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Why do we laugh?

The apartment, La grande bellezza and Les Fleurs du mal.

Borja Hernández Máñez, studentof Degree in Literature and Creative Writing at School Philosophy y Letras, offers us a reflection on two film directors, Wilder and Sorrentino, and the poet Baudelaire.

I hope they don't laugh. It would be inconsiderate of them. After all, we are talking about a man without a family. As you know, he spends the whole day in the office. He has no social life whatsoever subject. He even works overtime to curry favour with his superiors. That's his ultimate aspiration, to go up to the 27th floor and have an office of his own, not one of those ridiculous desks crammed one behind the other. Buddy doesn't do it for the money and, if I may say so, I don't think even he knows why he does it. He has a shattered life, very unhuman you might say Friends? None. Partners? What more would good old Buddy like. By all accounts, it's a pretty nondescript life, isn't it... Well, I'm lying. There is one thing that sets him apart from the rest of the corporate bees. At certain times of the night, he can't get into his flat. Why is that? He lends it to his bosses, a bunch of adulterers who take advantage of this poor wretch to give free rein to their multiple affairs. No doubt, a curious way of working overtime.

If you are a person with two fingers on your head, what I have just told you won't have made you laugh too much. But let me tell you, if you haven't already guessed, that this is the premise of The Apartment, surely one of the best comedies in the history of cinema. If you don't know who the genius behind it is, you've come to the right article. This is Billy Wilder, the man with a head full of razor blades. That's what his contemporaries called him. Wilder, the near-perfect screenwriter, stands as the undisputed master of what I like to call the "cynicism of entanglement". And, strange as it may seem to you, his work has a lot to do with that of Paolo Sorrentino, the leading exponent of "cynical aestheticism" - also of his own making - and of Charles Baudelaire, who, unfairly reduced by me, is the father of the same crude cynicism from which the other two authors draw.

Let's take it one step at a time. First of all, it is necessary to understand what it means to be cynical and, as it could not be otherwise, I will use a film to explain it. In Casablanca we meet a character who is the quintessence of cynicism. Indeed, I am referring to Rick, the owner of the famous Café americain. Bogart sums up this shameless and shameless attitude as follows: "I don't stick my neck out for anyone". In other, more colloquial words: "Do what you want as long as it doesn't splash me. I don' t really care either". I won't go into moral issues. What interests me here is to show how this vital attitude, this way of seeing the world, connects three of the great works of these great masters of cynicism. These are The Apartment, La grande bellezza and Les Fleurs du mal

To begin with, look at the characters Wilder deals with: a former silent film star on the verge of madness, an unscrupulous woman who plots against her husband, two impoverished musicians who will do anything to put a piece of bread in their mouths, a worker for a large insurance company who lives in the most absolute loneliness. The list is long and, if we look at them all in the light of this cynical attitude we have explained, we find the same hopelessness, not pessimism, in all of them. However, many of these films are comedies, and both you and I have laughed at the misfortunes of these poor characters. You know, we laugh at characters who are not Achilles. But why do we laugh, what's going on in our heads?

Billy Wilder, like so many others before him, is able to glimpse through the many layers of reality that elephant in the room - as the English say - that nobody dares to look at. We all say: "It's better not to talk about it, don't get into that mess", don't we? Yet Wilder embraces these themes with an enviable naturalness. Death, alcoholism, madness, excessive loneliness. He touches on all these issues impudently and, so that we don't lose our digestion, he covers them with tenderness, wit and narrative witticisms. But the monkey is still cute, no matter how much sugar is added to it. This is where his mastery lies, in playing on the fine line that separates comedy from bad taste. What we would normally look away from, Wilder makes laughable. That which should repulse us, attracts us. That is the cynicism of the plot. As if in a trance, you don't realise that you've been laughing your head off at the miserable life of a poor man for whom nothing goes right. 

And what does this have to do with Sorrentino? Well, for those who don't know him, Paolo Sorrentino is one of the greatest exponents of contemporary cinema, as well as one of the greatest Italian filmmakers of all time. I don't want to talk about his entire filmography, but about what, for me, is his masterpiece: La grande bellezza. Although I've already brought up the issue of cynical aestheticism, let me delve a little deeper into the subject. Like Wilder, Sorrentino wanders like a Parisian Flâneur through the darkest layers of reality. But he doesn't let anything splash him too much. When he finds that which fascinates and horrifies him, he does so without any qualms: sample. He makes the grotesque into something beautiful, but, in this case, through the direction of photography - by the genius Luca Bigazzi -. He paints the sordid like one of those orthodox icons, with delicacy and with an ejaculation per brushstroke. This is what La grande bellezza is all about. 

Jep Gambardella is a famous writer of whom only one novel from his youth is known. It is said that he wrote it when he was totally in love. Since then, he has never written again. After that, it has been all about wandering in these artificial paradises full of excesses. Unlike Baudelaire, opium is replaced by cocaine, alcohol and endless parties. The weariness, the spleen remains the same. That tedious feeling that only reminds us that life is a bore. However, Jep is a dandy, a gentleman who always carries a glass of whisky with him, even if it's ten in the morning. He could be a junkie, an addict, a vicious man... But he's not. He is a writer.

It is inevitable. Jep is cursed, destined not to be swallowed up by the whirlpool of mundanity. No matter how much he tinkers with it, he will never be able to avoid being attentive, constantly searching. He'll find everything, nothing escapes his curious gaze: a sacred temple where the priest is a doctor who injects botox into frivolous ladies, the tearful gaze of a prostitute through the crack of the window of a luxurious limousine, the decrepitude of old women in their seventies who go from disco to disco... "We are all on the verge of despair, and we have no choice but to look each other in the face, keep each other company, and tease each other a bit, don't we? What a sight... What can you find in such a quagmire...? Wait... There seems to be something. A woman. She's lost too, almost as much as Jep. But, it is because of her that things start to change. "I think I'm going to start writing again," she says. Rome dawns differently and the crazy parties don't matter so much anymore. At last, something truly beautiful. But how short love was, as they say. Everything goes back to the way it started. How tiresome, how boring and how beautiful at the same time. 

The flowers of evil. On the one hand, the beautiful and, on the other, the unpleasant. On the one hand, laughter and, on the other, the most overwhelming loneliness. That is what The Apartment, La grande bellezza and Les Fleurs du mal have in common, the immediate juxtaposition of decadence, misfortune and the miserable man with the gaunt and fickle flashes of beauty. There's no other way to swallow this one gram paracetamol with a litre of cynicism, is there?

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