Writer & Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Jane Fonda, Paul Dano, Rachel Weisz, Paloma Faith.
Helming his second English language film as director, Paolo Sorrentino brings his usual artistic and interesting take on life to an elite hotel in the Swiss Alps in his new feature Youth. This quiet and thoughtful movie slowly moves from one hotel guest to another as they reside in the expensive lodge and the intersection between the various people. The protagonist is Fred Ballinger, played masterfully by the great Michael Caine, a retired composer who is uncomfortable with the fact that his most well known works are those he considers to be least worthy of praise, frivolous. His longtime friend, Mick Boyle (a surprisingly understated and delectable Harvey Keitel) is also residing in the hotel, where he is working on a new screenplay that will hopefully allow him to reach his former glory as a brilliant movie director and taste success once again. Paul Dano is the younger foil to Caine’s character, portraying Jimmy Tree, a famous actor whose role in a blockbuster obliterates all the other acting ventures he takes on which attempt to distance him from that one iconic but inconsequential role. Another connection between Fred and Mick is that the former’s daughter is married to the latter’s son, but within the first moments of the film the two split up: Mick’s son is leaving his wife, Lena, (Rachel Weisz, her first great role in a really long time) for the younger and more exciting British singer Paloma Faith, a real and talented singer who is game playing what amounts to a cameo, but is not the most flattering as she comes off as a husband thief.
The themes the movie explores are incongruous with its title, as youth is actually the one thing that doesn’t really seem to be present in this film. Decay, aging, acceptance, resignation, disappointment, and ennui reign supreme. These members of the high class migrate from meals to spa sessions to special performances with nary an acknowledgment of their surroundings. Any discovery, surprising or devastating, doesn’t make an impression; even the realization that the memory of one’s parents and their voices has been completely forgotten is more of an anecdote than a loss. In classic Sorrentino tradition the grotesque, macabre, and a Pirandellian take on humor are present and in close-up, be it a couple of diners who never speak a word to each other or the figure of the aged and morbidly deformed former soccer champion Diego Maradona, who I imagine cannot be thrilled about the way he was represented in this film.
Apathy is also how the lens captures every character and the locations, which are beautiful but hard to appreciate behind the veneer of disgust or detachment the film employs. Naked bodies are glossed over and given the same attention as the image of a child practicing his violin. Nothing is of importance, life no longer seems to matter or warrant attention. Unfortunately, Sorrentino still seems to not be able to not fetishize the youthful female nude body, which is a shame. I understand the role the scene plays in the overall narrative, but the fact that it makes up the poster and the main draw of the movie is disappointing because the film is about so much more than another nameless and faceless naked woman bathing in the presence of two mature men.
With all these negative adjectives and descriptions it would maybe seem like I did not enjoy the film, but the truth is quite the contrary. I think the film is fantastic. The last scenes left me with goosebumps and nearly reduced to tears for reasons that still escape me. The film is affecting. It is not, though, for everyone. I can easily see how someone could find the pacing too slow and the lack of any action whatsoever boring. It is a visual feast, but thrilling is not a word I could use to describe it. I think it is a worthy successor to Sorrentino’s last film, The Great Beauty, which I loved and won the Oscar for best foreign film. I would be surprised if this film doesn’t earn some acclaim, especially for the acting of both Caine and Keitel who get to shine here like they haven’t in a while, in spite of the constant work both actors continue to have. Youth may be overrated, but Youth is definitely not.