The impermanence of life, the fragility of love, the persistence of desire: These are the issues that swirl around a Swiss spa and its luxuriating inhabitants in Youth, Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to his 2013 Oscar-winner The Great Beauty. Like that acclaimed predecessor, Sorrentino’s latest is awash in tuxedo blacks and golden hues while people lounging about outdoor seating areas conversing on issues both big and small. At the center of its wide-ranging portrait is a Tony Servillo-like grey fox, Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a conductor who never managed to live up to his own Stravinsky-level ambitions, but whose renowned “Simple Songs” compositions attracted a worldwide following—and also made a fan out of the Queen of England, who wants to bestow Fred with knighthood and have him perform his pieces for her.
Fred refuses this request for “personal reasons,” and instead sets about enjoying his ritzy vacation alongside friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a screenwriter whose son Julian (Ed Stoppard) has just left Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) for a pop star (Paloma Faith), all because his new fling is “good in bed.” While Fred consoles Lena over her heartbreak, he also finds himself subjected to her angry criticisms about his lifelong preference for his career over his role as a father, or husband—the last failure an ongoing one, as he hasn’t brought flowers to his senile wife (a former singer) in nearly a decade. Such personal and professional crises are mirrored by those of Mick, who believes his new film—which he’s working on with a crew of young writers—will be his ultimate “testament,” though it hinges on the participation of his favorite leading lady (Jane Fonda), whose late arrival at this mountainous retreat proves anything but warm and cuddly.
If that weren’t enough plot for one movie, Youth also touches on a series of peripheral characters floating in and out of the fragmented story. They include a serious actor (Paul Dano) who’s preparing for a new part and who laments that he’s known only for his lone sell-out role (as a robot); an overweight soccer legend (Roly Serrano) resigned to hobbling around with a cane, but still up for signing autographs; a Miss Universe beauty (Madalina Diana Ghenea) with acting aspirations; and a young masseuse (Luna Zimic Mijovic) apt to spend her nights playing dancing video games. Led by Caine and Keitel in world-weary turns that exude both a fiery determination to continue and a despondent urge to give up, these character are all dreamers who fear that what they dream about—love, sex, respect, art and a hopeful future yet to emerge—is just out of reach, or has now slipped through their fingers.
In images of aged bodies massaged, of nude forms slipping into pools or of lifelong partners silently eating a meal—moments that can erupt in violence, or lead, later on, to clandestine sexual ecstasy—Youth immerses itself in an atmosphere of longing for lost opportunities, accomplishments and happiness. It finds that yearning most clearly in Fred, obviously serving as the director’s de facto proxy, whose past mistakes and squandered chances seem to sit heavily upon his shoulders. Yet such sadness courses throughout Sorrentino’s sentimental film, which, as with much of his work, addresses its weighty themes through surreal, serio-comedic means (a fleeting image of a clown; of a singer in a courtyard; of past acquaintances materializing like ghosts on a hillside) that recall the films of Federico Fellini and, in particular, 8 ½.
Youth segues between its various points of interest with a light, melodious touch, so that transitions occur as if in tune with the inner fluctuations of its character’s hearts. Evocatively shot by Luca Bigazzi with an eye for sumptuous widescreen dynamics, Sorrentino’s film loses some of its steam during its second half but recovers its potent melancholic spirit during a final concert performance that expresses the material’s overarching mood of disappointment, hopeless resignation and insatiable hunger for just a little bit more. Held together by Caine, Keitel and Weisz as characters wracked by needs and sorrows that have no easy expression or resolution, it’s a symphonic ode—one that finds profound grace in a shot of a climber carrying his child up a mountainside on his back, and wry humor in a sight gag involving the notorious historical figure Dano’s actor plans to play—to both the euphoria and tragedy of life’s ephemerality.
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Writer: Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Paloma Faith, Ed Stoppard, Roly Serrano, Madalina Diana Ghenea, Luna Zimic Mijovic, Jane Fonda
Release Date: December 4, 2015