The Great Beauty, awarded the Oscar for best foreign film in 2014, is mysterious and ravishing, like the formal garden Jep’s balcony overlooks, where a nun and children play hide and seek, with the battered hulk of Rome’s Coliseum looming in seemingly touchable proximity. That the Catholic church has played hide and seek with our hero’s search for meaning is another of his disappointments, but the charming journalist Jep Gambardella, a libertine of a man too distracted by the great beauty surrounding him to muster the focus and isolation necessary to complete a followup novel, has nonetheless managed to enjoy himself, perhaps too much. And the garden that his opulent apartment overlooks plays an important, if brief, role in the movie as another of Jep’s exquisite distractions.
Paraphrasing one of my favorite bits from the movie, Jep quietly tells the distraught son of a friend, who is in the throes of a twenty-something philosophical meltdown (and possibly an undiagnosed bipolar episode), to relax and stop tormenting himself, because one person in a single lifetime will never be able to figure everything out. Wisdom or capitulation, Jep speaks with the authority of a man grown weary from trying to throw his arms around the world, all the while dodging his life’s calling as a novelist.
I’ve read some Italian reviews that see the movie as more in the sociopolitical tradition of Visconti’s The Leopard, with The Great Beauty as a commentary on the excesses of Prime Minister’s Silvio Berlusconi’s time in office, though the film maker himself cites Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, also about a distracted journalist, as more of an influence. Like the best movies, this one is roomy enough for multiple interpretations. Although the director Paolo Sorrentino said that he was interested in Rome as a backdrop for the “people who don’t realize that this beauty is all around them,” no doubt alluding to Jep’s charming but neurotically self-absorbed bunch of friends, to me the movie describes the predicament of an artist, one very much inclined to a state of endless intoxication by the spectacular surface of things, and the challenge of sequestering oneself to write novels in a city that is a feast for the senses. Jep yields to the city, to becoming enmeshed in the fascinating intricacies of his friends’ lives and the desperate parties they throw, and now wonders where the time went and why his first love chose someone else. And why he never got around to writing that second book. The long walks Jep takes in the late evening and early morning along the Tiber and through the Eternal City eloquently plead his case that Rome is an artist’s fatal distraction. I’m only half-joking when I say that I think Jep’s temperament is much more suited to landscape design than novels, but as I said, great movies allow for multiple points of view.
This Pacific Palisades garden was the final garden we visited 1/24/13 with Lili Singer via the LA County Arboretum Thursday Garden Talk series. Despite being firmly in the grasp of winter this January morning, or as firm a grasp on winter as Los Angeles can manage, all three of the gardens sparkled on this rainy-day field trip. Posts on the other two gardens can be found here and here. Being born and raised in semi-arid Los Angeles means I doubt I’ll ever view a rainy day as an inconvenience. Rain is always a godsend, like an unexpected kindness. True, traffic becomes even more awful, if that’s possible, but then I generally expect the worst where that’s concerned.
This last garden celebrates water in true mediterranean fashion, with water gardens and fountains. Richard Hayden is the designer here, and I note from his site that we both attended the same UCLA horticulture certificate program. (Some of the excellent instructors for this program in the past have included Lili Singer.) The owner/client is a huge fan of not only Dan Hinkley, meaning she continually brings up new plant enthusiasms for the designer to consider, but also the garden antiquarian and salvage porn king Big Daddy’s. The full complexity of planting in any garden isn’t visible in the dormant month of January, but it’s an excellent opportunity to clearly appreciate the structure and layout. Listening to the client and Richard banter throughout the tour about some of this garden’s old projects, new projects, abandoned projects, was a fascinating peek into the close relationship that develops between client and designer.
It can only quicken anticipation of what’s further down the garden path when an enormous Leucadendron ‘Wilson’s Wonder’ greets you at the front door.
As promised, photos of the gardens of Versailles, the apogee of the French formal garden style, designed by landscape architect Andre Le Notre for King Louis XIV of France (September 5, 1638 – September 1, 1715). With itinerant photographer MB Maher in town briefly for a friend’s wedding, I was able to shake his coat upside down and turn the pockets out for photos from his recent travels. He’s already back to England, then again to France, so do contact him here for any inquiries or just to chat about projects, or if even just for a drink in the local tavern, where he’ll probably leap over the bar and take over mixology duties. He’s an omnivorous fellow interested in just about everything.
Ready for a stroll? Properly attired, bewigged, perfumed, and powdered? Ladies should be outfitted something like this, give or take a few decades in the evolution of costume:
Glenn Close, Dangerous Liaisons, image found here.
Cue the rustle of satin and taffeta swishing over gravel walkways, the whispered plans for afternoon trysts, the rhythmic, metallic clipping and snipping by fleets of gardeners as they maintain the miles of hedges and topiary (presaging a somewhat more reactionary use of sharp cutting instruments to be used upon Louis XIV’s descendants).
Prepare to be awed at what the Sun King has wrought.
“By the beginning of the seventeenth century, with a Medici as Queen of France, the royal palace gardens in Paris were largely Italian in plan.”
— Hugh Johnson, The Principles of Gardening