Blu-ray Review: ‘I Clowns’

“Clown acts have to be short and make people laugh in ten minutes – give it some rhythm!” These are the words of wisdom bestowed during the first interview Federico Fellini conducts in his made-for-television pseudo-documentary, I Clowns (1970). This advice is taken to heart throughout much of the film’s mischievous structure as (with the exception of the film’s opening and closing set pieces), the hijinks is restricted to short bursts of colourful frivolity. It’s fitting, if not inevitable, that such a subject should provide an inspiration for a director whose work was perennially imbued with a carnivalesque spirit. Whilst something of a minor work for the Italian Master, I Clowns arrived at the peek of Fellini’s influence.

Fellini and his film crew are cast as their own troupe, traipsing off to Paris to play interviewers to a variety of circus performers. Deftly, the director slots footage of their knockabout acts into musings on the nature and history of these princes of laughter. Among the points of interest is the slowly morphing persona of the inherited character of the white-facade clown, the ‘Antonet’, into a po-faced authoritarian. Aesthetically, Fellini keeps things observational, eschewing directorial flourish and instead adopting the straightforward visual realism of documentary filmmaking. Rarely embarking on the commonplace approach of ‘talking heads’, Fellini prefers to mimic the viewers’ natural relationship with these showmen, distancing the audience by making them very much that – an audience.

Even when behind the scenes, as it were, Fellini frames conversations across a crowded dinner table and rather than assuming the role of interlocutor he spends much of the film’s runtime shooting the action within the big top, from the stalls. Fellini’s oeuvre has always been about creation and performance and even though he’s affecting a presentation of reality I Clowns is no exception. The film closes on arguably its most Felliniesque sequence (along with an odd cameo from La Dolce Vita’s Anita Ekberg). A sprawling and glorious clown funeral in which everything goes wrong (naturally), combining the lamentation of a dying art with an appropriate degree of silliness. I Clowns is far from vintage Fellini, yet remains a fascinating entry in his glittering filmography.

Ben Nicholson @BRNicholson

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