Federico Fellini’s near-ninth film is an undeniably brilliant elucidation of the artist’s struggle and the creative process. Examined through a more critical and contemporary lens, however, something else comes into focus. Essentially, 8 1⁄2 can be interpreted as a love letter from Fellini to Fellini, as he absolves his own misogyny through illusory renditions of his past. A raw reflection of his own sexuality and desire, the film draws its beguilement from garish psychosexual reminiscences. At the same time, it is a film distinctively characterized by one man’s aggrandizement and absolution of himself, particularly in regard to the women he systematically abuses. Women in the film are portrayed as reactive, ancillary creatures who are relegated to archetypes of mothers and whores. When they are not subjugated to the concupiscent gaze of Fellini’s protagonist and thinly veiled proxy, their other purpose may be found in coddling the manchild whose regard they might not have existed without.
Ultimately, it should come as no surprise that 8 1⁄2 has been the subject of generations of psychoanalyses through film theory, especially in a feminist context. Fellini’s inspiration for the film was clearly informed experientially, and whether or not, or to what degree, the filmmaker was conscious of the psychic revelations he bequeathed to decades of critics, is something that may never be comprehensively understood. Taking this into account, defining psychoanalytic theory at least lends itself to speculation. Feminist writer and film critic, Jessica Fagan, defines this kind of analysis as it relates to spectator film theory. “Psychoanalytic film theory”, she writes, “a subset of spectator film theory, essentially says that movies give us pleasure because they are a way for us to engage with our subconscious minds. Basically, cinema offers us a mainline to tap directly into what we really desire.” This definition tracks with film theorist Laura Mulvey’s considerations of scopophilia, or the filmic gaze that intrinsically objectifies women and idealizes the male ego. In her article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, she notes, “Freud isolated scopophilia as one of the component instincts of sexuality which exist as drives quite independently of the erotogenic zones. At this point he associated scopophilia with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze... In this analysis scopophilia is essentially active.” Mulvey posits that gazes present in cinema can be examined through three distinct compartmentalizations. There is the voyeuristically separated gaze of the audience, the
perception of characters, and the view the camera presents. The lattermost kind of gaze is arguably the most significant to 8 1⁄2, and therein a case could even be made for the tantamount significance of a fourth kind of gaze: that of Fellini himself. This gaze, perhaps one that is derivative of the profilmic register, could also be that of any of the homogenous creators of 8 1⁄2. Every writer of the film, along with its producer, composer, cinematographer, costume designer, makeup artist, production management team, and the entirety of its sound and art departments, were white men. Save for the few costumers and assistants who were credited in the film’s making, the women of every dimension of Fellini’s 8 1⁄2 are little more than means to the director’s admittedly underdeveloped end. Here again, this assessment of Fellini’s decisive gaze is corroborated by Mulvey. “Woman then”, she writes, “stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” The active scopophilia that is exemplified throughout 8 1⁄2 is both a cognizant representation of itself as well as an oblivious caricature. Fellini reimagines the sexual awakenings of his boyhood, for instance, through the monstrous beach siren, Saraghina. Doubtless a recollection of the provocation of his own physical sexuality as a child, Fellini reconciles in Saraghina both mother and whore.
The context of this scene is obviously conversant with Freud’s linear conception of the latent and genital stages of psychosexual development, and yet this woman, who was significant enough to be portrayed in the film, is done so cartoonishly. Moreover, the infamous harem scene wherein our protagonist loses control of his own fantasy seems to imply Fellini’s comprehension of id, ego, and the superego. Therein, however, Fellini goes on to embody the duality of consciousness and unconsciousness in these three elements of psychodynamic psychology. For while a morality is acknowledged, it is acknowledged from the perspective of our male protagonist, alone. With the unraveling of the harem, Fellini depicts an inner conflict that stems from religious guilt. Fellini knows that the women in his life are justified in revolting against the codependence to which they’ve been reduced, and yet he did not know how to genuinely honor the sacrifices and experiences of these women. Considering the film’s production and its principle theme being explored through personal conceptions of the artist’s struggle, how little Fellini cared to validate the plight of women in 8 1⁄2 becomes something of an affront to the modern viewer. For while the film is certainly a triumph in many rights, it is unlikely as sophisticated an exploration of feminist psychoanalysis as some critics may purport.