“I was looking for the Great Beauty… but… I didn’t find it.”
So says the aging and ennui-ridden Jep, when asked why he didn’t make more of his life in the artful and exquisite The Great Beauty. On the basis of this film, however, director Paolo Sorrentino’s own search for the Great Beauty was not so futile. Triple winner of the Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film back in 2014, The Great Beauty is a strange, gorgeously cinematic and heartfelt meditation on art, first loves, growing old and personal legacies that is unlike almost anything else in modern cinema.
The story considers Jep (a contemplative and dignified Toni Servillo), a journalist and socialite member of the Italian intelligentsia who, after celebrating his 65th birthday, learns that his first love Elisa has died. Despite not having seen her for decades, Jep is told by her widowed husband that Elisa never truly stopped loving him. This bombshell triggers in Jep an introspective journey in which he explores his own sense of unfulfilment, caused by his lifetime inability to equal his masterpiece novel (written in his twenties) or the love he felt for Elisa.
Sorrentino’s mastery of the moving image means that he is never in anything less than complete and utter command of his frame. As ever with Sorrentino’s work, here again in collaboration with his regular DoP Luca Bigazzi, The Great Beauty lives up to its name by being an exquisitely beautiful film – every frame could be a painting in its own right. Sorrentino and Bigazzi share a gift for displaying the opulence of Italian high culture and society in the finest traditions of the greatest Italian painters, and the influence of their work is clear throughout. The floating camera externalises Jep’s own drifting inner state as we glide, dreamlike, with the character through his unstructured and often surreal life.
This surrealism, prevalent throughout, is established by the eccentric cast of characters, which include a no-bullshit dwarven magazine editor, the world’s most wanted man, a disappearing giraffe, a wizened centenarian nun, and a culinary cardinal with an excellent recipe for roast rabbit. Jep’s youthful imagination and ability to escape and elevate his day-to-day life is captured by his own literalised daydreaming in other surreal sequences – we see his bedroom ceiling transform into a sapphire-blue ocean view, and his memories of Elisa mirror dreams themselves as they flash by in vague but emotionally wrought sequences.
Formally, The Great Beauty is damn near flawless. Its masterful photography and floating camerawork are paired perfectly with a soundtrack that encompasses everything from a heavenly choral choir to modern electro-house (such as ubiquitous 2010 hit ‘We No Speak Americano’). The editing – particularly throughout the party scenes – is the unsung hero of the film, lending the ornateness of each shot a power, rhythm, and sense of urgency. These people may not have too many years left to live, but by God they’re going to make the most of it while they’re here. The Great Beauty’s incredible style by no means makes the film a case of style over substance (an accusation sometimes – inaccurately – laid at Sorrentino’s feet), as the emotion of our characters is never left behind even in the most ostentatious of scenes. Servillo does wonderfully composed and understated work as Jep, with his slow, devastated reaction to the news of Elisa’s death being the character’s emotional nadir – and subsequent turning point.
The several party scenes throughout the film show a Baz Luhrmann-like knack for staging the grand decadence of a celebration thrown by high society – however unlike Luhrmann, Sorrentino isn’t simply content to revel in the shallow splendour of it all. Instead his films are able to use these ostensibly grand scenes in order to discover and display meaning and emotion on far more intimate, character-based levels. Where something like Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (which premiered alongside The Great Beauty at Cannes) is all hollow (albeit pretty) glitz, glamour, and gaudiness, Sorrentino’s parties are able to show these elements but reach beyond the superficial pleasures to discover the smaller, more poignant moments of reflection that occur to our characters whilst under the expectation to enjoy themselves. Jep’s apparent detachment and alienation from parties (even his own) is sure to strike a chord with many.
Age and art appear not to be subjects Sorrentino is done with just yet, as The Great Beauty is followed up this month with the UK release of Youth, which stars Michael Caine (alongside Harvey Keitel, Jane Fonda, Rachel Weisz and ORWAV favourite Paul Dano) as a retired classical composer on a mountaintop retreat in the Swiss Alps. Youth is Sorrentino’s second English language feature after 2011’s indifferently-received This Must Be the Place, starring Sean Penn. Advance word from Youth’s festival run last year (when it screened in Competition for the Palme d’Or at Cannes) is more positive however, with reviews highlighting a career-best Michael Caine performance and, as we’d expect, some staggeringly beautiful cinematography. With that cast of veteran stars, and thematically of a kind with The Great Beauty, we can’t wait to see if Youth can match the dizzying heights set by its predecessor.