The Great Beauty

No doubt Jeb is supercilious and self-indulgent, and perhaps some would find both him and the film insufferable. For all its drifting atmosphere and perverse non-sequiteurs, it's not even particularly subtle about what it's about. Jeb fell in love at 18 out in the country and wrote a novel that was acclaimed as a masterpiece. He moved to Rome and spent the next few decades partying, shagging and doing a bit of journalism about the absurd cultural scene in the city. He never published another book. Jeb's Rome is a distraction. The quote that opens the film spells it out for you: "travel is useful". The saint's words of wisdom at the end underline the point: "roots are important". Rome is rootless – a hypnotising froth of sex and architecture and blasting dance music. Jeb's friend's literary ambitions don't get him anywhere, and he leaves. At the end of the film, Jeb does as well. He returns to the site of his first romance, and starts writing again.

Sorrentino does his best to make Rome as dazzling as possible – full of glamorous, beautiful women and even more glamorous and beautiful scenery. His camera swoops across vistas and details of the city, but doesn't linger. It cuts to the next gorgeous image, flitting about without resting or absorbing anything. The film is a bit of a portmaneu of short stories Jeb wafts through, and some of these sequences can feel pretentious. I think that's offset by the very funny scenes of the bizarre artistic happenings Jeb and his circle of decandents attend as a way of relieving their ennui. At the end the film seems to suggest that art is all a bit of a trick, a semblance of profundity and meaning without much to substantiate it.

What grounds the film is Jeb himself. We spend a lot of time with him and his talkative pals, and get quite a well-developed sense of his character. His life is so saturated with pleasure that he's become desensitised to it. This is quite a sexy film only to show that Jeb is very, very bored of sex. And then people start dying around him – first his long lost love, who broke off their youthful passionate romance to marry a man who was good company. Then the suicide of a friend's rather intense son, the funeral for which Jeb expects to be one big insincere performance, until the melancholy of the occasion breaks through to him. Finally, a dalliance with a stripper, who disappears quite suddenly from the film and his life. All of this punctures the frivolity of his life in Rome. Underneath the jaded exterior, Jeb is still a romantic – his 35-year creative block more of a swerve away from a broken heart.

The references to the 1960s Marcello Mastroianni-fronted masterpieces by Fellini and Antonioni are so blatant they almost become jokes in themselves (Jeb wears the same glasses). La Notte is undoubtedly a more profound and beautiful film – but it's also a more difficult one. Antonioni was fully committed not only to the listlessness of modern life, but to its inexplicability, and his film is weirdly abstracted from the humans it depicts. Fellini is more invested and more troubled by the end of faith and the licence that gives to sexual and moral depravity. The Great Beauty is quite a bit closer to La Dolce Vita (not least in the echo of the name), but is less eager to wag a finger at hedonism, and is ultimately more hopeful that these lost souls can find a kind of redemption in the art they make, even if their attempts look ridiculous and the meanings they produce are just circus tricks.

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