Youth

January 4, 2016
Michael Caine in 'Youth' (2015)
Michael Caine in 'Youth' (2015)

Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must be the Place was the most cruelly underrated film of 2011. He followed up with The Great Beauty (2013), which was as close to a masterpiece that Italy has produced since the glory days of Cinecittà. Now we have Youth, another multi-layered homage to Fellini, filled with striking images and dubious philosophising. The Great Beauty drew viewers inexorably into the world of the lead character, but Youth keeps us at a distance. The line between profundity and pretentiousness is crossed and recrossed like the net on a tennis court. It’s a hard film to like, but neither can it be dismissed.

The slender plot revolves around Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), an elderly composer and conductor, staying at a luxurious resort hotel in the Swiss Alps – think The Magic Mountain, or Last Year in Marienbad. Among the other guests are his old friend, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a legendary film director, who is trying – in collaboration with a group of young writers – to finish the script of a film he sees as his final testament.

In the languid ambience of the hotel, Fred and Mick reflect on their lives and strike up conversations with other guests. There is Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), an American actor who feels frustrated that people only remember him for playing a comical robot. There is also an obese Latin American former soccer star (Roly Serrano), with Karl Marx tattooed on hs back. The real-life models are easy to pick.

Fred is joined by his daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), who acts as his manager and carer. Soon it is she who will need help, when abandoned by her husband, Julian (Ed Stoppard), who also happens to be Mick’s son. Julian has taken up with a pop star named Paloma Faith (playing herself), whose video clip provides one of the great spoofs of the film, although it’s hard to make something more ridiculous than a bona fide rock video.

While settling into comfortable inertia Fred is visited by an envoy of Queen Elizabeth, who invites him to conduct a performance of his most popular composition, the Simple Songs, to celebrate Prince Philip’s birthday. Fred is indifferent to the request, unswayed by the promise of a knighthood. The Simple Songs were written for his missing wife and he has no desire to drag them out of the cupboard.

Fred’s refusal to participate in the royal concert becomes a stimulus for conversation with Mick. They replay moments from the past, struggling to remember details. At one point, as they sit in a spa, they are afforded a glimpse of the naked Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea), who has also come to stay at the resort. It’s not a ‘Susannah-and-the-Elders’ moment, but an unselfconscious exhibition. After all their talk about past sexual exploits and increasing debility, this vision is a poignant reminder of the lost world of the flesh.

It’s one of those moments familiar from Fellini’s movies, in which the Eternal Feminine – or at least the female body – is the subject of the protagonist’s cult-like adoration. There will be the usual arguments as to whether this is also an act of degrading objectification. It’s worrisome that the artists are men, while women are their handmaidens, muses, or simply decoration. Nevertheless, the scene at the pool is one of the visual highlights of a movie that never looks less than stunning, thanks to Sorrentino’s favourite cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi.

The apparently aimless process of two old men trading reminiscences, and reports on their prostates, suddenly springs to life with the appearance of Mick’s star actress, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda as an elderly Queen Bitch). All those thoughts about aging, all those recriminations, take on a new gravity as Mick is forced to accept that his movie will probably never be made.

As befits a film about a famous composer, music plays a central role in this story, with Fred’s Simple Songs being an original work by “post-minimalist”, David Lang. This preoccupation with music is one of Sorrentino’s trademarks, to the point where Youth makes more sense if considered as a symphony rather than a conventional narrative. There are allegro and adagio passages, major themes and sub-themes. Much of the dialogue sounds as affected as an opera libretto.

A film so obsessed with mortality can’t help but be melancholy, yet there are enough compensations for the eye and the ear to make one feel that perhaps life might be worth living after all. Even in Switzerland.

Youth
Written & directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Starring Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Madalina Ghenea, Ed Stoppard, Jane Fonda, Luna Mijovic
Rated MA 15+, 123 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 26th December, 2015.