Paula’s review published on Letterboxd:
Sunset Boulevard is not only an impeccable character study of the forgotten silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) - it's the portrait of narcissism itself. When the lives of Norma and Joe Gillis (William Holden) meet in hilarious circumstances, a very weird and disturbing relationship will be stablished between both of them. Norma has everything to be happy: she's rich, beautiful, lives in comfort and luxury. But she's a loner, and she craves company. When Joe Gillis meets her, she's still mourning the death of her dear chimpanzee, so he ends up agreeing to work for her and living with her right at this moment when she was the most emotionally vulnerable.
In desperate need for money and also to hide from the debt collectors, Joe Gillis agrees to work for Norma and rewrite her screeplay, but little did he know he was actually agreeing to live with a woman consumed by her own narcissism. And that's what makes Sunset Boulevard so brilliant: it's a masterfully accurate portrait of both loneliness and narcissism. It shows loneliness not with the usual melancholic tone, but as the reason why so many people get attached to objects, weird habits and also their once glorious past - and Norma Desmond exhibits these three characteristics: she has pictures of herself in every room of her house, she's obsessed with her old movies, she even watches herself every night at her private screening room. .
It's fairly easy to imagine that such a woman, who's had three previous husbands in the past and had the sick need to be admired and praised, would fall in love with a younger man who was willing to work for her. So Joe Gillis immediately becomes the object of her affection - an extension of her ego, since she's a narcissist. She expects him to do exactly what she wants from him - he not only has to love her back, but also dress and behave the way it pleases her. But unfortunately for Norma, Joe Gillis is not willing to become her prey, since he's an opportunistic narcissist himself. Differently from Max, Norma's ex-husband who became her butler out of pure attachment to his ex-wife (which is, by the way, a great depiction of the codependency typical of many partners of narcissists), Joe Gillis is only using Norma as a shortcut to solve his own issues - he is not dependent on her, or anyone, and he has no empathy for Norma's histrionic passions.
Unfortunately for Gillis, his rejection combined with Norma's deeply ingrained narcissism and long-lasting loneliness will provoke Norma's descent into madness. The final sequence of Sunset Boulevard - by far the best of the movie and the one that confirmed to me this was indeed a masterpiece - is one of the most depressing, devastating and yet fascinating depictions of mental illness. It's hard not find Norma Desmond's breakdown both terrifying and alluring. She's fascinating, even when she succumbs to her own nightmares and delusions.
The brilliance of Sunset Boulevard relies not only on the great actings (Gloria Swanson gives one of the best female performances of all times) and the masterful use of closeups to display emotion and desperation - it also has lavish set designs and beautiful costumes. But beyond these palpable aspects, Sunset Boulevard became a classic for portraying so well tridimensional, imperfect characters that together build clever criticism of the golden Hollywood era and the cult of celebrity, exposing the darkness and the hypocrisy of many in this industry.
Norma Desmond, is, in the end, a portrait of the dangers of fame - for being too distracted by her own narcissism and luxurious pampered life, she didn't see her own cracked self - and, for that reason, she didn't predict that her flaws and disgrace could make her more famous than her work during her golden years. Consumed by her own narcissism and arrogance, Norma Desmond couldn't realize her greatest moment of glory was also her greatest moment of decay.