By Max Arambulo
So when I went to watch The Great Beauty this past Saturday, my left eye was throbbing and only starting to turn purple. I’d woken up with a bit of pain and was actually relieved, after stepping over the gray jeans I’d kicked off the night before, when I made it to the mirror and saw that the pain wasn’t from the pimple I’d been warding off. Check it: I was actually glad that I somehow messed up my face while black-out drunk. Obviously, new fears started going through my mind over how I’d bruised my face. Who was there to see my slurring and drooling? Did I tell my boss to fuck off? “I’ll drink a lot,” the protagonist, Jep, says in The Great Beauty about how he’ll pass the rest of the time in his life, “but not enough to get unruly.” Useful words to me, that I could have used two days earlier.
One of the early sequences of the movie is an extended party scene on a rooftop in modern-day Rome. The scene is lit a little by the night stars, but a lot from the blue and red and white glow from the Martini logo’d billboard a few buildings down. The party is a pastiche of strange-looking guests with the odd youthful beauty thrown in to balance it all out. There’s a dwarf-woman in a smart looking business outfit. A tattooed lady dances behind some semi-soundproof glass that muffles the main party’s music and intensifies the popping buttons on her bustier when she pulls it apart. There’s a 3-piece mariachi band, too. The camera is as manic as the dancing as it cranes up over and dives through the partygoers who are getting lost in the music. Without preceding establishing shots, there are cuts to the different corners of the venue. Disorienting. And I began to ask: in this movie, what is going to unify and hold all this chaos and life together? The answer came with the first shot of Jep as he slowly spun around to face the camera, perfect in the middle of the frame. His silver hair pulled tightly back with good, expensive product, his black suit with pinstripes matched with a black silk knit tie. Towards the end of this sequence, he’ll step out from the rest of the partygoers as they do a complicated line-dance. The shot will gradually go slow-mo, will gradually zoom in on him lighting a cigarette, and we hear Jep in voiceover. As a young kid, he’d give the answer “the smell of old people’s furniture” while the other boys would say “pussy”. The question: “What do you want out of life?”
Wit and affluence are the two aesthetic building blocks in Jep’s life (he’s the most influential journalist in the country and he hangs out with the best novelists, poets, and politicos that Italy has to offer). Wit and affluence are both contrast and complement to the manic-ness and grotesqueness of that first party (and grotesque in Italian existential film gets the cliché Felliniesque and The Great Beauty admits to riffing on Fellini’s La Dolce Vita) and to the ancient ruins that Jep strolls past on mornings-after. We’ll get to see wit and affluence more precisely during Jep’s calmer, mid-week cocktail parties where instead of ear-blasting house-music, it’ll be jazz. “Only the Ethopian jazz scene is interesting these days,” one of Jep’s guests says, a sleepy non sequitur. She’ll neither expand on the point nor give any examples. In fact, it’s a bit of a stretch to call this stuff conversation as the chatter bounces from subject to subject, from one pithy comment to the next, from Ethiopian jazz to Prozac to Proust. One of my favorite parts of the movie is when the conversation does manage to slow as one of Jep’s friends professes to be above all this wit and affluence. She props up her politics and activism and ideology, espouses the merits of her 11 left-wing novels over Jep’s 1 existential, indulgent novel, The Human Apparatus. A frivolous book, Jep would have to agree, she says. In addition to all her politics, she has the great work of running a family whereas Jep is a bachelor, a childless man-boy. At first, Jep delightfully both poo-poos his friend’s self-righteousness and grins passive-aggressively with the calmness that accompanies 3 vodka-sodas. He lies draped over wicker garden furniture. She challenges him to challenge her on any of what she’s professing. I can take it. I’m a strong, modern woman. Call me out, motherfucker. Jep, in a particularly prickly mood (and I know quite well the relation between prickliness and calling-out-your-friends), starts tearing down her life-story, brick by brick, zero change in his bastard-cool calm. You only wrote, he says, novels about The Party because you were the mistress of the leader. Your 11 novels were published by a small press financed by said-Party. Your family? You never once have taken your kids with you on your week-long vacations and you party even on Mondays when prescription-pill dealers stay in and take a night off. It’s easy with all the paid help, the butlers and the nannies, that you have. And just in case she doesn’t get it: “At 53, your life is in shambles.” Jep keeps his tone constant, but the rest of the party shudders and covers their eyes, sunglasses at night, in awkwardness. A few of the nicer ones try to signal, a finger across the throat, to Jep to stop, please, stop. All the while, they know how much true there is in his calling-out. Not just about her, but about all of them. Jep: “Just smile along with the rest of us and let’s keep each other company so we can disguise our despair.”
There’s a particular couple of reasons Jep is so prickly, these days. That early party sequence was in his honor was to celebrate his birthday. His 65th. “Did you drink?” his housekeeper asks. “Just enough to not remember it was my birthday.” Age places him at a particularly fraught place where he’s accomplished, he’s powerful and influential, yet where his physical appetites don’t motivate him anymore to accomplish, or gain more power and influence. Sure, he’s fit enough. He climbs up the 6 flights to his apartment every day. He still has the stamina to drink until 5AM yet only need to sleep until 11AM. But, sex no longer calls on him. I read a quote recently: once I lost my libido, I felt like I’d spent the last 60 years chained to an idiot. “I’m at the age where it takes more than beauty to move me,” he’ll tell his friend, later on.
Jep’s life for so long has been like his parties: loud, deliberately chaotic, and perhaps a little empty. Perhaps signifying nothing. Another landmark in his life that accompanied his 65th: news that his first love, Elisa, has just died. The messenger is her widower and the two men, never having met before, weep on the foyer outside of Jep’s apartment. It’s a nice gesture from the widower, to bring the sad news, considering he’d read Elisa’s journal and discovered that he got, despite 32 years of marriage, barely two lines of mention and the label of “a good companion”; Jep got more mention and much more “One True Love”. The film’ manicness is skin-deep. The sharper more dominant underlying moods are of resignation and nostalgia revealed through the moments we get to see Elisa via Jep’s memories. He returns to one particular day, her in a black and yellow bikini on some rocks. There’s no loud music and the visuals are understated. Classical, even, the way she faces the camera and throws us an honest smile. Jep’s using no wit or cynicism or vocabulary, tools in which one can hide things, to describe these memories. He barely even summons specific details. “I was 18. She was 20… it was near the lighthouse and I tried to kiss her but she turned away and I was disappointed. But she turned back to me and I was relieved.” He wonders aloud why she’d left him. There’s a unity and a truth and an elegance to this thing he remembers from 40 years in his past. It’s not complicated like the ways people his age try to make sense of their lives via ideology or family or religion or partying or, even, art (Jep’s a writer after all). Throughout the movie, people keep asking why he’d never written another book after The Human Apparatus. “I kept looking for great beauty, but I never found it again.” Perhaps this is all a cautionary tale of the fallacy of trying to re-discover that good shit from when you were once 18. And I thought all I needed to learn was how to drink without getting unruly.