In “The Great Beauty,” there’s a flashback in which a young Jep Gambardella recalls the promise of love — its loss, with the betrayal of youthful ideals, leads to Jep’s crushing self-contempt. It’s a tender moment in a film of deep cynicism, and now Paolo Sorrentino, with “Youth,” delivers his most tender film to date, an emotionally rich contemplation of life’s wisdom gained, lost and remembered — with cynicism harping from the sidelines, but as a wearied chord rather than a major motif. Set in a Swiss spa with two old friends — one a retired composer-conductor, the other an active helmer— “Youth” is less flashy than Sorrentino’s recent pics but no less beautiful. Shot in English, with leads Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel bringing lifetimes of depth to their roles, the film, which Fox Searchlight is releasing Stateside, could become Sorrentino’s biggest box office hit yet.
Everything the director’s fans expect is here: stunning compositions (with Luca Bigazzi again behind the lensing), a second-to-none understanding of music’s emotional range, delightfully unexpected interludes, and a towering performance, this time divided in two (or two-and-a-half, since Jane Fonda’s brief turn is indelible). In addition, there’s a stronger female presence than has been seen since “This Must Be the Place.” Fellini’s influence, especially that of “8½,” remains, and while the whole package isn’t as demonstrably bravura as “Il Divo” or “The Great Beauty,” it’s more in touch with human experience.
Structurally, Sorrentino continues to craft his films like a composer (making Caine’s character especially apposite): There are the grand themes, including aging, memory, love and thirst for further fulfillment, and the minor entr’actes, ranging from spectatorship to the visual pleasure of contrasts, to a near-mystic sense of wonder at beauty in all its forms. And what better locale than the hermetic elements of a spa resort — a setting that unmistakably calls to mind Thomas Mann, Anton Chekhov, “Last Year at Marienbad” and “8 ½,” among many others.
For more than 20 years, Fred Ballinger (Caine) has been coming to this resort. Now retired after decades conducting orchestras in London, New York and Venice, he’s approached by a Buckingham Palace emissary (Alex MacQueen): The Queen is offering a knighthood, and wants him to conduct his most famous composition, “Simple Songs.” Fred refuses, “for personal reasons.”
With him at the spa is his old friend Mick Boyle (Keitel), trying to finish a script with a group of young collaborators (Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Alex Beckett, Nate Dern and Mark Gessner). The film, titled “Life’s Last Day” (without a touch of irony), will be Mick’s “testament,” though exactly how is unclear. Besides being buddies from way back, the two men are also in-laws, since Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), is married to Mick’s son, Julian (Ed Stoppard). That changes when Julian announces he’s leaving Lena for Paloma Faith (playing a parody of herself and featured in a very funny musicvid caricature/nightmare of “Can’t Rely on You”).
Lena’s emotional fragility following her abandonment leads to a powerful monologue in which she lashes out at her father for his lack of paternal warmth, his past affairs, and his all-consuming devotion to music. Viewers will sense there’s more to the man than that, and Sorrentino rewards the audience when Fred speaks of children not knowing their parents’ ideals — it’s a deeply affecting moment, encapsulating much of what “Youth” says about ideals harbored and lost, and the reservoirs of sentiment so often guarded deep inside all of us.
Also at the spa is intellectual actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), famed for playing a robot in the smash hit “Mister Q” and unable to escape from its long shadow (think “Birdman,” but far less neurotic). Jimmy is a fascinating character, a consummate spectator who watches the world with bemusement, and often a calm purveyor of wisdom. Yet he doesn’t always understand what he imagines he sees, especially when he equates his frustrated inability to shed the “Mister Q” image with Fred’s refusal to perform “Simple Songs.” “We allowed ourselves to give in, just once to a little levity,” Jimmy tells Fred, mixing up “simple” with simplistic and thereby missing the whole point about the music (as well as the value in levity).
So often in film (as well as life), aging becomes a subject for jokes about prostate problems and memory loss. These things are there in the banter between Fred and Mick, but it’s all minor chitchat that leads to equally natural discussions, and greater silences, about lost possibilities and the yearning for more out of life, even while it’s slowly ebbing away. Unwilling to let any of it ebb is Hollywood star Brenda Morel (Fonda), who’s come to tell Mick she won’t star in his movie and gives him a cold shower of invective about his arty pretensions. Brenda is something of a monster — one finds them peppered throughout Sorrentino’s films — and Fonda grabs hold of the role with all her consummate presence, a tough-as-nails aging woman quick to deride others but not capable of holding up a mirror to herself.
There’s a great deal of humor in “Youth” as well as quiet melancholy, and the spa is populated with its fair share of quirky characters, from an obese man sporting a Jesus pendant and a giant Karl Marx tattoo on his back to a masseuse (Luna Mijovic), dancing with her Wii to a hilariously unexpected Adolf Hitler. They’re used almost like minor musical passages to maintain tone, but they’re also possible expressions of the philosophy of fragments propagated by the German Romantic philosopher Novalis, who’s referenced in a conversation between Jimmy and Fred: Fragments can often convey ideas more powerfully and subtly than grand statements.
It may be odd to see a Sorrentino film without Toni Servillo (though of course his other English-lingo pic, the underrated “This Must Be the Place,” was also sans Servillo), but Caine and Keitel understand the director’s style equally well, and their partnership is a joy to watch. Caine’s very English reserve, vocally expressed via his line delivery in phrases, forms a terrific contrast to Keitel’s more flowing Americanisms, yet both men use their natural characteristics to convey a lifetime of success as well as delusions, love as well as pain. Mick still wants more out of life; Fred, less comfortable with emotion despite an inner ocean of feeling, is more resigned to letting go.
Bigazzi’s evocative lensing is once again a marvel to behold, compositionally striking yet never emptily so, deeply cognizant of Old and Modern Master references (and not just the appropriate Susannah and the Elders scene). Fellini’s influence is felt more than once, especially when Mick imagines all his female characters spread out over an idyllic Swiss pasture, but the parallels are less deliberately exact than in “The Great Beauty.” Contempo composer David Lang’s gorgeous post-Romantic music offers rich aural rewards (the finale in particular), and as always Sorrentino’s amusing use of indie tunes, such as a cover of Florence + the Machine’s “You’ve Got the Love,” is ever apt, and always a wonderful surprise.
The Bottom Line
A fountain of cinematic intoxication.
Youth is a voluptuary’s feast, a full-body immersion in the sensory pleasures of the cinema. A film about old artists by a much younger man, Paolo Sorrentino’s second English-language feature is an immeasurable improvement on his first, This Must Be the Place, standing much closer to the level of his 2013 triumph, The Great Beauty, as it takes on potentially heavy material in a disarmingly whimsical, intelligent and keen-witted manner.
Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, both at the top of their games, wonderfully carry this spirited look at two aging artist friends with distinctly different ideas about how to wrap up their creative careers. Luring younger audiences to a film about mostly older folk at a Swiss spa will be a challenge, but a decent commercial career looks possible with critical support and a knowing distributor’s expert massaging.
Given that the central characters are a retired 80-year-old composer-conductor and a veteran film director anxious to launch yet another picture, one might reasonably expect to encounter these old gents in autumnal, summing-up mode. Or if it were a Hollywood production, perhaps a farcical old-age comedy.
But Sorrentino does nothing so obvious, establishing an oddly paradoxical tone of relaxed rigor that embraces his characters’ unpretentious reflections on their advanced years and artistic legacies while filling the screen around them with fanciful and bizarre characters reminiscent of Sorrentino’s stylistic forebear Fellini but with none of the latter’s grotesquerie.
A stunning revolving opening shot of a singer performing produces a sensual rush that is remarkably sustained for the next two hours. First and foremost among the odd assortment of wealthy guests at a large hotel spa in the Swiss Alps is Fred Ballinger (Caine), a long-eminent musician being entreated by an emissary of the queen (a very fine Alex Macqueen) to return to London to conduct one concert of his most celebrated composition, “Simple Songs,” in exchange for a knighthood. He adamantly refuses and will not say why.
By contrast, Fred’s old pal Mick Boyle (Keitel) has a staff of four young writers with him to help finish the screenplay to his upcoming project. The two men briefly compare notes on physical maladies, such as peeing and memory problems, and the famously womanizing Brit tries to get the equally experienced Yank to say whether he ever scored with the one woman who frustratingly eluded Fred. But mostly they simply enjoy just batting things around; as Fred later tells his daughter, "We only ever told each other the good things."
As ravishing images cascade onto the screen in what becomes a sustained torrent of great beauty, assorted other characters swim into view. There’s smart young American actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), there preparing for a new role; an enormously fat man with a huge portrait of Karl Marx tattooed on his back; a masseuse with a variety of ambitions and skill sets; an old couple who never converse at dinner; a Miss Universe who thinks nothing of striding nude into a spa in front of the geezers; and Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), a neurotic, touchingly wounded victim of her father’s frequent absences and a link to his long-suffering wife, whose fate is only clarified at the end.
Although Fred insists he’s retired for good, a hint that he doesn’t have conducting entirely out of his system surfaces in a funny sequence in which, on a stroll in the mountains, he "conducts" the moos and bell-clangings of a bunch of cows. Sorrentino has Caine wearing his longish hair combed straight back in the style of Toni Servillo, but it’s actually more disconcerting that the actor has been asked to sport virtually the same hat and, sometimes, sweater habitually worn by Woody Allen. Fortunately, Caine’s enough of his own man to get past this.
As scant as the film is on "plot," it gets by just fine on progression. A lovely scene has Fred listening to a young boy practicing one of the man’s compositions on the violin; a lewd music video features the new rock star girlfriend of Mick’s son, who has jilted Lena in the past; a second visit by the queen’s representative forces Fred to explain that he has only ever conducted "Simple Songs" with his wife singing them and he’ll never do otherwise, which provokes a moving reaction from Lena; and a scene in which Mick and his writers finally hatch the script ending for which they’ve been searching is beautifully and simply rendered in a single take.
But then comes the humdinger, an unexpected visit from the great veteran star Mick is counting on to play the lead and assure the financing of his new film. It’s never convincing when anyone less than a famous actor is asked to play one, so it’s supremely fortunate that Sorrentino was able to enlist Jane Fonda, who struts in deliberately over-made-up and foul-mouthed in Joan Crawford/Ava Gardner mode and brutally tells it like it is to a man who has directed her many times. In her wake, interesting surprises lie in store, for both Mick and Fred as well as for the viewer.
Most dramatists in film and the theater cannot tackle old age as a subject without piling on philosophical homilies about wisdom, loss, regret, acceptance, what’s most important in life, et al., so Sorrentino’s avoidance of these conventional postures proves enormously refreshing. Youth is sharp-witted and light on its feet, sober-minded and heady, nimble yet lush, mature and vivacious both.
Crucial to this success are the contributions of Caine and Keitel. Fred Ballinger would seem to represent an exception among musicians, in that composers and conductors in the real world rarely retire; they keep on until they can’t anymore (and sometimes even then, as with Delius). Entirely in possession of his faculties, Fred exhibits no evidence of turmoil over his voluntary withdrawal from creative work. The script pointedly offers reasons to believe his personal life has been tumultuous (including a period of homosexual exploration) and there have to be regrets, but it appears he’s successfully digested, submerged or, as he insists to Mick, forgotten much of it. A final revelation resolves at least part of his mystery, and Caine is at his unerringly truthful best in a climactic interlude.
As for Keitel, he has clearly been rejuvenated by the best part he’s had in a long time; he’s alive to the occasion at hand and to the opportunities of every scene. It remains unclear how and when men from such different creative spheres ever found the time to become such close friends, but the rapport and mutual understanding are absolute.
Weisz hits unexpectedly touching, and sometimes amusing, notes of distress as Fred’s emotionally unresolved daughter, while Dano is vastly entertaining as the actor trying to discover how to play his next character.
Of course there is no brew that is everyone’s drink of choice, but in its realm of accessible international art films, Youth will be, for some, entirely intoxicating in the way it forges its immense visual richness, musical intensity, actorly precision and unpretentious approach to thematic concerns. It’s like a great spa treatment for the cinematically fatigued.
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