earlier, the only character in the film you do feel sympathy for is Cotillard's Luisa.There is also a major problem with the casting of Daniel Day-Lewis as Guido. He certainly can act the role - I felt every second of his ennui and emotional emptiness - but you need an actor to be able to also "play out" and Day-Lewis is an actor of such peculiar intensity that he absorbs energy like a sponge from a scene - he doesn't give the audience anything. One can only guess what a different film it would have been if Javier Bardem - the original choice for the role - had played it or even Antonio Banderas. Latin fire is sadly missing from Day-Lewis, despite his accent.Arthur Kopit's book has been mostly jettisoned for a screenplay by THE PLAYER's Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella who have changed a few plot details notably that the character of Lilianne is no longer Contini's producer but his costume designer. All well and good... but the role is played by Judi Dench in her best RADA tones so it comes as a strange shock for her to announce she is French just before she launches into "Folies Bergeres" - which she handles with brio... but by the time you have got over the shock of her supposed nationality the song is practically over.

Maury Yeston has overhauled his score writing three new songs and dropping - would you believe - nine! In the show there is a waspish critic who dogs Guido reminding him how relevant he used to be, this character is dropped from the film but in her place we have Stephanie from American Vogue (Kate Hudson) who can only see the obvious fashionable look of Guido's films rather than their artistic value. Yeston has given her the flashy "Cinema Italiano" which certainly causes a commotion on the screen but only really serves to show Guido how off track he is.

He has also written a ballad for Guido's ghostly mother "Guarda La Luna" but the most jaw-dropping decision is to drop Luisa's savagely cold rejection of Guido and their marriage "Be On Your Own". In it's place is a rather shapeless number "Take It All" which is performed as a fantasy angry strip number by Marion Cotillard which was just such an obvious, dumb choice on someone's part.
As you can probably tell already, I loved Marion Cotillard in the role of Luisa. When she appears in the film you can almost feel the audience breath a sigh of relief in that here is a character that one can invest some sympathy in. During "My Husband Makes Movies" there is the inevitable cutaway but this time it works - Luisa recalls her screen test for Guido when they first met and he unpins her hair and she shakes it out and for one minute Cotillard resembles the young Jeanne Moreau and Cotillard is such a vital screen presence that she bears the comparison with ease.
Penelope Cruz makes the most of the badly-adapted role of Carla, the sexy mistress. On stage, she leaves Guido a sadder-but-wiser woman but with her pride intact singing the rueful "Simple", in the film she attempts suicide and one feels is left unhappy and alone within an unfulfilled marriage. Penelope slinks her way through "A Call From the Vatican" with a raunchy and sexy panache - hampered only by Marshall's infuriating cutting - and despite the script, is a warm and vibrant presence. She is becoming quite a screen goddess.
Nicole Kidman plays Claudia, Guido's screen muse who has agreed to star in his new film but soon realises there is no such thing. She tells him he can find someone else to carry the artistic can then reveals that she always quietly loved him singing the haunting ballad "Unusual Way". Kidman certainly plays Claudia's growing awareness of Guido's flim-flam well but she also seems too ethereal and almost drifts out of your mind while you watch her - Claudia is surely the one character all too grounded in reality, knowing her own mind and in control of her destiny.

The major set-piece of the film is Fergie's cameo as Saraghina, the earthy, voluptuous beach prostitute who shows the young Guido the pleasures of carnality on his ninth birthday. Her rousing "be Italian" is played out with an endless chorus line of lusty, busty tarts whirling tambourines while creating their own sandstorms and is the one time that Marshall's frantic approach to shooting a musical number vaguely works. Fergie is actually the best surprise of the film showing a real presence on screen.

The film though botches the whole idea of this event being the defining moment in Guido's life - his beloved mother's shocked disapproval and the punishment doled out to him by his priest teachers scars him emotionally and in the show, this climaxes (no pun intended) in his breakdown after which he is confronted by his nine year-old self who is the only one who can reassure him that it's all part of "Growing Tall".

It might be an overly-sentimental ending - but it works and it IS an ending. The film seems to run out of steam with Day-Lewis growing a beard and moping around waiting for the Maximilian Schell look-a-like contest to start before realising that he can work out his life - through making a small budget movie. And as he starts to direct.. the characters appear to give their benefaction as Luisa enters the sound stage to watch from the back... So - going by the above - this is one film that I will not be buying on DVD you can surmise?

Of course I will.

Whatever it may be it is always a joy to watch thanks to Dion Beebe's lustrous cinematography, the stylish costumes of Colleen Atwood and John Myhre's impressive art direction. The score also sounds wonderful. And despite Rob Marshall's hapless direction - any film that boasts such a line-up of divas will be worth it......it was particularly pleasing that, for a film about European cinema, that it's the Euro contingent of Dench, Cotillard, Cruz and Loren who keep the film watchable.

Oh yes how could I forget Sophia as Mama Contini! She doesn't have much to do but her presence is as much for what she represents as an icon of European cinema than her role in the film and as such she is a magnificent presence.So Rob Marshall you did your best to ruin the film - but luckily you didn't totally succeed.

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