Carla, Guido’s mistress, reminds us that 8½ is just as much a comedy as a drama. Though her visit to Guido is meant to be clandestine, her presence is never subtle, and Guido’s discomfort is hilarious as he watches her flounce off a train wearing a dress of velvet and fur—wholly unsuitable attire for the climate of the spa village—or jingle into a café in a horse-drawn coach. Her lighthearted chatting, punctuated by giggles and gasps, is so genuinely vapid that it is difficult to believe that Guido can endure her. During the scene at the hotel restaurant, Guido’s irritation with Carla’s insipidity is unmistakable, yet, among countless potential mistresses, Guido chooses her.
Why would the ultra-sensitive Guido choose Carla, a woman who can’t begin to understand the subtlety of his genius? Apart from her sumptuous figure and pristine beauty, Guido selects her precisely for the reason that she is so different from the society of his public life. While Pace and the others demand production, Luisa demands commitment, and the pseudo-intellectual crowd demands impossibly abstract discussion, Carla asks for nothing. If she is upset about something—for example, not staying at the grand hotel—her pouting lasts only a few moments, and, like a child, she is contented by the superficial pleasure of eating (she eats a big plate of chicken, gulps red wine, and devours several peaches at a time) and reading comic books. While Carla’s attitude is principally childish, she also adopts a maternal tone toward Guido, encouraging him, too, to regress into the capriciousness of youth. Guido’s affair with Carla is like his visits to Saraghina as a boy: superficial and embarrassing, but too exhilarating for him to give up.