For some time now, serious filmmakers (or those wishing to be taken seriously) have gravitated toward darkness and misery. Why not? If they are awake in the world they can hardly overlook the evidence of our futility over mounting mishaps, ranging from the performance of the American Congress to the worldwide disappearance of ice. Not long ago I was at a film festival where the patrons seemed to ignore the ravishing interactions of changing light and the Colorado Rockies while hurrying into the dark to see the fine program of films. These were “rewarding,” “inspiring,” and “momentous”—but not a lot of fun. From time to time, daunted audience members were heard to sigh for a comedy, or even a touch of unflawed beauty.
Well, we’re grown-ups. We know that beauty, like all things, is flawed, and we may have reached that inner door of perception that realizes the mistakes, the sadnesses, the freckles on the ivory skin, are the essence of beauty and more endearing than the platitudes that beauty is truth et cetera. Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza in Italian) is relief at last—not that the key word in the title, or the Italian provenance, should mislead you into thinking this is anywhere near the monstrous claptrap of Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, a film that so many people cherished that I am doing all I can to summon forgiveness, on the condition that we never mention it again.
Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is sixty-five. Rome is much older, but the two celebrate their birthday on the same day. Jep is a social star, the author of a novel (decades earlier) that seems to have provided for him and furnished a grand terrace where he can hold parties and observe the passing parade of the city’s ancient splendor and modern foolishness. Jep is capable of seeming wise, witty, and world-weary, and he is a ladies’ man who plays the crowd to avoid the risk of singular attachment. Once upon a time, Antonioni would have had Jep in torment because he has never written another book. Instead Jep does well-paid interviews with celebrities and grotesques, scandals and alleged saints. Sorrentino’s central figure is too tactful to let guilt or grief show; he makes fun of himself, as if he were the director in Fellini’s 8 ½, only this film was called 1. Life, he tries to say, is too much, too untidy, too constant to be turned into 250 pages. All of this is carried off by Servillo’s elastic face, sorrowful, sympathetic, never unkind or cold, eager to be amused, not handsome but eternally attractive. He observes life, but he elects to treat it as a dream.
In truth, Servillo is only fifty-four, yet no one could doubt that Jep is eleven years older. I was going to say more about his performance, but then this struck me: Johnny Depp is fifty, Tom Cruise is fifty-one. Is there any connection between the way they have gone flat on screen and their success at looking less than their real age? Or is it simply that Servillo has had experiences and material circumstances, with rather less faith in “wellness,” so that he looks his age and more? When he smokes, he inhales all of life. The question is not marginal: Servillo suggests that Jep has had a long, turbulent life, with ups and downs that will not make the film’s story. But they are vital to the depth of this movie. Above all, Servillo does not regard himself with a hint of awe or respect, and there may be no more crushing limitation in American acting.
There isn’t exactly a story or a plot in The Great Beauty. It’s just that one day Jep meets an old acquaintance and learns that this man’s wife has recently died. Jep is in horror, and the widower knows why: the wife loved Jep, and we can see from our hero’s face that if she was not simply the love of his life, she was one of them. A still photograph and brief flashbacks show us that woman when young; she is lovely and lovable, but no more so than several other women in this movie and in all the others that are made. It’s not that Jep feels the particular loss of this Elisa, or of their past. But he understands how the past is resupplied every day and that even a social favorite in today’s Rome is just waiting for his place on the last bus.
No, he doesn’t upend his life. He doesn’t dedicate himself to building a playground for poor children (like the dying man in Kurosawa’s great parable Living). He doesn’t even begin to write a second novel. But his eyes and his mind are opened up.
Talking to an elegant, self-centered woman at a party, he abandons the flattering politeness that Jep used to practice, and explains her life to her, as if describing a character in a novel, without malice, calmly and gently, as a conspiracy of half-truths and self-pity. Instead of being just a wisecracker and a quick smiler, his own face stills itself as he feels the true humor in life, which is a mixture of irony and compassion. He becomes more patient with fools and bores. He notices the beauty in sculpture, in buildings, in the vistas of Rome. Nothing changes in his city or the world at large. No problems are solved. Jep and Sorrentino are simply asking us to witness the steady dissembling masquerade in life. (The film’s epigraph comes from Céline, a more abrasive visionary than Sorrentino, but a clue as to his creative identity.)
Sorrentino is only forty-three, but he has been making a mark for ten years. In The Consequences of Love (2004), a becalmed man’s speaking to a young woman leads him toward organized crime; The Family Friend (2006) had an unpleasant old man becoming obsessed with a young woman; and Il Divo (2008) was based on the life of politician Giulio Andreotti. Then in 2011, in This Must Be the Place, Sean Penn played a wasted rock star who goes in search of the Auschwitz guard who victimized his father. Made in English, with a lot of the filming in America, this picture proved too odd or daring for American audiences, though I would point out that Penn looked and felt fifty-one and emotionally ruined.
Toni Servillo played in The Consequences of Love and Il Divo, and Sorrentino has had a loyal crew—Luca Bigazzi has photographed all of his pictures. In some quarters, The Great Beauty is going to be pigeonholed as a new version of La Dolce Vita and 8 ½, and Sorrentino is candid about his admiration for Fellini. But Toni Servillo is less handsome and more grounded than Marcello Mastroianni. We can believe that Jep has written a good novel, and that even better ones wait on his resolve. This is a Fellini project, if you like, but it is a film full of music, dance, Rome’s crème brûlée light and a sensual tenderness, so that it might have been made by Renoir.
On the other hand, there is the disappointment of Claire Denis’s new film, Bastards. Not that dismay strikes home straightaway. This is a bleak noir melodrama made smart and tricksy by Denis’s elliptical structure. A professional seaman, Marco (Vincent Lindon), comes home to find that his sister’s husband has killed himself on the point of business disaster. This loss seems to have been accelerated by another businessman, Laporte (Michel Subor), who is also in the process of debauching the dead man’s daughter, Justine (Lola Créton). Further, Marco renews an old affair with Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni, the child of Marcello and Catherine Deneuve), who is Laporte’s mistress.
The actors are all the more striking just because of the aggressively artful, if not mannered, construction of this ugly story on film. We labor to keep up, to follow the time shifts, to separate three female roles who are surely meant to look alike, and to wonder what that means. Claire Denis is a remarkable director (Beau Travail, The Intruder, White Material), but in this case she has made an absorbing but pretentious puzzle out of a rather empty (yet nasty) set-up. Admirers claim that Bastards is a film about perversion, sexual exploitation, and even the enabling role of some victims of abuse. I don’t think that much is there. An explicit shot of Justine, naked except for high heels, walking the night streets with blood streaming from her vagina, and pale video footage of her in homemade pornography, seem triter and more sensational than dealing with what her character is thinking and feeling. There are corncobs involved, too, if only to make a reference to Faulkner’s Sanctuary. This is a film so anxious to be taken seriously that it has evaded seriousness itself. It is like an Ingmar Bergman script reassembled by the young Jean-Luc Godard. Now, that Godard was a great director, but not the person to trust the agony of his characters as more or less than a movie routine.
David Thomson is the film critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Moments That Made the Movies (Thames & Hudson).