No filmmaker is more of a modern day Fellini than Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino. His films are opulent wonders, but while his extravagant visual style has for some become a sensory overload, it was Sorrentino reckoning with that same opulence in his last film, the Oscar winning foreign language film “The Great Beauty”, that made that film’s fantasy a welcome escape.
With “Youth”, the colorful set dressing places us in a dream state. Like his previous English language film “This Must Be The Place”, “Youth” is a movie about aging artists in their twilight years, and it grapples with ideas of memory and love across lucid dreams and nightmares, as well as the more practical reality of old age. It’s enchantingly lush, abstract and fascinatingly stylized, but the self-indulgent cinematic flourishes aren’t as central to the narrative as Sorrentino made possible with “The Great Beauty.”
The film is set in a luxuriously fantastical hotel and spa in the Swiss Alps, where the legendary English composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and American film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) holiday over the summer. Fred is approached by an emissary to the Queen, who would like for him to come out of retirement and conduct a performance of his “Simple Songs,” arrangements that made him famous but that he considers trifling. But his reasons for his retirement and his apathy are personal, and Caine plays Fred as guarded, a little jaded, but still in good spirits as he waits out his life. Mick has recruited some young, hipster screenwriters to pen his last film and swan song, which he calls “Life’s Last Day.” But Fred and Mick together rarely talk work or feelings, instead one-upping the other on how few drops they got out going to the bathroom that morning, or reminiscing about an old flame they both had a crush on.
Fred and Mick’s conversations about pissing are amusing, but not without merit. These daily tasks, along with the entirety of their life’s work, take tremendous effort, yet produce an often modest result, Fred says. At his age, Fred can still conduct with grace, leading an orchestra of cows in nature in a beautiful aria, but what is the point of creating memories if we know we’ll lose them?
Fred is burdened by the loss of his wife Melanie, and his daughter and assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz) tries to encourage him to leave this hotel and at least leave flowers for the first time in 10 years. But no one is leaving this place. And how could you, when everything is so gorgeous?
Young and old, supporting characters color the decorum of this hotel, and “Youth” becomes less a movie driven by its plot and more by its contemplative assessments of character. There’s Jimmy Tree, a brooding artist of Christian Bale’s caliber with Johnny Depp’s oddities and facial hair, and yet played by Paul Dano. Like Fred, Jimmy played a robot in a mindless entertainment and has his other artistic achievements virtually erased among the people who recognize him. Another is a Spanish football star with a giant tattoo on his back that has made him into something of a messiah figure. He now has a giant gut, but can do wonders with a tennis ball. One sophisticated couple never speaks a word at dinner, each of them seething at what this marriage has become. And even Miss Universe makes an appearance, becoming a literal bathing beauty to further pull us into this dream world.
Sadly these characters are just coloring, with Sorrentino perhaps showing too unhealthy of a fixation on the female, and sometimes male, body, and it takes Jane Fonda channeling an ultimate diva to yank us back to reality. “Youth” is at its best when Caine, Keitel, Weisz and Dano are all being bluntly honest with one another. The four, along with Fonda in her scene stealing moment, are all as good as they’ve been in years. They act their age; they have chemistry and a personable quality that grounds them in this free-floating film.
It can’t be said enough how gorgeous and elegant “Youth” looks. “The Great Beauty” had a shot that literally tipped the camera on its head, and “Youth” begins in a similar fashion. Sorrentino’s opening shot places us on a revolving stage, always disorienting his audience and placing us in a reverie without knowing why. And another seems almost impossible, with the camera rising out of a pool and then seamlessly floating overhead to the soccer star sunbathing.
But unlike “The Great Beauty”, the majesty of “Youth” is in the simpler story at its center, and the dreamy mise-en-scene is at best lovely but at worst distracting. Jane Fonda’s diva actress sums it up best: “Life goes on, even without all that cinema bullshit.”