It was said in the heady days of the Nouvelle Vague that the lone voice of the right-wing worth listening to was that of Céline. While host to many an unsavoury thought and opinion, with views firmly in the fascistic, Céline (a pen name adopted by the man born Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches) was a collaborator during the Second World War, and an anti-Semite. Yet, his Journey To The End Of The Night, a semi-autobiographical account of a life weaved through The Great War, Colonial Africa and the modernity of early suburban living is one which was looked upon fondly by the Young Turks of the New Wave, and it’s influence is evident throughout the oeuvres of the many of the filmmakers associated with the movement. Jean-Luc Godard even sought to adapt Céline’s tome, in an ambitious production starring Jean-Paul Belmondo (that project, in keeping with Godard’s freewheeling production habits of the time, eventually morphed in to Pierrot Le Fou). Interestingly, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, a tale of excess and a life lived large, through which a quiet epic is filtered, opens with a quote from Céline’s most notable work.
It might seem unusual to refer to The Great Beauty as a “quiet” epic, given the lavish and exuberant nature of the film, especially in the moments that directly follow the Céline quotation. A pair of unusual musical numbers blur in to one, with the first an almost monastic elegy to life plays out as a man dies, his camera echoing the opening camera movement of the film drawn from a cannon (from Canon to cannon, perhaps?), while the second is one hosted during a rooftop party that verges on the Bollywood, such is the vibrancy. Soon though, these cartoon depictions of Heaven and Hell give way to the internalised affliction of the movie’s protagonist, Jep Gambardella, a writer with once high ambitions turned social butterfly and sometime journalist.
It’s Sorrentino’s Ulysses.
The lucid qualities of The Great Beauty place it neatly in to a great tradition of Italian cinema ably harbouring a dream-like quality. Fellini is the immediate resort of note, but Antonioni’s La Notte might be the firmest. This sense of familiarity extends beyond the geographical boundary of Italy too, with Tarkovsky, Marienbad, Carax and Cameron Crowe (his Vanilla Sky) equally reflective in Jep’s journey through the looking glass of mortality.
The Great Beauty also shares a cinematic DNA with Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life. Both films look to Górecki’s Symphony No.3, a symphony that also goes by the name of Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, a fitting subtitle if ever there was one, while the presence of the Costa Concordia, the “sea monster” of the Tuscan archipelago, draws a further Godardian through-line. The Great Beauty marks the second time that the Concordia has appeared on screen in recent years, with Godard’s Film Socialisme. The most curious coincidence comes in the way that the doomed ship is a vessel of decadence in the Godard movie (as it is in real-life), only to in turn becomes a symbol of failed luxury in The Great Beauty.
Ultimately though, we come back to this idea of an Odyssey, of a personal journey amongst the chaos. While Jep is by no means without sin, his is a gradual path of slow redemption that, if not complete by pictures end, interweaves throughout a number of other peoples end points. The film’s much lauded closing credits are a necessary EXIT MUSIC-style coda that facilitates the viewer’s need to come down from the emotional final minutes of the picture itself.
Extras are slight, though countered by the sense that such supplementary material has no place alongside such a film, which relies on the essence of enigma. A brief, 15-minute long feature that goes by the name Backstage offers up behind the scenes footage presented as montage, while a lone trailer backs it up.