Fellini's '8 1/2'instagram/federico_fellini

Before Wilde’s play, the defining image of Salome was ingenuic: renaissance depictions of the princess clutching  the Baptist’s head, sanitised of gore, as though it might be nothing more unordinary than a particularly large and bearded melon. Beardsley rectified all that, with his Salome a snarling, sexual, demonic figure, not quite harpy, not quite princess. She could be twenty, she could be sixty, for there is something timeless about the monstrous glee with which she stares into the Baptist’s rolling eyes. In Beardsley’s style, Salome stains the page, ink curdling, violent white against violent black, mother pearl and coal dust. Her hair is enormous, it seems to writhe in great matted gorgon-like knots, and her dress slips—seductive? Sloppy? Either way, a deeply reductive depiction of female sexuality. 

I am watching Fellini’s 8 ½ when I think about Beardsley’s Salome. Fellini women encompass a great many kinds of femininity, a rogues gallery of womanhood through the eyes of a man: sensuality, immaturity, haughtiness, glamorousness. Maddalena, Sylvia and Gloria share an easy aloofness; Juliet, Emma and Luisa all bitterly wronged wives. But none are quite like Saraghina. 

"Saraghina emerges from her cave-like dwelling in a ragged half-dress, all tendon, muscle and animal slabs of flesh, practically prehistoric"

Saraghina emerges from her cave-like dwelling in a ragged half-dress, all tendon, muscle and animal slabs of flesh, practically prehistoric. In the infamous scene, she is sought out by schoolboys and paid to dance the rumba, the money tucked in her cleavage. She smiles, wide and wet, and begins to dance with solid, muscular movements as though wading through tar. It is a disturbing dance, like Salome’s, animal and instinctual. It is at once childish and deeply adult, exuding a heady seductivity that we inhale with the boys as though it was church incense, for it demands to be inhaled, sweaty and beachy: sea salt, salt sweat. Adolescent and church-like. Her beachside pillbox-hut (it seems important scenes in Fellini always take place beside the sea) has all the squat solitude of an anchorite’s hermitage, and, for a destitute semi-prostitute, she has all the trappings of someone deeply religious, a veritable Mary Magdalene. 

"Her monstrous girlishness, her caricature body, and her daunting sexuality seems characteristic of the auteur’s women"

When the boys secretly flee the school in search of Saraghina they are watched over by an enormous statue of a church dignitary looking sterilely down at them. Where the saintly effigy is white and marble, Saraghina is dark and fleshy, an overripe Eve in grayscale. But she is not entirely unlike the statue, she too is enormous, a giantess to the boys, thighs, arms and bust solid, neck sprouting from her torso as though coursing with sap—I wonder how much of this gigantic size is authentic, and how much is childhood imagination, for everything seems big to someone small. Fellini himself has said that she ‘is sex as seen by a child. Grotesque yet seductive to one so innocent’, a line that evokes perhaps Jokanaan’s revulsion at the desirous Princess Salome, but I wonder if she is also womanhood stripped back as seen by the male gaze. Her monstrous girlishness, her caricature body, and her daunting sexuality seems characteristic of the auteur’s women. Rota scores the scene with a searing Weimar tune, squawked out on a throaty accordion, sensual in its theatricality, the music screeching as Saraghina plucks a boy up, holds him to the sun and grins—harmlessly childlike, or hungrily menacing—her hair like a statically untameable halo. It is seeing her in that pose (smiling at the child held aloft like the Baptist’s head, post dance with her dress slipping) that I realise Saraghina is Fellini’s own Salome, his women are Beardsley’s women. 


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Beardsley’s women are reductively seamy grotesques, their 2-Dimensionality not just due to their place on the page. They are often felinely androgynous, with sneering lips, cat-like eyes and hermaphroditic in body. A modern audience may find them distasteful, defined for the large part by the apparent repulsion-cum-fascination Beardsley takes in their sexuality—though do we expect substance and gender-dimension from nineteenth century decadent art? The same is true for Fellini. His City of Women—a sort of modern misogynistic pasquinade of Christine DePizan. His films are wish-fulfilment; through semi-autobiographical protagonists Fellini treats himself to a sort of Solomon’s harem of women who lavish attention on him, a Bechdel nightmare that leaves me rolling my eyes at best, and slightly nauseous at worst. In 8 ½, Mastroianni’s character imagines a dream world in which all the women he’s ever been attracted too—his wife, showgirls, mistresses, and indeed an imagined Saraghina—dote on him, fight one another for his attention, an autobiographical wish-fulfilment for Fellini to indulge in unchecked male gaze, their personalities sacrificed for visceral focus on their sexualities. 

Through their women, Fellini and Beardsley satirise the very cultures they rule as princes over, a self-indulgent creative hypocrisy. Fellini depicts Italy’s Jet Set of the 60s as a shallow, carnal whirlwind of hedonism, though in doing so takes great pleasure in indulging in and filming all the sun-steeped sex that he allegedly parodies. Likewise Beardsley’s pieces often inkily lampoon the Decadents, and yet to think of Beardsley is to think of the very Decadents he ridicules. Their invasive obsession with and vitriolic depictions of female sexuality smack of a distasteful male gaze, and so their women, Saraghina and Salome, come to expose them, the culmination of their work and desires. If the men claim their grotesques of female sexuality, their condemnations of hedonism are satire, Saraghina and Salome know better, rolling their kohl rimmed eyes together.

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