Some of the great works of literary impressionism – Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, Zola’s Germinal, Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, Joyce’s Ulysses, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Lowry’s Under the Volcano – harness the individual as a confluence of disparate sensations driven by a powerful and often only vaguely expressed desire. Often these kernels of desire are associated with feelings of love, regret, nostalgia, loss, disappointment, and death. All of these writers opposed the old literary fiction where the novel voiced by an omniscient spectator of the human scene is resisted in favour of the emergent unreliable spectator who is as confused by the whirlwind of events in life as everybody else. This is an individual who isn’t even certain anymore of what they are or if they are even an individual, who scrabbles around and searches for meaning in the flurry of disparate sensations, the ruins of time’s passing and death’s ever-present face. Here all ‘real’ experience is presented as elusive, fragmentary and irreducibly sensorial in nature. The world is suddenly no longer made up of stable things, including stable point of view, constructed upon a steady and linear flow of time. The extent to which it ever did being only the illusory effect of literature. With these writers time is fragmented and broken, qualitatively differentiated and non-homogenous, composed of different perspectives, orders of speed, folds, repetitions and echoes, echoes and silences. For them, quite simply, this hallucinogenic fragmentation and kaleidoscopic condensation of sensation is the ‘true’ nature of reality, as it was for impressionist painters like Monet, Manet, Cezanne, and Renoir. The fragmentary yet vividly coloured impressions through which we pass the fragmented temporality of our lives are more ‘real’ than any of the fabulated linear narratives and coherent sense we might wish to impose. Yet, is it possible that the literary assemblages composed by any one of these writers be any less fictional than any of literature’s previous forms? According to Celine, in a passage cited at the very beginning of Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 film The Great Beauty, it cannot, simply because the life that we experience and that is then recounted in all its impressionistic gratuity, is itself irreducibly fictional:
Travel is useful it exercises the imagination
All the rest is disappointment and fatigue
Our journey is entirely imaginary
That is its strength
It goes from life to death
People, animals, cities, things, all are imagined
It’s a novel, just a fictitious narrative
Littre says so, and he’s never wrong
And besides, anyone can do as much
You just have to close your eyes
It’s on the other side of life
(Louis-Ferdinand Celine – Journey to the End of the Night)
We constantly construct the fiction of our own lives in our imagination as we continue to exist in the tatters and ruins of our lives, torn apart by time, age, loss, disappointment and death. For some of us the art of literature (as well as the poetry of great cinema) is the means whereby we exercise our own imaginations in the footsteps of others. It becomes a means for intensifying and organising the fragmentary pieces of our own lives, even as our lives lie in pieces. For Sorrentino the cinema is a powerful means for us to actually close our eyes. Not literally of course, but in the sense evoked by Celine. Cinema is a means, or at least an opportunity, to close our eyes to the proasaic order of the miserable surfaces of the world outside, to the merciless and quantitatively massive boredom and disappointment, the fucking exhausting blah blah blah of it all. Like great literature, cinema is also a form of imaginative immersion and transport to the other side of life. Not as a facile mode of escape, but as the means for a truly deep adventure into the interior. An adventure suffused with as much life and as much death as anything that stands outside of it. It becomes a vital way of reflecting on the questions that really matter – the passing of time, the fragility of memory, the soaring intensity of love and grief, the enduring quality of beauty, art and literature, spiritual transcendence, memory and nostalgia, and the mysterious finality of death. Sorrentino’s film presents us with as powerful a meditation upon time, memory, love and death as anything in the literary masterpieces written by Proust, Celine or Fitzgerald. His film is a wonderfully self-referential labyrinth of time and memory, capable of transporting us elsewhere within the spiraling associative pathways of a person at a point of great existential crisis. Conjuring up a whole plethora of cinematic associations with the thematic territory and carnivalesque style of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, the spiritual malaise and salvation of Rossellini’s Europa 51, and Visconti and Antonioni’s impressionistic detachment, The Great Beauty easily stands alongside Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life as one of the truly great films to be made in the new century, confidently assured in the immense power of the art of cinema and the depth grammar of artistic creativity and spiritual faith.
Deleuze & Guattari once remarked that when it comes to art or literature that conveys intense sensorial affect or collective perception, that of the drug user, the drunk, the mentally ill, or the child, rarely stands up to much scrutiny. It is simply either too flaky, breaking up as soon as it is made or looked at, or too crammed full and having none of the empty space needed for sensations and perceptions to breathe autonomously. This is the heart of the problem for Jep Gambardella, Sorrentino’s wealthy socialite protagonist in The Great Beauty. He has published one highly acclaimed novel, The Human Apparatus, forty years earlier. Now, on the eve of his sixty-fifth birthday at a lavish and stylish birthday party on the terrace of his extraordinary bachelor apartment beside Rome’s Coliseum, he is forced to reflect upon his failure to write another.
Jep is an inveterate hedonist, indulging in nightly reverie, empty sexual encounters and vacuous partying. His almost total immersion within the sensual hedonism of wealthy artistic Rome seems to have left him as incapable of disciplined literary writing expressing the sensual intensity of life as the drunkard, madman or child. He is a man who has turned his back upon his literary destiny through sensual excess coupled with a lack of artistic will. His reflections on this failure inevitably provoke reflections upon the numerous failures of his life. Throughout the film we are transported into the melancholic realm of a man reflecting upon his own life lived to this point in Rome, mourning for his lost love, his self-loathing, the repeated visions of ghosts from the past, his yearning for spiritual significance amidst an ongoing orgy of nihilism, and ultimately his failure to render the intensity of his heightened sensorial awareness and his memories into a meaningful, possibly artistic and literary, form.
But, hold on, hasn’t he already started doing exactly that at this point in the film? We are, after all, at the start of a ‘story’, a journey that tries to make sense of his life, that tries to construct a significance and a meaning to it all.
Even before this ‘narrative’ journey begins we are reminded by Celine, as I mentioned earlier, that ‘our journey is entirely imaginary’, ‘it’s a novel, just a fictitious narrative’. From this point, before we even arrive at Jep’s party and meet him for the first time, we are led into an impressionistic collage of images of Rome without any kind of fixed point of view. We simply drift with the camera around the Fontana dell’Acqua Paolo with as much free-form impressionistic splendour as anything in Antonioni. The sequence begins with the firing of a cannon, like the marking of time and the start of something significant. This is applauded by tourists, and then we drift across a war memorial that reads Roma O Morta, (Rome or Death), a statue of Italy’s great actor and political activist Gustavo Modena, momentary glimpses of everyday folk passing time in this beautiful city – a fat man freshens his face in the water of a fountain, another sleeps on a park bench, and a woman reads the newspaper and smokes a cigarette in the shadow of a statue. All seem oblivious or habituated to the great beauty of the city they inhabit. A choir sings the sublimely melancholic ‘I Lie’ by David Lang in the window of a magnificent building as a tourist guide explains the historical profile of the fountain to a group of Asian tourists. One of the tourists breaks away from the group to admire the great vista of the city from this point of view and to take some photographs, and he collapses apparently dead. It is as if he is struck, or touched, by the sheer beauty of Rome. It being so ravishingly beautiful that he is literally struck down dead. The view of the outsider is contrasted with the relaxed indifference of Rome’s inhabitants. The film begins with this impressionistic vignette of the death of the outsider, struck down by the great beauty of the city. And so Jep’s novel, his imaginary journey behind closed eyes, begins. And it begins with death. This entire scene concisely encapsulates Jep’s understanding of what his life has amounted to up to this point, of how his own aesthetic sensitivity was numbed and deadened by the ravishing beauty of this city, his literary search for the great beauty destroyed by his immersion in the superficial surfaces of the city’s good life until he has become as indifferent and immune as any of its other inhabitants. What follows is Jep’s fictional reversal of Celine’s claim that with literary narrative we always move from life to death. Here we’ll repeatedly move from death to death to death until Jep achieves a form of resurrection through his narrative ‘trick’. It is, after all, just a ‘trick’.
Jep, the self-styled “king of parties” in his narrative, is a man who seems to have seen every form of decadence you can imagine, and some you probably can’t. The grotesque wealthy elite who hang out at his “famous” parties on his terrace overlooking the Coliseum in Rome look exactly like the kind of people who would have haunted the stands in Roman times, indulging in a hedonistic frenzy of blood, screams and death. There are many implicit references to Rossellini’s work in this film, particularly in the way it depicts the social culture of Rome. In his own way Rossellini tracked the decadent fall of Rome from it being the site of remarkable and enduring bravery, heroism and resistance during its occupation by the Nazis in Rome, Open City to a post-war city in the grip of a vulgar bourgeois hedonism, spiritual malaise and material indifference in Europa 51. In Europa 51 the decadent Rome becomes the site for the emergence of a new saint in the form of the heart broken middle-class woman who becomes a saviour and hope for the poor. In Rossellini’s film the heroine’s rejection of the the superficial comforts of her social class and commitment to helping those in poverty through immersing herself in poverty is ultimately mistaken for madness, and echoes the perception of the old nun at the conclusion of Sorrentino’s film. In Jep’s world such social and spiritual commitment looks no less like willful eccentricity and madness as it did in Rosellini’s.
He tells us that he aspired and succeeded in becoming the ultimate playboy, capable of wielding the power of success and failure of a party merely through his presence or absence. As he turns sixty-five he appears to be utterly jaded through excess, indifferent and bored with his life. He even manages to look bored during a private exhibitionist sex show at one of his parties where a naked man films himself on his Iphone playing with the vagina of a naked woman. Despite having consciously cultivated such a lifestyle, Jep appears bored with all of the superficial exhibitionism, the narcissistic spectacle of the garish surface’s of Rome’s high life. After having indulged in this Bacchanalian high life for forty years he awakens to the voice that yearns inside of him for the intensity of interior and imaginative introspection on the other side of life. Jep is shown as being only too aware of the gulf between what it is that he wanted to become and what he actually is. In the imaginary narrative he begins to build, he is steadily and inexorably confronted with mortality and is forced to act upon the enduring schism in his life and his persistent inaction.
As becomes increasingly clear, what unfolds next is squarely located in the realm of fiction. It is the reconstructed journey of Jep’s literary and artistic redemption in the face of the vacuous blah blah blah of the cultural everyday life he has been living. It is the attempt to imaginatively exorcise the ghosts of his own past. What follows is entirely a narrative serving Jep’s own desperate ends of imposing some kind of meaning on all the thin, meaningless, hollow and horribly unresolved experiences of his life. To proffer some form of artistic resistance to his incipient boredom and restore some kind of faith in life again. He is haunted by his inability to to create anything meaningful or sustainable from the gift of heightened aesthetic awareness and his continued sensitivity to the beauty around him in Rome. Sorrentino’s film presents the self-conscious narrative of Jep’s failure and his restless and fragmented search for the enigmatic sense of the great beauty of life as the ‘narrative’, as the ‘literary fiction’ and ‘journey’. This narrative becomes shaped as an intensely sad, introspective and reflective one as he “learns” the fate of his long lost love, repeatedly leaps into the past, and embarks upon another doomed love-affair. His narrative unfolds as a strange retelling of Welles’ Kane, who himself was haunted to his death bed by the enigmatic ”Rosebud”, that undiscovered cipher for not only his lost youth but for a time when he believed things mattered and made sense in life. In his own fractured narrative Jep constructs his own “Rosebud” as his rejection by the girl he loved in his early twenties. This has somehow not only mortally wounded him, but also conditioned his artistic sensibilities towards melancholic loss and as yearning for the absence of the great beauty. It is as if the rejection of his first love has left him full of feelings of profound ugliness and self-loathing, and that he has deliberately embarked upon a path of ultimate decadent self-indulgence where no beauty ever quite matches up. Having constructed this vague, self-defeating and guiding literary myth he proceeds to create a fantasy resolution through an imagined story (the literary trick) where he is returned to beauty and his destiny as an artist – so a stranger named Alfredo suddenly appears on his doorstep to tell him that she has died and that he has learned from reading her diary that she remained in love with Jep her whole life, despite the fact that it was she and not Jep who broke things off. Is this not the ultimate fantasy of the rejected lover, the ultimate palliative conceit of the discarded heart. He did not fall into the oblivion of indifference and forgetfulness, but always remained vital and important to the loved one. He remained loved despite rejection.
In what follows there are two fantasised deaths of the female being described by Jep’s narrative. The yearned for siren has died, leaving Jep bereft and mourning for the great beauty of his youth who had rejected him. Yet she is figured, ‘made over’ by Jep, as always having been in love with him. She endures in his mind like one of the pale beauties captured by the Renaissance painters. In fact, one of Jeps’s “Rosebud” memories of her at night on the island with the lighthouse eerily recalls a painting we later see him admiring during the strange tour of Rome’s hidden beauties – a naked, pale and beautiful woman delicately holding her breast in her hand. This is a symbol of the eternal feminine under the male gaze – an archetypical maternal object of yearning and sexual desire. Jep identifies the young woman he fell in love with and was rejected by with a classical ideal; she endures as she was in the past, held fast in the amber of memory as a seductive young beauty totally enamored by Jep. She conjures up the most intense sensations of desire against which everything else has become a matter of profound disappointment. Upon learning of her death Jep is forced to acknowledge her mortality and his transitory memory of her, of her young, perfect, and ideal beauty grown old, faded and dead. The effect heightens Jep’s awareness of his own mortality at sixty five. Her enduring love for him adds that extra dimension of painful sting to her loss. But then comes the resurrection of his lost love in the form of the beautiful stripper Ramona, the daughter of an old friend, who provides Jep with another opportunity for love. She remains a powerful cipher for his first love, and yearns for her to entomb herself in the tunnels and byways of his own past. They share stories of their first sexual encounters, they explore together the hidden and impossibly fantastic rooms of beauty behind the locked doors of Rome (the genuinely great beauties Jep yearns to share), and he implores her to ‘see’ the imagined landscape of his memory as the oceanic wilderness fabulated on his ceiling.
Little by little they fall in love, with Jep remarking that it has been years since he has enjoyed being ‘in love’ rather than ‘making love’. There is,however, more than a weird hint of necrophilia, which is signaled in a scene that very deliberately invokes one from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Like Scotty desperately ‘making over’ Judy in order to bring back the dead fantasy figure of his lost love Madeleine in the department store, Jep is seen ‘making over’ Ramona for a funeral, molding her in his ideal imaginary image so that he can perform a funeral with her. This is a simulacra of his first love, who now is back with him, yet who he tragically cannot save. She tells him that she is dying and spending all of her money on trying to get cured. But in Jep’s world money can buy everything but cure nothing. As if by magic she disappears, the only evidence of her death being the mere glimpse we have of her father (Jep’s old friend) being comforted.
But the two deaths are just two of Jep’s tricks. They are woven together as a way of reestablishing Jep’s relationship to time, reconnecting the fragmentary events of his own life. Ultimately they signal his way of returning to the creative realm of art. He heroically recovers himself from out of rejection and into the realm of control, composition and creativity. Out of the nihilistic oblivion of his life Jep rediscovers a new way of rewriting his life as art that self-consciously evokes, amongst other writers, Proust. From the compost of his own frivolous life he grows an aesthetically significant exploration of time, memory, love and death. He revisits old friends, reaches out for spiritual guidance, contemplates taking up literary writing again, begins to rediscover the simple beauties of Rome and to reattach himself to it. He slowly begins to re-attach all of the intense and lost fragments of his life into a narrative about the search for great beauty. Out of his great idleness and dissolution there emerges a quest for the most enduring beauty of all. Jep constructs himself in this fictitious narrative of the dissolute hedonist as a man in search of the great beauty. Crucially, it is an effort that resists the narcissism so prevalent in the Rome high society Jep frequents. The extent to which he differentiates between his own narrative reconstruction of his life and narcissistic navel gazing is figured through two episodes in the film that involve photographing the self. The narcissism of the ‘selfie’ culture is sent up in the scene where Jep engages in yet another casual sexual encounter with a rich middle-aged woman who tells him that she regularly takes photographs of herself to post on Facebook, including nudes. He affects boredom at her conceited self-obsession and leaves whilst she fetches her laptop to show him some of her nude ‘selfies’. This is contrasted with Jep’s visit to an exhibition of photographs by an artist whose father began taking a photograph of him every day until he was fourteen, and at that point he began taking them himself. Now in his late forties he has assembled the vast collection of the days of his life into a single exhibition. Jep is clearly moved and beguiled by this gargantuan collection, seeing it as transcending the narcissistic impulse and moving into another register altogether. This is the register in which he wishes to propel his own life, cultivating the fragments of his self dispersed through time into a beautiful cohesive picture that expresses his artistic resistance to the passage of time, to resist the consignment of all the sensual shards of his existence to oblivion. The photographer, like Auggie Wren in the Paul Auster story who everyday photographs the same street scene outside of his tobacco shop, is engaged in an act of heroic and dignified resistance to time, transforming the process of ageing into a universal celebration of life.
At the end of the film Jep fabricates a meeting with a modern saint in the form of an old nun who visits him for dinner, apparently she is a big fan of his first novel. He tells her when she asks why he never wrote another book – ‘I was looking for the great beauty’, but he says he never found it. She replies by asking him why it is she only eats a simple diet of roots, he is puzzled and she replies ‘because roots are important’. The physical beauty of surfaces is not enough for Jep, and he yearns for a way to connect back to the dry roots of his existence, to piece together all of the disparate elements of the substrata of his life to date into a coherent and meaningful whole. He is no longer content to merely live a life, no matter how sensually rich and indulgent it is, he wants it all to mean something. He desperately wants all of the sensuous richness and fractured shards of beauty to become worthy of a great work of art. After forty years of indulgence and waste, confronting the bitter inevitability of death, he finally begins by reconstructing a self in a vast impressionistic narrative where he appears willing to submit to a necessary faith in the enduring things of life – truth, beauty and art. He finally devotes himself once again to these great beauties as the cornerstones of his life’s narrative and finally write his second novel. That is his art. And that after all, is just a trick.