Old movies: Bonjour Tristesse and La Dolce Vita

So, overseas travel was cancelled for 2020 and it seems unlikely for 2021. So, we thought we’d catch some European films at the local arthouse cinema. It seemed like an interesting, well-adjudicated list so we thought, why not?

Bonjour Tristesse was promising. A 1958 film based on the 1954 novel by Fran├žoise Sagan that scandalised France (she wrote it as a teenager), the storied cast featured Jean Sebert, David Nevin and Deborah Kerr (who I remember from the Sound of Music). The early scenes of Paris excited me: they were all iconic locations that I had passed through. Sebert is beautiful, in a short pixie haircut, with charisma.

But it was then that I remembered: I’ve never liked old movies. Ever since my first movies, if they are too far away from the present day, they seem so stylised that they are unreal. I can’t even see them as fables. The rhythms of speech are dramatic and stilted and the dialogue false. In this film, I think requisite for the time was a mid-movie dance number, where the characters lead all the townspeople in a raucous dance and conga line near the water (most of the film takes place on the French Riviera). I found it jarring that they were pretending the characters were French, while speaking in Hollywood English. A pivotal scene, where Cecile follows Anne into the woods, nearby their villa, has Cecile literally tip-toeing around and hiding behind trees, a pantomime.

And the story itself was old-fashioned and I couldn’t relate to it. A creepy father-daughter relationship. Both of them addicted to romance, but not serious about a relationship. The conflict from Anne, to whom the father proposes, promising to interfere with said creepy relationship.

I wanted to like it, but I didn’t. So I was glad to read after we saw the movie that neither critics at the time nor critics now particularly liked the film. A few movie buffs seem to love it, for example, this one from Slant Magazine, or this one from the Guardian. I found the original NY Times review the most interesting, calling the characters in the film as immature and lacking in depth as the novel.

So, perhaps it’s not old movies persay that I don’t like, but SOME old movies. Except then we saw Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), which is in many lists of the top films ever made, and while I initially found it much more engaging than Bonjour Tristesse, I lost it when we hit the two-hour mark, and concluded, after the third hour that to the contemporary viewer, the movie is a big, steaming pile of poo, quite terrible, which would put me at odds with all film buffs.

As we discovered, the film, about a celebrity journalist (who flirts with being a writer and eventually becomes an ad man) is made up of episodes that are mostly completely unconnected to each other. So, it’s very unsatisfying in terms of a narrative. So, I tried to step back and see each episode as a philosophical and moral treatise: is there something that can be learned in each episode for the development of the character?

And I couldn’t see it. Marcello and a lover go back to a sex worker’s flat and use it to make love. Marcello attends a wild party at a castle with eccentric rich people and probably ends up having sex with the English poet. The Virgin Mary is sighted by two children outside of Rome. Journalists descend and others hoping to be healed. Mayhem ensues. Marcello’s father visits and they pick up a French cabaret performer from the club, but then Dad loses his mojo and decides to take the train back home in the morning. Mostly, the characters in the film pursue desire, amusement or distraction, and are not particularly happy.

The film does not age well. Marcello’s lover, Emma, is portrayed as a crazy, possessive woman, with no other character notes. She is treated like garbage by Marcello and the scene where he tries to get her back into his car after an argument, and she refuses, and then he tries kick her out of the car and she refuses, and then he physically ejects her from the car, and leaves her there for the night, and then comes back and picks her up is all kinds of painful. When Marcello abuses a drunk woman at a final party, manhandling her, and then literally sticking feathers onto her to make her into a chicken, is terrible. The only character who seems to have some intelligence, a caring family man, then is shown to actually be in despair. He kills his children and himself in a murder-suicide. If characters were being portrayed in a negative light to show their moral decay, I felt by turns repelled and uninterested.

If there’s one theme that seemed strikingly contemporary, it was the paparazzi, the hounding of celebrities (or wanna-be celebrities) by the press, a voracious chase and consumption of gossip, prestige and status.

I did find it interesting that there was a character who was clearly gay, and very camp, but didn’t seem to be more exaggerated in emotions than the other characters, and then two young drag queens at the end of the film were also interesting. Fellini clearly loved to use non-white actors as decoration, and I was surprised and interested to see Asian actors in the background, and an African-American woman portrayed as a singer, and then a dancer. There is a highly objectionable speech about the attributes of an Oriental woman.

I am sure that I can research all the reasons why I should like the film, say Roger Ebert’s review and tribute, and apparently I am missing a lot of Catholic symbolism and other symbolism, with most of the episodes ripped from the headlines of the day. And the film seemed to be important because of how it broke with previous traditions of filmmaking, and was, at the time, completely new.

But to these modern eyes, I found it hard to connect to this film. Apparently, it was loved by Americans as a view into Europe. And it was a commentary on the decay of the rich and privileged, yet these days they are richer and more privileged than ever with probably even less morality. And as for the spectacle of the film, the Felliniesque bizarre and exaggerated, this has so quickly been overtaken. The bizarre and unbelievable seem to be surrounding us in our daily lives, as well as an TikTok and YouTube. Ostentatious display of wealth and celebrity is just part of the scenery now.

It’s an interesting philosophical question though. If we cannot appreciate art unless we know the context, is it good art? Or is the fault put on the observer of the art (I was going to but should not say “consumer” of art) for not doing the research, for not placing themselves in the position of a person who would appreciate (or be shocked and scandalised by) it. What say? What’s your opinion on the matter?

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