Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty is one of the best films of the year, and the first film by the director that I’ve really loved. A lot has been made of Sorrentino as the “new Fellini,” and in some ways that’s fair. Both La Dolce Vita and The Great Beauty deal with the vacuous nature of wealth/celebrity; both have rather active cameras; and of course, both celebrate Italian architecture and beauty. Still, while Fellini is more of a fantastical dreamer, Sorrentino keeps most of The Great Beauty in a more recognizable reality.
Toni Servillo plays Jep, a journalist who just wants to live the high life. Where Sorrentino’s Il Divo was flashy, but ultimately cold and empty, The Great Beauty manages to transcend that due, in large part, to Servillo’s completely engaging performance. There’s heart in this film. Sure, Jep isn’t always in touch with reality (in response to a comment at a party, “that girl was crying,” he callously replies, “nonsense, she makes millions,” as though that’s a substitute), but the bookended voiceover is life-affirming in a way that both Il Divo and Fellini (post-1960) are often not. While the title of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is ironic, the title of Sorrentino’s film is ultimately earnest.
There’s still plenty of surreality in The Great Beauty. This scene, where Jep interacts with an ascetic Mother Teresa-stand-in is gorgeous. Jep steps out onto his balcony and is shocked to see the nun surrounded by flamingos. The camera frames him in the distance in a wide-shot and then cranes down and to the right:
The next shot is even prettier. The image feels glossy – obviously color-corrected – but that doesn’t bother me because of how haunting it is. The strange thing…this isn’t even the most fantastical part of the scene! It’s also, alongside a disappearing giraffe, one of the larger specifically dream-like sequences in the film:
I love that POV shot from Jep. He only sees backs. The nun could be a menacing figure. All signs point to the distance.
Here’s another moment that I really loved and that sets Sorrentino and The Great Beauty as riding a line between pragmatism and fantasy. A moon rises above trees-
-but in that same shot it soon becomes apparent that it’s actually a plane flying overhead:
I love it. The mood moves from romantic to jet-setting mobility in one shot. It also seems to sum up how Jep is pulled in two directions. On one hand he’s nostalgic for true love (the moon) and on the other hand he just wants to be the life of the party (the plane).
There are some SPOILERS below.
The Great Beauty features one of the oddest death “scenes” I’ve ever seen. Jep meets and (sort of) falls for Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli, who could be one of the many “great beauties” in the film).
A scene begins with Jep narrating off-screen and Ramona standing front and center in a black dress. Jep is talking about funerals, and the cut to that gorgeous wide-shot (that could be in a fashion magazine) reveals his location:
Jep keeps talking, his yellow blazer the only thing that really stands out from the otherwise monochrome color scheme. Eventually (the second still below) the camera dollies around behind him-
-finding Ramona changing:
Sorrentino cuts to a close-up, and then suddenly out of the scene and to Jep, his voiceover from the previous scene still going (…”one must never cry at a funeral.”), at a funeral with Ramona for a friend:
This sequence is pretty creative, but it’s nothing special. The death has already been telegraphed just previous. It’s what’s to come that’s more interesting.
Following the funeral Sorrentino cuts to a scene with Jep and Ramona in bed. The camera pushes in on them as they look at the ceiling:
Jep asks if she can “see the sea,” a play on his own perspective of his ceiling from earlier in the film, and Sorrentino cuts to what is probably, and significantly, the blandest shot in the entire movie:
He then cuts back to the close 2-shot-
-and to an eerily pretty shot: Ramona’s foot on the right side of the frame, a window on the left slowly closing, and Italy sprawling out in the background:
That’s the scene. Next, Sorrentino cuts to a bar, where Jep makes a purchase and, in slow-motion, makes eye contact with random patrons:
From there, we learn only briefly that Ramona has died. She doesn’t appear in anymore of the film.
This extended sequence, starting with Ramona trying on the dress is really unique. That scene is essentially Ramona trying on her own burial dress. The following funeral, where Jep cries loudly, is a stand-in for Ramona’s own funeral. She and Jep in bed plays out almost like a sweet afterlife, particularly because there’s no real aftermath or grieving period to speak of.
It’s a clever way to approach death in a film where it hovers constantly in the background. Ramona means a lot to Jep. So rather than show her own death, which might be melodramatic and feature cheap emotion, Sorrentino alludes to it, gives the two one, final, beautiful moment, and then allows her to leave the film still whole. That shot of the ceiling – a white expanse with no depth, nothing flashy – seems to be one of the only moments in here where Jep is really happy, and it has nothing to do with parties or sex or money…it’s just simplicity. It was one of my favorite of many favorite parts.
The Broken Circle Breakdown
I won’t write much more on this besides the formal review below, but The Broken Circle Breakdown is one of those movies that I feel guilty about not liking more. There’s a whole lot of sadness, some great music, and solid performances, but it comes off as cheaply emotional (meaning: I don’t really know the characters, I just watch a lot of bad stuff happen to them) and, though shot in a pretty way, isn’t anything particularly interesting visually.
Here’s my formal review of it:
Felix Van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown is a heartbreaking, musical tragedy.
Folk singer Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens) fall heavily in love, and soon an unexpected pregnancy brings them Marybelle (Nell Cattrysse). However, their young daughter develops cancer and their blissful existence is put to the test.
Like so many films before it, The Broken Circle Breakdown takes a ‘magical movie moment’ and makes it the crux. In this case, that moment is visual love at first sight: Elise watches Didier croon and it’s all over. Though the two are certainly a cute couple, the problem is that it’s mostly this initial moment and the various musical occasions that spell out their love.
Coming out alongside another, higher-profile folk film, the Coen Brothers Inside Llewyn Davis, Van Groeningen’s film relies heavily on its soundtrack, which is very nearly omnipresent, both aurally and visually: Didier dances in the hospital at his daughter’s birth; his ragtag bandmates surprise Marybelle with an a capella serenade when she returns from the hospital; Elise gradually becomes a member of the band. It’s all pleasing, pretty stuff, but after awhile one wishes that the relationship depicted would find a new form of expression.
Luckily, Heldenbergh and Baetens have chemistry and turn in very strong performances. Though Heldenbergh is technically the lead and has at least one impressive, snarling monologue, it’s Baetens who gets the meatier role. Her Elise has little history aside from the tattooed-over names of past boyfriends, but she wears a weariness on her sleeve that’s real and heartrending.
Van Groeningen stages some very arresting sequences in the film, particularly an interaction between Marybelle and Didier with a dead bird. The young girl is so sorrowful and Didier’s reaction shots are gorgeous. The director gives them equal screentime here, focusing at once on her youthful naiveté and a new father’s naiveté of his own.
There’s a running theme in The Broken Circle Breakdown of the secular versus the transcendental. Didier is an avowed atheist who has difficulty coping with the beliefs of others. Even when Marybelle claims that the dead bird is now a star in the sky her father can only reluctantly accept this innocent conviction.
This theme crescendos in a visual moment that comes very close to being the showstopper that Van Groeningen wants it to be. Towards the end of the film, Didier finds himself in the hospital again, as his life has taken a second tragic turn. The director cuts to a ghostly point-of-view shot that winds its way through the sterile hallways. At first it feels perfect: an ethereal visitor from beyond that Didier cannot see: proof to the audience, but not to the character, that some semblance of an afterlife exists. But Van Groeningen cheapens the effect almost immediately by showing its agent – a reveal that would be so much more compelling were it excised from the film and left to the imagination.
Similarly, a hallucinatory, near-death montage moves the film into an entirely different type of cinematographic language with its use of negative and doubled images. Again, it seems as though Van Groeningen wants to visually emphasize some spiritual realm, but it comes off as amateurish.
Nonetheless, despite its overplayed tactics, The Broken Circle Breakdown really sings when Elise and Didier duet. Their harmonizing scenes range from newfound puppy love to complete devastation, and in the sequences where their body language is allowed to express itself above and beyond the music, the film is a beautiful serenade.