Once a woman passes a certain threshold of physical attractiveness, it’s not unreasonable to claim that, for her, every heterosexual man is, in principle, sexually attainable. In most cases, a man will resist the sexual advances of a woman he finds attractive only when there is some kind of promise, rule, or law he feels he must respect. Often, even that won’t be enough.
The same is not true for men. A very attractive man will very often fail to convince a woman to have sex with him, even when she is attracted to him. Less attractive men can have an even more difficult time.
This asymmetry probably exists because the consequences of sex can be far more costly for women than men. Whether the asymmetry exists for biological or cultural reasons remains to be seen. The age of mostly safe and reliable contraception has barely begun.
In large part because of this asymmetry, it is not unreasonable to claim that most men, whatever their level of attractiveness, experience sex with a woman as a kind of victory — an attainment of something not easily attained. Sex with a woman who was previously thought to be unattainable is, for many, the greatest victory of all. For the narrator of La Grande Bellezza, it is not just the greatest victory, but the great beauty.
Presumably, women can have a similar experience, but it’s probably much rarer because of the asymmetry. If most men are attainable most of the time, it will be pretty rare for a woman to even encounter a man she regards as, strictly-speaking, unattainable and, for biological and/or cultural reasons, there’s no reason to expect she will even pursue him.
Moreover, if the man is deemed to be unattainable for reasons that are meant to contain his sexual desire, a woman might experience her attainment of the unattainable as a disappointment. In being attained, the man, in effect, renounces that which made him unattainably desirable. The lord becomes just another bondsman with all-too-human appetites.
Men, of course, do the very same thing. The unattainable goddess becomes mere flesh and blood, once attained. For example, the great beauty for the narrator of La Grande Bellezza is not the sex itself, but the moment when the woman reveals to him that she will allow herself to be attained by him. The sex itself is of secondary importance to his aesthetic and noetic experience.
What’s at issue here, of course, is the unique satisfaction of attaining what was previously thought unattainable. The problem is that a person will normally first know that the other is now attainable and, if that is all there is to its desirability, then the desirability will vanish with that knowledge and, one might go on to say, make the unattainable truly unattainable.
In La Grande Bellezza, the narrator experiences his great moment of beauty as a young man, and it seems that this event may have been the catalyst for the one and only novel he wrote, the success of which also catapulted him into Rome’s high society. The question upon which the whole movie hangs is why didn’t he write another novel?
The narrator’s answers seems to be that he could never again find a moment like his moment of great beauty. Without that inspiration to drive his creativity, he floated instead on the pleasant distractions of Rome’s high society. If we take the narrator at his word, the lesson of the film might be somewhat pessimistic. The great beauty once experienced is lost forever.
There is, of course, no reason to accept the narrator’s analysis of his own life. Here is a man finally confronting his mortality and he might be simply looking for a profound excuse to justify his decision to build a life of promise on the premise that what really matters is an ability to make or break a party. What might have been a tower of literature is instead a perpetual party of frivolity.
There is, I think, a different lesson that can be drawn from the movie, if we stand back from the narrator’s analysis. As a young man, he gazed upon his great beauty, but he never knew her — precisely because, for him, her beauty was entirely reducible to her unattainability. So, the lesson we might draw from the example of the life this film portrays is that a life lived for the attainment of the unattainable — for its own sake and its own sake alone — is a life that can admire, but never know beauty.