Nine opens not with music but in gathering silence. Guido Contini, famous Italian film director now forty, is deep in thought, unable to hear Luisa, his wife of twenty years, herself the star movie actress of her day, trying to speak to him: "Guido, mi stai ascoltando?" she says. "Guido, are you listening to me?" But he isn't. He is reaching far back in to his memory, searching for something - something overlooked in the recesses of his mind that can help him out of a stalled life and an unscripted film. Anything that adds up.
Stealthily, the sound of a woman's laughter echoes through the walls of memory, followed by other voices, all women he knows and has known: his mistress Carla, his producer Liliane La Fleur, the great actress Claudia Nardi, muse of so many of his films, and even his mother-long dead. Their voices surge and overlap to drown out Luisa's altogether, coiling up into an explosion of sound to become the Overture of Nine: a rapture of women speaking, their words now indistinguishable in Guido's mind, though not their meaning. The 'la la la' of the overture is no generalisation, it is a specific tapestry of female delight, power, persuasion and vitality. Words beyond words.
The Overture does not conclude exactly - it simply recedes to give Guido a brief respite from the sounds in his head. But the fleeting moment of peace is enough to bring Guido back to his waking life and to notice that Luisa is almost in despair. He proposes a trip for the two of them to a spa, the Fontana di Luna, as a way to rest and renew themselves together. Even this thought triggers a brief fantasia in Guido's head of a spa bizarrely populated only by women and presided over by a madonna-like beauty neatly weaving a Catholic boy's fantasy of heaven into the health-giving waters of the spa. Luisa draws on the deep resource of love she has for her husband to agree to go, but warns him this is their last chance.
Venice. No sooner do they arrive at the Spa than they are hunted down by the press ("Not Since Chaplin") asking intrusive questions about their marriage and-news to Luisa-Guido's next project. Luisa's sense of betrayal that Guido had not mentioned this next project to her is only deepened by the sudden appearance of Carla, Guido's mistress, racing off the train, and packed off to a hotel in the vicinity. Finally, pursued to their hotel room, they throw out the press and Guido begs Luisa to handle the phones and requests for interviews. Another brief respite, and time for Guido to reflect ironically on the price of his restless desire to be everywhere and all things at once ("Guido's Song").
Meanwhile, the clock is running. Guido has been contracted and paid for a film, due to start shooting in a week, and his lifelong producer Liliane La Fleur has located him in Venice and is now bearing down. The press, ever voracious for scandal, corner Luisa walking alone at the spa, but she answers them with "My Husband Makes Movies," a complex account of what it is like to be married to a remarkable man. The song establishes Luisa's deep love for Guido as an act of strength and Luisa herself as a woman profoundly talented at love. It also finally silences the tabloids.
Back in the hotel room, Guido is desperate to escape from his producer, but before Luisa can talk it through with him, the phone goes again and this time it is Carla, restless and alone in her hotel room, telling him she's "not wearing any clothes"-a call Guido explains midway to Luisa as being from the Vatican about his film ("A Call from the Vatican"). Luisa responds to the obvious by wittily drawing Guido out on the impending disaster of his film and then telling him that she has booked a gondola for the afternoon so they can just "drift around and see what comes up." Guido realises his utter dependence on Luisa and sings "Only With You," a song that stealthily draws into his imagination the other women he loves deeply and for different reasons, and leaves Guido and Luisa as apart as they have ever been.
The ticking clock is back with an alarm in the form of Liliane La Fleur. She wants to know where the script is. Guido invents ("The Script"), hoping to devise a story that will also take him out of the room before anyone notices. La Fleur is not amused and, after demolishing the intellectual 'art' movie - "Directors are so existentialists"-proceeds to suggest a musical movie with glamour and kisses and proper love songs: in other words, a movie that expresses the glory of her own days as one of the greatest vedettes of the "Folies Bergeres."
The number leads Guido into a fantasy of femininity so vivid that he finds himself seeking help from a Cardinal in the catacombs-an encounter that leads him to consider innocence and guilt and opens the floor of the present into his past: a vision of himself at nine years old being bathed by his mother ("Nine"), but the moment too when he was sent away to a parochial boarding school.
The memory also unlocks a crucial encounter with a woman on the beach: Saraghina, a prostitute vilified by church and town, but to whom the young Guido went out of curiosity to ask her to teach him about "love."
Saraghina, delighted by the innocence and heart of the little boy, tells him to be himself. And she teaches him how to dance ("Be Italian"). Joy is followed by punishment ("The Bells of St. Sebastian") as the older Guido recalls the violent treatment of the nuns and rejection by his own mother when the school learned of his moment on the beach with Saraghina. Little Guido, unable to bear it, runs away, back to the beach, where he finds only the sand and the wind-an image of the fugitive heart and the vanishing nature of love with which the first act ends.
The second act opens on a different beach at night and in the relentless present. Claudia Nardi has come from Paris. Guido needs her for his movie-she is and has always been the talisman of his great successes and his muse. But now she doesn't want to do it. Undeclared is Claudia's deep love for this man who in many ways gave her her life and career. But she needs to know if he can love her as a woman now, not as a "spirit." Guido hears only her rejection of the role and, desperately lost now, lashes out at her, feeling she is rejecting him. Claudia sees that she must move on with her life and stop wanting Guido. He is incapable of loving in the way she needs, and wryly she calls him "my charming Casanova"-a thought that leaps to Guido's mind as a brilliant idea for a film: "Me! Casanova!" As Guido sinks into the inspiration, seeming to forget Claudia's presence completely, she sings openly for the first time of her love for him, feeling released at last to love him ("Unusual Way") but never to hope for him again.
As Claudia leaves, Guido leaps into action. Creating a film on the set, he conjures a "romantic spectacular that'll use the vernacular"-a lavish, headlong improvisation set on "The Grand Canal" with himself as Casanova, and every woman in his life in the cast. Claudia has agreed to stay for the film, though furious that she is wearing the same dress as she did for three other movies, so Guido gives her the role of Casanova's wife instead, instantly casting Liliane in Claudia's role as "Claudietta."
The rising sense of desperation erupts into full-blown madness as Carla races on to the set delightedly telling Guido that her divorce has come through and now they can marry-only to have Guido turn on her to tell her she's crazy and to get out. Carla, in shock, subsides into grief on camera as the movie rolls relentlessly on, and Guido seems to be spiraling ever more out of control. Casting Claudia as his wife, Liliane as Claudia, another actress (Maria) as Carla, Guido embarks on a demented operetta ("Every Girl in Venice"/ "Amor"), eventually putting a gun to his head-an unscripted move that shocks the company and from which Claudia, as Casanova's wife Beatrice, gently dissuades him with the very words Luisa once used before their afternoon on the gondola.
The result is "Only You" -a gorgeous lyric of solace-but as Luisa herself watches over the entire event, she knows he is now speaking to her and yet unable to speak to her. He is lost. Luisa walks onto the set and tries to stop the film; a furious argument ensues between her and Guido, ending with Luisa telling him to "Go to hell" as she crumples paralysed on the set. The company waits to see what Guido will do - will he stop the film?-but in an act of either cruelty or self-laceration, he orders the cameras to "keep rolling," capturing a scene of utter desolation: the women he loves, and Luisa whom he loves above all, littered like smashed porcelain across the frame of his hopelessly beautiful failure of a film. "Cut. Print!"
The movie has fallen apart. The cast leave. Guido reaches out to Luisa-not there; to Claudia-not there; and then to Carla, who is at the station. He begs her to understand why their relationship doesn't need to be so "complicated" when what they had was so "simple." But Carla responds by turning his own words back to him ("Simple"): a song from the articulate broken heart. During this Claudia also speaks to him from Paris to tell him she has married a good man who does not "distract" her. Finally, Guido turns to Luisa once again, and she responds with "Be On Your Own"-a shattering exit from a marriage that has, as she says, been "all of me."
Alone, Guido knows he is lost. "I Can't Make this Movie" soars up into the open cry of "Guido out on space with no direction" and something like a scream that has been lurking in his heart since childhood. In a last, wry look at the apparent disaster of his life, he considers suicide and reflects that it is "not a bad idea for a movie," raising a gun to his head...
Only to be interrupted by the appearance of Young Guido who has a lesson for him: time to grow up and leave childhood behind. "Guido, you're not crazy, you're all right." ("Getting Tall") With that, Guido sees what a fool he is being and hands over the gun. Whereupon, the women of his life enter as they had for the Overture, but this time to release him into the rest of his life. And only one woman, Luisa, can go with him there, yet she is the one aching absence here. Guido hears her voice from long ago, recognises how he "needs her so" and finally takes leave of the child Guido in a mutual and thankful agreement: "I'll be forty and you'll be / You'll be forty and I'll be nine." As the other women leave in a celebratory reprise of "Be Italian," led away by the young Guido into his own future with them, Guido stands alone in his present. This production ended with Luisa, almost miraculously stepping into the room at the very last note. And Guido, turning to her, this time ready to listen.
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