The Fat and the Lean (La grande bellezza, La Cinquième saison)

A few months ago in Film Comment, Jonathan Romney described Paolo Sorrentino’s La grande bellezza (2013) as a kind of city symphony about Rome, though it reminded me more of a geriatric rave. The opening scenes in particular — an inexplicable sequence in which an Asian tourist suddenly drops dead in front of a choir, and a party scene with a bunch of posh Romans dancing the Macarena — are edited like a music video with each shot pitched at the same level of intensity. Subsequently, the movie settles into a jazzed up version of continuity editing but it’s still more busy than stylish. At one point, Sorrentino alternates between a conventionally shot two person dialogue and an unrelated striptease occurring in an adjacent space just to add some visual excitement. But the real problem with the film isn’t its hyperactive style but that the characters are all uninteresting stock figures.

The central character, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), is a one-time novelist who now writes for an upscale arts magazine. Early in the film, he’s visited by the widower of an old girlfriend who wrote in her diary that Jep was the love of her life (even though it was she who dumped him), but while the movie contains several flashbacks to Jep’s salad days, these don’t tell us a damn thing about his ex-girlfriend (who has almost no dialogue) or their breakup, which is merely supposed to explain why Jep stopped writing novels. Accordingly, when a literary groupie remarks to Jep that he must’ve really been in love when he wrote his only book, it’s not the groupie’s lack of sophistication that’s revealed but Sorrentino’s. Similarly facile are the movie’s swipes at pretentious performance artists and irrelevant leftist writers — both straw women the film erects merely so that Jep can demolish them — and a subplot illustrating how one can learn more from hanging out with prostitutes than rich snobs. Considerably less than meets the eye, this is a movie that mistakes busyness for style and platitudes for insight.

I can’t say for certain, but my guess is that Sorrentino shoots a lot of coverage and then sorts it out in the editing room, and he often moves his camera for no discernible reason. By way of contrast, Peter Brosen and Jessica Woodworth’s La Cinquième saison (2012) is far more deliberate. Scenes play out primarily in unbroken long takes, indicating that the filmmakers knew more or less how they were going to cut the movie before they shot it, and when they move their camera it’s always for a specific reason. In the opening sequence, as a man (Peter Van den Begin) tries to coax his pet chicken, Fred, into “singing” at the breakfast table, the camera slowly pans to reveal a stone statuette on the floor behind him. Later, when the same man maniacally threatens to cook Fred and chases him around with a lawnmower, the change in their relationship is underscored by the presence of an identical statuette on the man’s lawn. As this suggests, the film is a good example of how economical art cinema can be.

It’s characteristic of the movie’s terseness that it’s never explained why the man’s relationship with Fred ultimately sours, though one infers that it has something to do with the unspecified environmental cataclysm afflicting the village where they live, which itself lacks a specific cause. Accordingly, the film is less concerned with why the soil turns barren and the cows stop producing milk (among other mysteries) than the impact of this situation on the local community — something the movie hints at indirectly through the repetition of the characters’ usual routines. Early in the film, a pair of teenagers meet by a quarry to make out on the first day of winter, but when the boy (Django Schrevens) returns to the same spot in the spring, the girl (Aurélia Poirier) ignores his bird calls, and in the summer he inexplicably tries to rape her. At the level of individual scenes, when another teenager (Pierre Nisse) threatens an outsider (Sam Louwyck) with a big stick, the elliptical manner in which the sequence is shot and edited makes it difficult to tell if the stick makes contact or if the man slips while trying to avoid it. The movie’s economy of expression — the filmmakers’ unfaltering sense of what is and isn’t essential — is an implicit rebuke of the flabbiness of most features.