L. -R . Dauven and Jacques Garnier
Translator's note: Federico Fellini's 1970 film, The Clowns, has been widely accepted as a realistic though somewhat exaggerated picture of the European clown tradition. For his documentary, Fellini used many old clowns living in France. Their reaction, and that of the French circus world, was unfavorable. The following essay from Cirque dans l'Univers (# 81) takes a critical look at Fellini's historical accuracy and journalistic integrity.
Fellini, for us, is La Strada, Il Bidone, Roma, Open City, Nights of Cabiria, Satyricon and ten other films dear to our hearts. And so we awaited The Clowns with as much faith as impatience. Had not the great Italian filmmaker announced that the work would be "an homage to the fascinating world of the circus?"
We have seen The Clowns.
We were totally disappointed, and quite disgusted.
We do not deny that there are some beautiful cinematic moments in The Clowns, and the contrary would be surprising. Even when he works on commission ‹ and this is the case, since it originally was conceived as a documentary for Italian television — Fellini remains a great artist. There are beautiful images and very successful sequences: the awakening of the child at the beginning of the film,, the setting up of the small circus, the death of the auguste in the seats, the burial, the closing trumpet duet.
But these represent only a few moments. And the film is more than two hours long!
Fellini as a child was — he recalls in an interview — "traumatized," we would say today, by clowns. (More likely by augustes. But he does not seem to make the distinction.) The experience has happened to others. They got over it and they orgave. Not him. And he is taking cruel revenge.
It is not so serious that he slips into his film bits of nonsense that provoke laughter where he did not intend it — that, for example, he has Annie Fratellini label as a xylophone a musical instrument François Fratellini, who claimed to have invented it, nicknamed the "flex-a-tone." And where did he discover that wild animals only "understand" German? If the film were honest, that is to say, in good faith, these trifles would not be worth mentioning. We know worse.
What is sad is that Fellini has retained only what is sordid and ugly about the circus. In Venice, Max and Alex Fischer, humorists justly forgotten, only saw the dirty water as it washed away garbage and dead dogs. In the circus, Fellini sees only vulgar, coarse, horrifying grotesqueries. Venice will always exist, with its palaces and its canals. The circus and clowns will outlive Fellini.
It has been said, and the critics have repeated it, that for Fellini, filmmaker and thinker, the circus was merely a pretext, his grand plan was to show us that we are all clowns at certain points in our existence and that grotesques also meet every day in life. Thus the astonishing gallery of ridiculous personages he takes pleasure in presenting to us: the dwarf nun, the stationmaster puffed up with authority, the fascist officer whose presence terrorizes the small boys, the old soldier always at war with the Austrians. Everything in the film is made grotesque, with two exceptions: Fellini himself and his script.
These caricatures, so overdone that on stage they would be unacceptable in a tenth-rate revue, might give the work "philosophical dimension." Yet, were this true, it would change nothing. For whatever motives, Fellini has offered us an image of the circus that is outrageously deformed, and totally out of touch with reality.
Is it not a mockery of the public to try to ask some of today's clowns whose talent is not in question to try to recreate the Fratellini trio? The scene — set in an insane asylum, for no particular reason — is unbearable. François, who was grace itself, has become a clumsy lout in the hideous mask of wickedness. Does this serve the truth? Antonet is no more "real," nor is Footit, who plays "Je cherche après Titine," a song composed well after his death, when another was clearly suggested: "A la maison, nous n'irons plus..."
We can also wonder if Fellini, taking advantage of the undeniable prestige of his name, has not abused the trust of the clowns invited to collaborate on his film. To encourage them to "talk shop" after a hearty meal and several drinks and, in the flood of conversation, isolate their responses, is that really honest? We have our doubts.
But everything is allowed to the great master, as Federico Fellini surely knows. M. Bouglione appears in one scene —M. Bouglione is photographed from behind and does not speak a word ... and it is not the real Bouglione! Fellini ridicules the old artistes who had the courtesy to receive him into their homes: Loriot, Bario, and Jean Houcke (who was never a clown). How do you say "low-down" in Italian? It is true that the filmmaker has a very peculiar concept of journalism.
For anyone who is in doubt, he has only to refer to the declarations made by our friends Fredy and Nello Bario to François Jacques, who published them in Le Nouvel Observateur last March 15, as follows:
"When Fellini came to see our father — Papa Bario is eighty-seven years old — he found him all smiles. He asked him to recount his past, but he systematically stopped him when he spoke about anything humorous. 'Tell me about your last time in the ring, when you became ill in the Circus Knie in 1956! Tell me sad stories.' To think he made our father cry. Realizing the same tactics would not work with the dwarf Ludo, he got him drunk and then had him talk. He cried then. When Maiss doubled as Papa Bario, Fellini decided on the circus at Amiens, because it is empty. He had proposed filming us (we still did not know what his movie was to be like) but he found us too modern..."
What more is there to say?
Of the remarks made by Tristan Rémy — whose voice seemed dubbed in the version we have seen — Fellini has kept but a few responses, and this is a shame. especially since one is driven to wonder if the filmmaker has not on several occasions distorted — intentionally or not — Tristan's ideas.
Our friend (Tristan Rémy) feels — and has for a long time — that "the whiteface clown is dead," for lack of invention, lack of self-renewal, and failure to impose his presence to the same extent that the auguste has, always inclined to have things his own way. Fellini goes much further: he proclaims that "the circus is dead."
A gratuitous and false affirmation, it hardly need be said. M. Fellini no doubt ignores some fifty circuses, large and small, performing in his own country, and we can count dozens in France and England . . . and a few hundred in the USSR.
But it is too much to ask the great filmmaker to be informed or even to be consistent. At the end of the film, it is a whiteface clown who says: "The auguste is dead. I alone remain." M. Fellini is probably alone in not knowing that if clowns — whiteface clowns — have become rare,the augustes remain numerous. And that many of them are excellent.
One more word, to conclude.
The Clowns is perhaps not "an evil deed," as it is termed by one of our friends who cannot pardon Fellini's deliberate denigration, but it is certainly a film that spectators have good reason to sulk about, and a work that will add nothing to its creator's glory.
As for the clowns, not to displease Fellini, but they are still going strong. The Francescos, the Chabris, Chiky and Co., the Rivels, the Rudi-Llatta, Charlie Caroli, Zavatta, the Bario, and many others prove themselves every night.
The art of the clown, disappeared?
Sans Blââââââgue, Signor Fellini?
Reprinted from Mask, Mime & Marionette Translated by Diane Goodman