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La Dolce Vita

Sweet Nausea


How does meaninglessness manifest itself in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita? Let us say the film seems to be about a lack of values contained by the spirit of the need to love: that only love can give us the values that we need to live by, or more specifically love can ground our being in the specific to signify the general. That is, the love we feel isn’t just about loving another, but giving us a basis in which to live in the world. But by the same token the neurotically specific – the need too preciously to protect one’s immediate love – can be equally neurotic, can lead us to deny the world. We can move towards clarification here by an example of the former, and an example of the latter – one from the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez; the other from the film. The first concerns Garcia Marquez’s near affair with ‘the most beautiful women in the world’. At the time he was a married man who fell in love at first sight with a beautiful woman at a cocktail party. They arranged to meet the following day, but at the last minute, at the rendezvous spot, Garcia Marquez “turned tail and ran”. The interviewer asks Garcia Marquez, “do we take it then that heroic sacrifice of this kind is the price to pay for a happy marriage?” Garcia-Marquez insists no. “After a brief conversation, something in her personality just made me feel that in the end her beauty would not compensate for the emotional problems she could cause.” He adds, “it’s not so much a concern for my private life that stops me being a public ladykiller, so to speak, as the fact that I don’t see love as a quick lunge with no consequences. I see it as a reciprocal relationship which simmers and grows and it’s impossible in my present circumstances to have more than one of these at a time…I’ve been pretty sure for some time now that there is no cosmic force capable of upsetting what you call the order of my private life.”

Here we’re not talking about a moral fidelity so much as an ontological necessity. But is it enough to be grounded in a settled marriage with children? For the suicidal Steiner (Alain Cuny) in La Dolce Vita this is also a problem, or rather there’s something too selfish in this love that he can’t quite trust. As we will explore shortly, it is simply not universal enough. How, the film might be asking, and chiefly through the central character of Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), can we find a love that will ground us enough to give our life meaning, but not root us so firmly that it becomes a paradoxical state of neurosis – as evidenced in Steiner’s comment that for all the peace and tranquillity he demands from life, ‘peace makes me feel afraid.’

This is just one aspect of the nausea of love that Fellini expresses though. There’s also the neurotic need to hold onto her man that we see in Marcello’s girlfriend, where she says that if Marcello will marry her she’ll walk everyday in her barefeet to the spot where a perceived miracle has taken place. But then there’s the impetuous love of movie star Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), where when asked by journalists what she believes in she says “love, love, love.” And not necessarily conjugal love only. After a night on the town with Marcello, Sylvia’s husband gives her a firm slap. Maddalena (Anouk Aimee), another woman with whom Marcello gets himself emotionally entangled, insists on making love and staying overnight in a prostitute’s rundown flat. Later, when Marcello declares his love for her whilst she’s in a room next door, she accepts the advances of another man. Just before Marcello announces his declaration, he asks where she is: “far, far away, as though a disembodied spirit.” But if anything her problem is that she’s a very embodied being, promptly in evidence when she says, at the same time, “I would like to be your faithful wife, to be your wife and to have fun like a whore.” She goes on to say, “One can’t have things both ways, but I can’t choose.”

What is interesting is that Fellini is of course not a filmmaker of langourousness à la Antonioni. So how does he show ennui and nausea? He does so paradoxically, through energy rather than inertia, so that the suicidal intellectual Steiner necessarily has to be peripherally present even as he’s thematically central. He functions in the film as a lost soul, certainly, but his ‘lostness’ is too un-ambivalent for Fellini’s exuberance: his choice is no longer between a meaningful life and a meaningless one, but between a meaningful existence without underpinning meaning, and death. At one stage he says, “Peace makes me afraid; perhaps I distrust it above all. I feel it’s only a facade concealing the abyss….[The world] is supposed to be marvellous but a phone call by a madman can mean the end of everything. We must get beyond passions, like a great work of art…we should love each other outside of time…detached.” His suicide, and the killing of his two children, may come as a shock, but not really as a surprise. He no longer believes in the world; its forms and shapes and colours and smells all seem to be of little use to him, and so in a film that is fascinated by the impossibility of choosing between a meaningful exuberance or a meaningless exuberance, he finally has no place, except as an extreme example of integrity, of spiritual grace. It may be the reputed miracle to which everybody is drawn, but there is something much more miraculously spiritual in Steiner. When Marcello asks “Let me come here more often”, Steiner replies, “as often as you like”.  He asks Marcello what troubles him, and Marcello says “I should change my world.” Marcello believes “your home is a sanctuary; your children, wife, books, friends.  I’m wasting my time, achieving nothing.”

What Marcello is looking for is a love that can bind, but not so much bind him to another, but to bind him to a belief in a world beyond hedonism, and yet not the beyond that Steiner seems to be talking about. Equally, he doesn’t want to be constrained, to be married to a resentful, clingy spouse who insists that it should be enough in life to have somebody who loves him. This is the problem he has with his girlfriend, Emma (Yvonne Funrneaux), who wants him to love her for no better reason than that she will devote herself to him. He would rather be with Maddalena but, as she says, he would probably be bored with her after a month. And doesn’t he fall more than a little in love with Sylvia? “You are everything. You are the first woman on the first day of creation. You are mother, sister, lover, friend…”

If we might suggest that in Godard’s great work of impossible stasis, Le Mepris, Paul’s situation is one of forced, yet gridlocked, choice as feels he must work on a script to satisfy his girlfriend’s material wants, but in the process will lose her respect as he kow-tows to the producer, in La Dolce Vita Marcello is in a position of unforced choice, and it’s the very lack of necessity that allows him to keep putting off the decisions in life that would give it meaning. We shouldn’t see this though as a Fellini-esque morality tale, but instead as the problem of the sweet life giving way to a nausea,  nausea that doesn’t manifest itself in the sickness, the ennui so prevalent in Antonioni, but in sweetness that leads to distaste: the sickness is a sickliness.

If Steiner kills himself partly out of a flavourlessness that’s consistent with Antonioni’s take on the world, Mastroianni’s problem is more a flavoursomeness that constantly draws him towards the sweet life of the title. Thus what love must bring if he’s to escape his funk is a state in between emptiness and satiation, the sort of state Garcia Marquez alludes to when saying “I’ve been pretty sure for some time now that there is no cosmic force capable of upsetting what you call the order of my private life.” But does Steiner not too claustrophobically try and create and protect this very space to the detriment of life?

We could say that Steiner martyrs himself, taking into account his own comments where he believes we should love each other outside of time, and also Fellini’s allusion to a priest who saw the film.  “There’s a priest who found a pretty good definition for Dolce Vita. He said: “It is when the silence of God falls upon people.”” But perhaps we can be more specific still, and say what La Dolce Vita suggests we need is not so much God’s presence, nor martyring within his absence, but a permeation of spirit through love. When Steiner says “a phone call from a madman can mean the end of everything…” it’s a statement on the absence of love and the presence of an altogether more ferocious passion. Steiner seems to want a love without passion, because passion is too ambivalent, confused and dangerous an emotion. But to protect himself he’s embedded himself too deeply within melancholia, removed himself too far from any life force. In the sequence where Marcello and his girlfriend visit Steiner at his large, book-lined, flat, Fellini’s camera movements are minimalist, the bodily configurations strangely alienated from each other. Generally when characters communicate, they may be talking from a place closer to their souls, but it is a place also of alienation, a place further away from other human beings. When Emma comes over and says to Marcello that one day they’ll have a home like Steiner’s, Marcello looks away into the distance. When Steiner talks about the abyss and the possible madman he does so not looking at Marcello but looking out of a window.

There’s the suggestion here of a problematic well-explored in Martin Buber’s Between Man and Man, with Buber investigating what he sees as a pessimistic strain in Heidegger. For Buber, Heidegger illustrates an inessential relationship between one human being and another based on solicititude where “the relation of solicitude which is all he considers cannot as such be an essential relation, since it does not set a man’s life in direct relation with the life of another, but only one man’s solicitous help in relation with another man’s lack and need of it.” This is why we can say Steiner’s death is shocking but not surprising. We already see early on how he’s entered into solicitous relationships with many of the people around him, including of course his two children. When he talks to other people he doesn’t engage with them, though there’s no hint of insincerity in his speech or manner, but he talks as though he’s already possessed of a posthumous existence.  How can he enter existence, though, when it seems to have been given over to the sickly sweet life? What Buber believes man needs to search out is ‘an essential relation’. “In an essential relation…the barriers of individual being are in fact breached and a new phenomenon appears which can appear only in this way: one life open to another – not steadily, but so to speak attaining its extreme reality only from point to point, yet also able to acquire a form in the continuity of life.”

Buber thus believes “the other becomes present not merely in the imagination or feeling, but in the depths of one’s substance, so that one experiences the other being in the mystery of one’s own. The two participate in one another’s lives in the very fact, not physically but ontically.” What this requires, Buber insists, is the presence of a certain kind of grace, and it’s perhaps this grace that’s missing when Fellini talks about the priest’s response, and it’s this missing grace Marcello searches for when he goes to Steiner’s place. But Steiner insists Marcello shouldn’t emulate him: “Don’t be like me; salvation doesn’t lie within four walls.”

Steiner’s is a neurotic response to the gracelessness of the world and, as we shall soon see, cannot help Marcello out of his funk. Indeed there’s perhaps even something in Marcello’s being-in-the-world that Steiner admires, for all Marcello’s journalistic sell-outs.  Can Marcello not take his enthusiasm for the world, and at the same time his pensive awareness of the futility of much of it, and shape it into a meaningful existence? “I can only be your friend, I can hardly advise you,” Steiner insists, “but I could introduce you to people such as an editor so that you could devote time to your true interests.”

The question La Dolce Vita is asking here, and really throughout the film, is how does one live the sweet life without sickliness. As Steiner says “even the most miserable life is better than a sheltered existence in an organized society where everything is calculated and perfected.” Really, Steiner and Marcello are two sides of the same coin: Steiner shelters within calculated perfection and lives austerely; Marcello lives hedonistically. But where does one find the grace necessary to live a meaningful life, and how can Fellini allude to that meaningfulness when his camera lends itself so well to an engagement with the world, as opposed to Antonioni’s which so often captures brilliantly its emptiness? After all, during the sequence here of the perceived miracle, Fellini’s camera mimics the gestures of the frenzy, tracking and tilting with Marcello as he realizes he’s onto a good story, and cranes in imitation of the craning shots of the TV cameraman filming the event.  It’s as though cinematically Fellini’s asking the question how he can be both engaged in the frivolity of the world and also search in turn for more significant meaning within it. When Marcello says “I do a job I dislike, but I often think of the future’s needs…”, there’s this quizzical search for a way to capture the present with the integrity of a relatively atemporal perspective. A female poet may say in response to Marcello’s musings, “friends, you think too much of the future…” but her way of countering it is to live in an alcoholic present, the sort of present tense Deleuze invokes in The Logic of Sense when he says, “alcoholism does not seem to be a search for pleasure, but a search for an effect which consists mainly in an extraordinary hardening of the present.” Deleuze reckons this hardening of the present means that “the lived and willed hardness of the present moment permits [the alcoholic] to hold reality at a distance.” A moment after, the poet talks about the three great oblivions: “smoking, drinking, bed.”

But how to live an unhardened present, in a present that’s always aware of the three tenses, of the past, of the present and of the future? If the poet seeks the hardening of the present, Steiner offers the ascetic alternative: to live outside of time altogether. But Marcello’s problem is he’s living a kind of temporal bad faith, where his past self is always a dead past that will soon give way to a purposeful future. But that purposeful future is going to be put off till tomorrow, and so Marcello’s melancholia, his curious nostalgia for what he feels he ought to become, grows ever more present. When Marcello says one evening to Maddalena at an aristocrat’s castle “you are a remarkable woman. Your courage, your sincerity…I really need you. Your desperation gives me strength. You’d be wonderful, because one can tell you everything…” she’s getting cosy with another man through the wall, and Marcello’s swiftly extricated from his maudlin thoughts by a procession of people who are off on a ghost hunt as Nino Rota’s sweet music strikes up. Does Marcello not need someone in whom he can not just project upon but with whom he can also express his thoughts and feelings? But does he not also fail to find this? By the end of the film is he still searching for that cosmic contentment not beyond the world, a la Steiner, but in the world and hoping to do so through marriage in the manner expressed by Garcia Marquez?

This helps us to avoid the ready judgement, the easy assumption that Marcello is merely a procrastinator incapable of getting down to serious work, and to see him instead as a man searching for the grounding of love in a godless world.  Here we can usefully draw upon Kierkegaard’s character Judge Vilhelm in the second section of Either/Or, in the essay on ‘The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage’. “Marriage can only be undertaken with one purpose which makes it ethical and aesthetic in the same degree, but that purpose is immanent; every other purpose separates what belongs together and in doing so turns both the spiritual and the sensual into finitudes.” Kierkegaard’s judge adds, “it is always an insult to a girl to want to marry her for any other reason than that one loves her.” Sure for the writer of ‘The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage’ there’s a belief in God, allowing a grounding absent from Fellini’s film, but an agnostic world doesn’t necessarily mean we live without belief altogether, but rather that we must utilise Kierkegaard’s position here to explore marriage not as a moral given, but an ethical choice. Even Kierkegaard’s man of God says it isn’t enough to act out of obligation, but that it must be an aesthetic and ethical undertaking. If Marcello cannot find a position in which to act maritally, then we must say his ‘indulgence’ in the good life isn’t necessarily an act of bad faith, perhaps more the best option available at the present moment.  When Fellini quotes the priest’s comment on his film, we can say that it’s what happens not only when God is absent, but when a value system that incorporates a set of consistent values is no longer in place.

Obviously this could lead us to believe that if Fellini isn’t moralising over his central character, he’s moralising over the wider social issues. Maybe. But then Garcia Marquez’s comments, the writer makes clear, do not come out of a moral stance, they come out of an inner necessity, as though Garcia Marquez resisted the most tempting of temptations, and found there was something more profoundly present than the desire for the most beautiful woman in the world. If Marcello lacks that inner integrity, does it not come from his having neither sincere work nor sincere love to ground him in making a decision? Perhaps if he shared a profound love he could find the equilibrium to devote himself to serious work; maybe if he had serious work he could work towards finding profound love. But with neither the work nor love, we watch as Marcello lives a life of infinite regress, a regression into a state of endless parties and womanizing opportunities that leads to the sickliness of life.

It was of course Freud who said what we need in life is work and love, but to what degree ought we to ground these terms in the specifics of vocation and fidelity? Kierkegaard’s man of faith might say that they are issues first and foremost of ethics over aesthetics. In another essay in Either/Or, ‘Equilibrium between the Aesthetic and the Ethical’, he says:  “so one’s personal being does not have the ethical outside it but inside it, and it breaks forth from this deep. Because the ethical lies deepest in the soul it is not always visible, and someone living ethically can behave exactly like someone living aesthetically so that one can  be deluded for a long time; but eventually there comes  a moment when it becomes apparent that the person who lives ethically has a boundary not recognized by the other.” Kierkegaard reckons that “in this assurance that his life is structured ethically the individual rests securely confident and so does not pester himself or others with captious fears about this or that.” Sure in many ways Marcello lives an aesthetic life, in terms of smart suits, a smart car and chic parties, but he hasn’t evolved an underlying ethos with which to give meaning to the ethical aspects of his existence.

Now a more austere filmmaker would perhaps show the fast car and the chic parties as necessarily hollow, but Fellini is not a political filmmaker the way even Antonioni could be so described. There is something in the very hollowness that fascinates him – that in many ways it’s the emptiness that allows for Fellini’s style, a ‘hollowness’ that manifests itself in the demand not for an internal ethos proposed by Kierkegaard, but an external ethos put forth by the priest who sees Fellini’s film as an examination of religion’s absence. Fellini’s style doesn’t lend itself to the personal, and yet this is paradoxical because he’s of course seen as one of cinema’s most personal filmmakers, evidenced of course in the way many of his later films became not Roma or Casanova, but Fellini’s Roma, Fellini’s Casanova, and by proclamations about why he didn’t use the real Rome in La Dolce Vita, but recreated chunks of it in the studio: the town was not Rome but his Rome.

But Fellini’s work is a product of and exploration of a porous subjectivity, not a resistant one. If  Eric Rohmer is a great director of resistant subjectivity, of a lineage of stoical thinking we can trace to some degree in the  Greek thought of Epictetus, Pliny and Seneca, and in Pascal and in Kierkegaard, Fellini’s a great chronicler of absorbent milieux that suggest the difficulty of acting ethically without a wider ethos already in place. When Fellini followed La Dolce Vita with a study of a filmmaker’s inability to make another film in the wake of a huge success, and various complications in his personal life, captured well this flooded subjectivity, a subjectivity unable to resist the pressures of a world imposing itself on an inner state. Fellini’s style, with its elegant crane and tracking shots, Nina Rota’s soft, enchantingly persusive music, lends itself well to a life of pleasurable episodes rather than the willing sacrifice of pleasure to meaning.  If La Dolce Vita may finally seem to suggest the importance of the theological, it lies in the way the godly would insufflate ‘shallow’ characters with enough moral purpose to move beyond the sweetest of lives presented. If a character doesn’t have the potential ‘depth’ to bring forth their own meaningfulness with the world, then would that character need meaning superimposed upon them?

Now Fellini’s often regarded as being an emotional filmmaker, not an intellectual one. As John Russell Taylor says in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, La Dolce Vita “makes its effects not through intellectual argument (we would hardly expect that from Fellini) but through the emotional responses to the atmospheric scene-painting.” However, if Fellini’s a filmmaker incapable of suggesting that resistant subjectivity present in Rohmer, for example, or even the resistant neurosis of an Antonioni figure, then that’s not to damn him, but instead to see how he moves towards illustrating a threefold problem: the apparent absence of love, vocation and God. Is this what the sweet life leaves us with; a material extravagance and yet a threefold absence? It is this threefold absence Madallena perhaps reflects when she says she would like to be Marcello’s faithful wife while at the same time would like to party and sleep with other people. Does she really want both to be Marcello’s wife and “have fun like a whore”, or does the lack of a wider meaning in her life mean that she assumes she will also want the apparently incompatible? And what about Marcello? Shortly after declaring his love for Madellena, he goes off with another woman.

What makes the characters nauseous here is that the decisiveness of the moment is immediately counter-balanced by a desire that moves in a different direction. When Sartre’s central characters in Nausea says, “what am I going to do with my life?” it’s similar to Marcello’s throughout the film. The question, once asked, demands decisiveness, but then constantly fails the resoluteness of the question. We might say that it’s a question much more difficult to answer for the porous person than the resistant person, but we might also say that is it not partly the difference between a resistant life that moves towards suicide, and a porous life that leads towards ever more debauchery?

In La Dolce Vita’s final scene, the hint of debasement comes in a moment that may just as readily be the closest the film gets to a la dolce vita of innocence. Marcello and other party revellers have gone to see the huge, beached sea monster when Marcello catches sight of a lovely young girl across the inlet by the sea.  There’s probably sexual attraction there, but we sense also the sweet feeling for a threefold innocence he perhaps sees in her. If Steiner suggests, for all his integrity, humanity and decency, a threefold posthumousness – the threefold final absence of love, work and God – then does the young girl not represent a threefold innocence: the possibility of love, the possibility of vocation, the possibility of God? This would be a sweetness without sickliness, and partly because the existential question, “what am I going to do with my life?” has still to be asked.

Obviously when one falls for a woman years younger than oneself, central to it is her beauty, the softness of her skin, the clearness of her eyes. But is it not also this idea that she hasn’t asked this basic existential question, or, even if she has asked it, it’s been asked without the perennial inability to live up to the will’s demands? If we keep asking the question, though, and provisionally arrive at answers which we cannot live up to, does the sweet life, with its drinking, dancing and all-round partying not create a double nausea? That is, the nausea of the indecision making on a basic phenomenological level that’s so central to Sartre’s novel, but on top of it the nauseausness of the body as it dissipates the life it has chosen through failed will.  Now if Steiner must kill innocence – namely his own kids – to retain a notion of innocence, in keeping with his resistant personality, would Marcello not instead need to sleep with the teenage girl, and thus hold to the consistency of his?

We should recall that this picture of innocence at the end of the film is also the young woman who, earlier on, he mock-seduces by asking her if she has a boyfriend and telling her how pretty she is. Then again, maybe she functions as a realization, and that the inlet that separates the pair of them is the gap Marcello sees between him and a world of possibility.  Marcello might never be able to return to such a state, with all its youthful hope, but he could finally move towards alleviating the nausea in his life – he could move towards a sense of necessity that would mean that the decisions he would make would be meaningful, and subsequently the alleviation of the sickliness that the failed decision making had left him with. Whether this would take the form of work, love or religion the film doesn’t say, but possibly the girl functioning as a combination of love and spirit, could move Marcello towards at least his vocation as a serious writer.

What we’re suggesting here is where the porous personality might go if it lacks grounding. When Garcia Marquez insists on his cosmic well-being, is it not the comment of a porous personality who’s found this grounding? In the conversation with Garcia Marquez, the interviewer, asks “How, for instance, that thirty-year-old writer I once knew with holes in the elbows of his pullover would have leapt at the chance of an affair with one of the beautiful, sophisticated women who today drops hints to the fifty-year-old writer. Now he does not respond for fear of altering the peace and order of his life.” It is this peace and order Marcello searches out, we believe, but Fellini’s film is much more oblique than the fortuitousness of Garcia Marquez’s life. Marcello must search it out in such a way that Steiner’s death, the poet’s musings, his lovers’ demands, the young girl’s innocence, all contribute to a realization towards the cosmic well-being Garcia Marquez talks about. Some are lucky and find this well-being with minimum effort, and for others it’s an arduous yet enigmatic task. Fellini suggests if Marcello is to achieve it, he nevertheless can’t ignore the good life, but must pass through it. Whether he can come out the other end or not is a moot point.


©Tony McKibbin