Spectre and Structure in 8 1/2

Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963) exposes the at once personal and ideological struggle to maintain our fantasy of wholeness and consistency. The film’s largest structures, its somewhat disconnected scenes, are frequently pushed together awkwardly, implying the at once continuous and discontinuous structure of lived experience, which like the so-called “persistence of vision” forges reality out of illusion. This is precisely what Zizek means when he argues for Lacan that “ reality is not the ‘thing itself’, it is always-already symbolized, constituted, structured by symbolic mechanisms…”(1). More to the point, Zizek argues that

…reality is never directly ‘itself’; it presents itself only via its incomplete-failed symbolization, and spectral apparitions emerge in this very gap that forever separates reality from the real, and on account of which reality has the character of a (symbolic) fiction: the spectre gives body to that which escapes (the symbolically structured) reality.(2)

In this sense, there are two spectral elements that hold the film and Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) together, which is to say that always-already prefigure the symbolic fiction that Guido and the film are whole things. They are the escape to Guido’s fantasies and memories, and the women of the film and Guido’s life. As Fellini’s creation, this spectrality probably has a very jarring, perhaps upsetting effect on the audience because of how close the Real feels in those spectres—and therein lies the genius of the film.

The co-dependent arising of the film and Guido’s fantasy is marked, first of all, by the fact that the film’s scenes do not run smoothly together. They work better as false starts to or otherwise fragments of progressive sections of the film. This is the over-arching discontinuity structuring the way the film is viewed. When Guido faces stress, which we might read as the stress of powerlessness, as with the Cardinal in the bathhouse, a scene of fantasy or memory or fantasmatic memory begins without explanation. It is at these liminal points that we see the film itself in terms of Guido’s failed narcissism, which he’s constantly covering-up.

The abundance of women also heavily marks the film with the structure of Guido’s pathological narcissism. To understand this, it may help if one considers that in the aforementioned bathhouse scene (it starts about 3-minutes into the clip I was able to find on YouTube) the Cardinal’s fundamental lack is before our eyes. The Cardinal’s aides, his command of the Symbolic Order, veil him with a sheet before we or Guido can see him nude, in his naked powerlessness, his castration. This gesture ironically only emboldens the appearance of the Cardinal’s lack, since what we actually see is a shadow against the sheet and no body, but just his head. The sheet, especially when the Cardinal wraps himself in it, gives body to his lack in the same way that the women give body to Guido’s lack, and to the lack of the film. The abundance and thoroughly patriarchal depiction of women in the film, attests to Lacan/Zizek’s point that the phallic signifier is a paradoxical signifier of phallic enjoyment and loss (3).

The “harem sequence,” therefore, in its abundance of women as well as it being an articulation of the larger fantasy-structure of the film, gives body to repressing the lack in Guido’s failing marriage and film, which he is constantly trying to cover up. Guido’s narcissistic fantasy thus determines a major structural element of Fellini’s film: for the content of all of Guido’s fantasies, which are themselves the spectral structures of the film that at once cover up while representing its own lack, are the women who are themselves spectres covering up as they show us the always-already failure of Guido’s narcissistic fantasy. The same failure of Guido’s fantasy structures the very failure of his own film. It too is a incomplete hodge-podge of scenes and false starts, with a never-complete rocket-ship set, whose hollow-looking scaffolding gives an eerie spectral body of its own to this particular failure. The film does better than anything else to perversely represent lack, in the spectre apprehended aprés coup, as its most failed attempt to cover itself up.

In the penultimate scene of the movie, Guido is dragged to a press conference about his movie. Before sitting down, he is handed a gun by an unidentified man; it is put in his right-pocket. When his producer insists that he answer the questions of the press, he sneaks under the conference table. The table is draped with cloth, and when the camera moves under the table with Guido, we see a fury of shadows against this cloth. When he shoots himself, he is only fantasizing again; perhaps he even fantasized about being handed the gun. The shadows are the same as the aforementioned Cardinal’s shadow in the bath-house. They are the threatening presence of the Real crowding Guido. The fantasy of this moment can be recognized in the powerful presence the shadows bear of the Real, which before used to precipitate his spectral fantasy, but now totally invades it. It is also conceivable when the audience wonders why no one reaches for the table-cloth, or for Guido, when he goes under the table. At any rate, here he commits a sort of suicide, but I do not think he actually shoot himself in the head. What he does is make some decision to terminate his symptom, though not in the gun-shot itself. The gun-shot merely indicates the significance of the following and final scenes.

The last scene is without question redemptive, no matter what was really meant in the preceding scene; Guido traverses his fantasy. After being tempted by Carini (Jean Rouguel), the critic, with accepting nihilistic defeat because he can’t “have everything,” Guido remarks, after the magician gestures for him to come and play, that:

What is this sudden happiness that makes me tremble, giving me strength, life? Forgive me, sweet creatures. I hadn’t understood. I didn’t know. It’s so natural accepting you, loving you. And so simple. Luisa, I feel I’ve been freed. Everything seems so good, so meaningful. Everything is true. I wish I could explain. But I don’t know how to. So. Everything is confused again, as it was before. But this confusion is… me. Not as I’d like to be, but as I am. I’m not afraid anymore, of telling the truth, of the things I don’t know, what I’m looking for and haven’t found. This is the only way I can feel alive and I can look into your faithful eyes without shame. Life is a celebration. Let’s live it together! This is all I can say Luisa, to you or the others. It’s the only way we might be able to find each other.

Guido steps back into the signifying chain as he steps into the circle of friends and family with his wife. Like Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest, Guido allows himself to take on an identity, constituted in the Symbolic order, which means constituted by a fundamental inconsistency and non-guarantee—a lack of positive content. Being able to do this, to act rather than re-act, he is freed. He identifies with the impossibility of any real identity, with the confusion that persists despite his newfound freedom. In this confusion is the persistence of fantasy, but it would seem that the fundamental fantasy has been traversed, that Guido’s fantasies can be seen for what they really are, and that his life can be appreciated for what it really is: a non-guarantee.


1. The Zizek Reader, “The Spectre of Ideology,” 73.
2. Ibid, 74.
3. “…the phallus, the signifier of enjoyment, had simultaneously to be the signifier of ‘castration’, that is to say, one and the same signifier had to signify enjoyment as well as its loss” (Zizek, Metastases of Enjoyment, “Courtly Love, or Woman as Thing,” 97).