I went to the cinema twice this weekend. It occurred to me afterwards that both films were about the same thing – love, and loss, and ageing, and how looking back stops you looking forward, or how sometimes not looking back stops you looking forward. The first film was Richard Curtis’s About Time, his “new funny film about love, with a bit of time travel”; the second was Paolo Sorrentino’s Palme d’Or-nominated The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza).
I enjoyed About Time. It was simple (I mean that in a good way) and occasionally moving. The young lead, Domhnall Gleeson (formerly Bill Weasley in Harry Potter), was surprisingly good; Rachel McAdams grinned her way gamely through an underwritten part that called for her to be incessantly endearing (she even gives way to the groom on every detail of wedding planning, which stretches credulity more than the time travel!); and Bill Nighy, as the doting dad, does that bumblingly cool Bill Nighy thing that Bill Nighy always does.
But, when you watch The Great Beauty straight after, you realise quite how shallow, manipulative and manufactured Curtis’s effort is in comparison. About Time is just a movie; The Great Beauty is a film. Unlike in Curtis’s best work, such as Four Weddings and Notting Hill, not a single moment seems real: the embarrassment of being asked to rub sun-cream on a beautiful girl’s back, and squirting it prematurely all over her; or of blurting out something about blow jobs when your girlfriend’s parents turn up out of the blue – these are all movie moments, unrooted in real life.
Whereas The Great Beauty, caricature of empty Roman high society though it is, is full of understated glimpses of truth. Every character, however parodic, has his or her moment: the Cardinal who is more interested in cooking tips than in spirituality; the ageing woman who looks down at her younger lover, as he swims against the current in their indoor pool, and knows that he is cheating on her; and all the peculiar bit-part players on the stage of the Roman night that the 65-year-old writer protagonist observes as the strolls through the streets in his immaculate suit: the tourists, the drunks, the nuns, the Muslims, the stick-thin dog-walkers and even, bizarrely and briefly, Fanny Ardant as herself.
About Time wraps its message up neatly with a little red bow: who needs time travel, when all of us, in our lives, are travelling through time; the object is to use that time wisely. The Great Beauty, in contrast, defies simple explanation. At times it feels like a thriller, where you are not trying to work out whodunnit, but whydunnit. It’s fragmented, often frustrating, breaking every Save The Cat rule of screenwriting, with no clear plot in sight nor objective for the protagonist. It’s also luminously beautiful and, despite its veneer of cool detachment, almost unbearably moving.
As a writer, I’m much more Curtis than Sorrentino. I’ve even written my own time travel romance. I too have a tendency to wrap things up for the viewer in a neat little bow.
Watching The Great Beauty is a timely reminder that film can be more than a novel, greater than plot. It can ask some of the great questions in life and, precisely by not answering them, force the viewer to supply their own response.