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Paolo Sorrentino’s Parthenope Is As Beguiling As It Is Alienating

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Photo: A24

Paolo Sorrentino has seen all your takes about the male gaze and has decided to counter them with a movie about the life of a transcendently gorgeous woman. That’s the provocative logline, I suppose. And it makes sense that, with his first female protagonist, one of the great stylists of our time would tackle a subject like this. But in truth, Parthenope is less about one beautiful person than about our idea of beauty itself as it’s reflected and projected, embodied and perceived. Only Sorrentino could pull off something like this because his characters exist both as symbols and people. He makes resplendent movies that feel composed (visually and structurally) within an inch of their lives, but he lets in enough mystery that the people onscreen captivate us in unexpected ways.

Parthenope (played for most of the film by Celeste Dalla Porta, a newcomer), whose life we follow from her teen years into her 70s (when she is played, briefly, by the legendary Italian actress Stefania Sandrelli), is named for a mythical siren who once lent her name to the city of Naples, Sorrentino’s hometown and the vivid setting of his previous film, the autobiographical Hand of God. Her arrival into the world is preceded by the delivery of an ornate golden carriage from her wealthy godfather, who has had it shipped (he says) from Versailles. Before Parthenope is born, her young brother, Raimondo, blows on his mom’s pregnant belly. We’ll see Raimondo make this gesture again later in both loving and tragic ways. In this director’s world, what something like this may actually suggest is up for grabs. Sorrentino loves rituals, incantations, and evocative gestures, not because they mean specific things but because they make the world more enchanting.

Early on, we watch young women walk down Naples’s sunny streets in slow-motion, holding up their colorful scarves that then blow in the wind like banners, an indication that winter has ended and spring has arrived. It’s a classic Sorrentino sequence, a brief and mundane bit of movement that, when slowed down and extended, becomes something grander, a luxuriant evocation of youthful abandon. This is another gesture that will repeat and transform over the course of the film as these banners of freedom slowly transform into shroudlike coverings.

As Parthenope gets older, we witness her and the fragile Raimondo’s growing bond as well as their increasingly complicated friendship with Sandrino (Dario Aita), her occasional boyfriend. Both boys are somewhat smitten with her. All men seem to be frozen by Parthenope’s beauty, which Sorrentino has some fun with. Early on, as a waiter attempts to kick Parthenope and her pals out of a restaurant, a middle-aged husband gets up and declares, “If she leaves, then we’re all leaving,” much to the chagrin of his wife.

Parthenope is not only beautiful; she’s also brilliant. An anthropology student, she seems to be the only kid in her university able to master all her classes and essays. One crabby older professor in particular, Devoto (Silvio Orlando), mostly ignores her looks but is taken with her ideas. Devoto asks Parthenope what anthropology is, and she admits that she doesn’t know; in some weird way, this seems to be the right answer. Sorrentino’s films are all about not knowing. He’s the kind of director who will gleefully remove all the connective tissue from a scene or a sequence, bewitching us with a sense of what we may be missing. He does the same thing with people. His characters do wild things but purposely lack clear motivations. That would seem to be a mistake, and it probably would be in the hands of most directors. (I imagine screenwriting teachers never stop vomiting when they see Sorrentino pictures.) But here, absence spurs further engagement. We become obsessed with these characters. At least I do.

Over the course of this episodic film, Parthenope comes into contact with any number of figures: young lovers, a playboy who hovers above her in his helicopter, an aging actress, a gangster, a sleazy priest, and (in one odd and charming interlude) a very drunk John Cheever played by Gary Oldman. A few will covet her, a couple won’t dare to, but all will adore her on some level. And none will be entirely straight or honest with her because there is something fundamentally withering and alienating about being in her presence — it’s that emotional curtain that, throughout her life, Parthenope struggles to part, as if she had never left the golden carriage that was given to her before she was born. Sorrentino frames her throughout in elegant, almost posed frames — as in a classical painting or (as I’m sure some will complain) a perfume ad. There’s nothing particularly lustful about the imagery in this film. If anything, it all feels weirdly opaque. The chilliness, the slight artificiality of such scenes, is intentional. This woman goes through her life profoundly alone, always in a reality-distortion field created by the ways everyone perceives her.

When he became a better-known figure on the international stage, Sorrentino got away with this elliptical manner of telling stories because he filled the screen with such gorgeous, unchecked hedonism. Think back to the orgies of the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty or the “bunga-bunga” parties of his notorious Silvio Berlusconi biopic, Loro. Without such distractions, he’s unlikely to attract the same attention or praise. But he’s making more personal work now. And Parthenope gradually becomes about something other than one person’s beauty. If The Hand of God is about the director’s childhood, this one is about something more abstract but no less relatable. Our protagonist comes to feel like an avatar of the very ideas of youth and possibility, which also makes her an avatar of the opposite of those things — the idea that life eventually passes us all by. In creating a film about one beautiful person, Sorrentino reminds us that, in our memories, we were all beautiful once.

More From the 2024 Cannes Film Festival

  • The 2024 Cannes Film Festival’s Standing-O-Meter
  • All the Films Sold at Cannes 2024
  • The Apprentice Gets Dumber the Longer It Goes On

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Bilge Ebiri , 2024-05-23 00:20:19

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