Louis Edouard Fournier, ‘The Funeral of Shelley’

In 1822 Percy Shelley drowned 10 miles off the Italian coast at Viareggio. Some days later he washed ashore, and was cremated on the beach in accordance with quarantine regulations. Louis-Edouard Fournier’s 1889 funeral painting mollifies the facts: Shelley’s corpse looks presentable, whereas it was fleshless; Mary Shelley and Leigh Hunt are pictured mourning, though they did not attend; Byron cuts a dash in his high boots, though in fact he could not face the scene, but waited further up the beach. ‘Everything’, remarks Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom’s 2014 film The Trip to Italy, surveying Viareggio with Fournier’s version in hand, ‘looks better in a painting’.

Everything looks better on film, too. The Trip follows Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon down Italy’s west coast as they ostensibly research a series of articles about the region’s finest restaurants. The actors play fictionalised versions of themselves – they keep their names and elements of their real-life personas – but the film is a fiction. Endless coastal roads, sweeping views across the Amalfi coast and fleeting glimpses into Michelin starred kitchens (often long enough just to see a jus swirled around a plate rim) bookend the static shots of the two diners verbally sparing in their Mini. The beauty of the film, added to its superficial verbal comedy, belies its real weight. It’s really about death. This isn’t a secret: Brydon and Coogan have both commented on how ‘it’s all about ageing’. But it has been noticeable that everything written about the film has seen the ‘touching moments of reflection’ as extra to the comedy. I think there’s a problem in thinking like this – or at least, I think there might be a better way of thinking about The Trip.

Death is less present in Western society than it once was. Many of us have never seen anyone die. A growth in religious uncertainty has been matched, perversely, by a growth in language that evades the issue of life’s total and final end: people ‘pass away’, ‘move on’, are ‘taken from’ us. The whole business, from hospital pronouncement to crematorium conveyor belt, is sanitized and made pleasant. The most noticeable thing about a family death is the avalanche of ensuing paperwork. So the idea that ‘media vita in morte sumus’ (in the midst of life we are in death), so dominant in European thought for thousands of years, now seems cloying and unwelcome. We prefer to think of death as being not in life’s midst, but somewhere distant, over the horizon of the present.

This hushing-up of the reality of dying was matched by the decline of the Vanitas painting and the ideas that accompanied it. Blossoming in 17th century Holland (but by no means restricted to it) this genre of painting takes its refrain from Ecclesiastes (Vanity of vanities; all is vanity) and seeks to remind the viewer that life is short, that life’s pleasures are vain and worthless before the eternal afterward. The symbolism is often overt: still-life scenes with skull, hourglass and pocket watch, dying candles and over-ripened fruit, flowers waiting to wilt, soap bubbles about to burst – and endless slogans: ars longa, vita brevis (art is long, life is short), tempus fugit (time flees). There’s occasionally some comfort found in the idea that a person’s works live on – a pile of books, perhaps, and the motto non omnis moriar (I shall not entirely die). To our modern temperament, though, the general message is bleak. Sometimes the symbolism is less obvious: flower paintings, a hugely popular genre from the 17th century onwards, contain the same sentiment – that all beauty is ephemeral, and will shortly decay – but spare us the skulls and the hourglasses. There are even instances of dealers painting over or cutting out the skull marring an otherwise pleasant vase of peonies in order to shift their stock in the 20th century when death fell out of fashion.

The comparison with Winterbottom’s film is worthwhile because the deathly reminder in Vanitas pictures is often a secondary attraction. In The Trip, death is secondary to comedy; in the paintings, to their technical showmanship. The Vanitas painting was in one sense an opportunity to show off one’s skill with the brush. We can’t now know to what extent this was the reason for their popularity, or whether each painting’s buyer valued the reminder that he would shortly be shuffling from his mortal coil (it was most probably a bit of both). The eclectic makeup of the still life certainly offered plenty of opportunity for technical fireworks: look at Willem Kalf’s ‘Still Life with Ginger Jar’ (or really anything by Kalf – he’s an under-appreciated master): yes, there’s ripe fruit and a ticking watch, but we certainly feel he’s more interested in catching the fleshy center of the melon, the light on the porcelain distilled through the glass of wine, and each thread of the Persian rug. You could argue that Winterbottom, like Kalf, is more interested in showy effects than in death – that just as Kalf mimics the texture of a lemon to please his viewers, Coogan and Brydon mimic Roger Moore and Al Pacino, winning easy laughs. But I think a better foil for The Trip to Italy is found in the gloomier Vanitas pictures.

After all, Winterbottom plunders the Vanitas iconography pretty heavily, either by design or by accident. Each Michelin-starred platter to be consumed at the six lunches that structure the film could be taken straight from a painting: the glistening langoustines as much a feast for the camera as they would be for the brush. Food and wine, staple tropes of the Vanitas picture, are The Trip’s narrative raison d’être. The characters’ sightseeing expeditions are equivalent to the looming Vanitas skull: at Pompeii, they peer over the cast of a 1st century victim (‘did anyone cry for him?’ asks Coogan); at cimitero delle fontanelle, a cavernous ossuary on the outskirts of Naples, Coogan corrects Brydon’s faltering ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ and delivers the speech in full, surrounded by bones of plague victims, with real poignancy, before declaring the whole place ‘a bit of a downer’. And the Vanitas hourglass is ever present in the form of their voiced worries about middle age: ‘I like to think of myself as a fine wine, maturing each passing year’; ’ if either of us are remembered in 200 years time… it’s more likely to be me’. More comically, there’s japing about burying multiple Batmen, the relative merits of eating Mo Farah or Stephen Hawking, and the thought of Bryon collecting Coogan’s posthumous Bafta by video link from his prison cell, having killed him. Death and decline are always there.

still life kalf

—William Kalf, ‘Still Life with a Late Ming Ginger Jar’

Winterbottom, according to Coogan, always has ‘something sincere in the resolve of his films’ – that much is clear. The endless layering of symbolism here, though, seems to argue that seriousness is fundamental to The Trip. The recurring segment of soundtrack – taken from Strauss’s Last Songs – is typically enigmatic: as one character criticizes the repetitive soundtrack of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film Contempt, it becomes obvious that Winterbottom’s overuse of the Strauss is directed, articulate: ‘How weary we are of wandering… Is this perhaps death?’ is the text that accompanies setting suns, Pompeiian corpses and sea views throughout the film. Although we are culturally reticent about death, it would be naïve to bill The Trip as a lone voice in the wilderness: mortality is the preoccupation of many artists, just as it has always been. The Trip to Italy is simply special in that it discusses these issues allusively and subtly, without adopting the meditative mode of something like Frammartino’s film Le Quattro Volte: just as a Vanitas composition of flowers and fruit brightened a room while warning of life’s excesses, so The Trip provokes as it entertains. ’One day we’ll be on a slab,’ says Brydon, on the spot where Shelley’s bloated body slowly burned, ‘being embalmed. It’s better to accept it.’