Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty: Directed with a hammer wrapped in velvet

The Great Beauty represents a clear maturation in style for Paolo Sorrentino - a film that is both emphatic and proportionate in its methods.

The Great Beauty (15)
dir: Paolo Sorrentino
 
The opening shot of The Great Beauty is just that: a shot. The camera stares into the gunbarrel of a cannon as it sends a shell almost directly into our faces. Audiences familiar with the director Paolo Sorrentino would be forgiven for thinking: “Here we go again.”
 
It’s no surprise when a tourist drops dead a moment later, or a partygoer screams in close-up: haven’t we all felt like doing one or the other when watching a Sorrentino film? He is not, after all, the kind of director who ever takes the softly-softly approach when the very-very-noisily-with-whooping-andcrashing one is an option.
 
For all his Scorsese slickness, Sorrentino’s true forebear in films such as Il Divo and The Family Friend has been Oliver Stone. Like him, Sorrentino directs with a hammer, even if he wraps it in velvet first.
 
He threw out the hammer for his last film, This Must Be the Place, which starred Sean Penn as a fey, Nazi-hunting Goth rock star (great idea, lousy movie). But in The Great Beauty he has at last located the middle ground between a contemplative sensibility and a dynamic style of cinema. The picture is set in a modern Rome of overripe hedonism, full of parties that would render the “great” Gatsby merely so-so. Hi-NRG music throbs as naked bodies roll lethargically on nightclub floors like rotisserie chickens turning on a spit; a woman bursts out of a model of the Colosseum while the real thing glows serenely a few hundred yards away.
 
Taking his lead from his protagonist, the 65-year-old journalist and socialite Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), Sorrentino regards this world with an amused detachment. It is palpable even when his camera is pushed in the faces of gurning partygoers, whooshing across azure waters or prowling nocturnal gardens like a panther.
 
This is the Rome of Fellini and Berlusconi in equal measure. Indeed, the shape of the film resembles Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, featuring an insider-outsider as our guide through the landscape of radioactively glowing cocktails and gyrating conga lines. Jep is partial to this society’s delights but aware of its hazards. He has failed to follow up his first, widely admired novel, blaming his wilted potential on Rome: “It makes you waste a lot of time.” He calls it “the whirlpool of the high life” – and while he will regulate the temperature and even dip a toe in from time to time, he has seen too much to be dragged fully into the vortex. Referring to the partygoers as “this wildlife”, he could almost be an anthropologist. The film responds to this in kind by isolating Jep through tight closeups, slow-motion and theatrical spotlights. Given Sorrentino’s general progress in the direction of subtlety, we can forgive him for clinging on to his trademark lighting scheme, which is half rock concert, half electrical storm.
 
If it’s disappointing that there is no single encapsulating image to rival that of Christ dangling above Rome from a helicopter in La Dolce Vita, at least the air of dislocated absurdity rarely wanes. In this unshockable culture, religion has shaded into show business, art into violence. A performance piece features a blindfolded woman running full pelt into a stone pillar. A knife-thrower tosses blades at a hapless volunteer, each incision producing a spurt of blue paint that creates a spattered outline in the canvas behind her, as though Jackson Pollock had marked out the scene of a crime. A child who seems to be in the grip of a primal tantrum hurls paint cans at a vast white screen while an audience of chin-scratching sophisticates gazes on silently. “That girl was crying,” someone says, recoiling. “Nonsense,” Jep replies, “she earns millions.”
 
The Great Beauty has no strikingly original argument. Its lament for the spiritual void beneath what Jep calls the “blah blah blah” is a familiar one, particularly in Italian cinema, stretching from the heyday of Fellini and Antonioni right up to Matteo Garrone’s recent prickly comedy Reality, in which an ordinary man loses his sanity trying to become a Big Brother contestant.
 
But Sorrentino’s film is both emphatic and proportionate in its methods – a palpable maturing for this director. He still loves his whiz-bang camera moves and slice-and-dice editing, except now he is starting to master tempo, too.
 
In one quieter moment, a woman tips her head back to stem a nosebleed and sees her bad habits reflected above her in an image that brings to mind the words of Marc Almond: “The sky is scarred with the trail of a plane/Seems that God’s cutting out thick white lines of cocaine.”
 
“The Great Beauty” opens on 6 September
Bunga bunga time? The Great Beauty stars Toni Servillo as the ageing socialite and journalist Jep Gambardella. Photograph: Gianna Fiorito, courtesy of Mongrel Media.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism