In Rob Marshall’s screen adaptation of a stage adaptation of Fellini’s 8 1/2, Marion Cotillard is operating on a higher order of performance than the other six actresses who stake their claim on the life of the directagonist played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Cotillard’s songs — she’s the only participant besides Day-Lewis to have two musical numbers — are the only ones performed with evident emotion, as if she is acting for a film and not just a matinee performance of a stage musical like the rest of her co-stars.

If the singing abilities she displayed in La Vie en Rose were somewhat overshadowed (understandably enough) by the impressiveness of her simultaneous impersonation of Edith Piaf, then here Cotillard is able to express a character musically without the distractions of hunched back and heavy make-up — although her eyebrows and bangs in Nine are distinctly modelled on Audrey Hepburn.

Despite the allusion in the title, Nine is two muses short of a full complement. As the film’s only verbally acknowledged one, Nicole Kidman is no Claudia Cardinale. Fellini’s audience never has to wonder why Mastroianni idolizes Cardinale, is never required to suspend disbelief to accept her effect on him. But Marshall’s audience must take it on faith that Day-Lewis has never taken Kidman off the pedestal because she tells us so (literally).

In her role Kidman is no doubt statuesque, but she invests the description with negative connotations, her plastic surgeries maintaining her attractiveness in only the most abstract of senses. In Fellini’s film, by contrast, Cardinale looked like the personification of beauty incarnated into truly tactile matter — in flesh and blood and skin and hair. The only actress to approach the same qualities in Nine is Marion Cotillard, and the movie is almost worth it for her performance alone.

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