What makes a movie great (or not), pt. 2 *

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

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(* For part I see: La migliore offerta).

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The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann (2013)

“The rich are different from you and me.” “Yes, they have more money.” This is a famous misquote, an exchange that never really took place between Francis Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. It kept popping up in my brain throughout Baz Luhrmann’s update of the classic novel. Having not read the book yet (I’ve only watched the 1974 version), it is difficult to sound authoritative about Luhrmann’s interventions and where he strays from the “spirit” of the book. Nor do I consider a “faithful” rendition of a book the duty of any filmmaker (the difference between mediums should discourage comparisons).

And yet, I could not help but feeling uncomfortable with Luhrmann’s version, although I would not impute its failure to the loudness, extravagance and lack of taste other critics have remarked (I, for one, remained unperturbed by the over-the-top partying portrayed in the movie, or the garish colors that overflowed from the screen). Nor would I blame the actors, although I found Leonardo di Caprio’s acting intensity at times excessive (as in the scene where he meets Daisy for tea), and Tobey Maguire’s mannered naiveté was jarring throughout the film.

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The film failed, because it put its narrative weight behind Jay and Daisy’s romance. Luhrmann seems to have envisioned the story along the lines of his other doomed filmic lovers, such as Romeo and Juliette or Christian and Satine from Moulin Rouge. But The Great Gatsby is not first and foremost a love story. It’s the story of a man whose social position and (initial) lack of material wealth preclude him from ever being a suitable match for the woman he happened to fall in love with. The class struggle is not peripheral to the story – it constitutes its backbone. At the same time, as Walter Benn Michaels has ingenuously remarked (in his Our America, but for a brief commentary see here), social difference in Fitzgerald’s novel is re-described as racial difference – that is, the poor and the rich are treated as different ‘races’, and thus not subject to real change. No matter how much money Gatsby has, he will always be the man with no (acceptable) past and name. Gatsby clearly understands that the ways his wealth came about and continues to grow, are a source of embarrassment and only through elaborate concealment and denial can he hope to be accepted as an equal. His nonchalance is not so much a character trait, as it is a strategy adopted in order to brush away the vulgar associations his newly amassed fortune might create. 

The pivotal scene of the film (is it so in the book as well?) is the one in the Plaza Hotel suite, where Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband, confronts Gatsby. I have to admit that I found Joel Edgerton’s portrayal of Tom unnecessarily brutish at the beginning, but as the film progressed, I appreciated his performance more and more. Edgerton was in fact superb as he managed to reveal Tom, layer after layer, as the only “honest” character of the film: that is, as the only character who does not entertain any illusions whatsoever about his place in the world and his relationship with his fellow human beings. I would even go so far as to argue that, unlike the “honesty” of her husband (virtue is obviously a relative value in this story), Daisy is irresponsible, narcissistic and superficial as she attaches herself to Gatsby, and the fact that Fitzgerald has her driving the car that kills Myrtle is certainly not an accident, as it reveals the callous nature of his heroine.

Daisy’s “weakness” then, her final decision to remain with her husband, does not run contrary to her character or her affection for Gatsby, as Luhrmann seems to imply. This is a woman conditioned by her place in society and unable to exist outside of it. Gatsby, on the other hand, is revealed as a fool, one who dared to imagine such an existence and failed deplorably. Even Nick’s compliment (“You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together”) towards the end is in vain; Nick states immediately afterwards that he disapproved of Gatsby from beginning to end.

Fitzgerald’s story is permeated by a sort of fatalism, as if implying that social mobility and change were both pointless and impossible, a struggle against a rigidly stratified society that had tradition on its side (one is left to wonder about the meaning of the novel’s famous last line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”). In the end, The Great Gatsby was an inadequate film because of its self-imposed limitations: beyond the love story and instead of a shallow commentary on consumerism (that it relished), it could have resonated as the critique of a society that allows the possibility of individual growth, but crushes any hope for real change. A Gatsby for the 21st century.

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