Youth (2015)

Youth (2015)
  • Time: 118 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Paolo Sorrentino
  • Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Jane Fonda


Fred and Mick, two old friends, are on vacation in an elegant hotel at the foot of the Alps. Fred, a composer and conductor, is now retired. Mick, a film director, is still working. They look with curiosity and tenderness on their children’s confused lives, Mick’s enthusiastic young writers, and the other hotel guests. While Mick scrambles to finish the screenplay for what he imagines will be his last important film, Fred has no intention of resuming his musical career. But someone wants at all costs to hear him conduct again.


  • Youth, Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza), ponders the themes of the inevitable effects of aging, the fragility of memory, and the insatiable thirst for fulfillment, whether it be personal or professional. Never less than stunning to look at, the film often suffers a certain meandering cohesion that renders it an ultimately fulfilling watch.

    Taking place almost entirely in and around a luxurious hotel spa in the Swiss Alps, the film observes Fred Ballinger (a stellar Michael Caine), a retired composer who has been a frequent guest for the past 20 years. In tow is his daughter and personal assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz), who doesn’t understand his reluctance to accept a lucrative offer to write his memoirs or a royal invitation from Buckingham Palace to conduct his most celebrated composition, “Simple Songs.” The queen’s emissary (Alex Macqueen) coaxes and cajoles, but Ballinger adamantly refuses, citing personal reasons for his refusal.

    Where Ballinger wishes to disappear and be forgotten, his longtime crony Mick Boyle (a rejuvenated and plugged-in Harvey Keitel), also a guest at the hotel, has surrounded himself with a quintet of young screenwriters (Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Alex Beckett, Nate Dern, Mark Gessner) to help him finish the screenplay to his latest film, which he believes will be the testament to his storied directorial career. The two men stroll the grounds, comparing notes on their daily urinary output (or lack thereof), placing bets on whether an old married couple will ever utter a word to one another, wondering if they shared one particular woman during their womanising past, and reflecting on memories lost and remembered.

    The men are also in-laws and one of the dramatic turns of the film arrives when Lena is left by her husband Julian (Ed Stoppard), Boyle’s son, for singer Paloma Faith (playing an exaggerated version of herself). Julian is immune to his father’s advice to abandon his folly with “the most insignificant woman in the world” and return to Lena. His unapologetic son contends that Boyle was left by his wife and she never asked him to return. Ballinger is equally upbraided by Lena, who eviscerates her father for his own indiscretions and all-consuming devotion to music.

    Elsewhere, Ballinger is befriended by Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), an actor who is is annoyed that he is best known for playing a robot when he has worked with so many acclaimed filmmakers. Jimmy is touched when a young girl praises him for his role as a father in a little-seen film, and condescending when Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) gushes over his most famous role. When he insults for her unsophisticated and simplistic tastes and for her participation in such a superficial competition, her spine visibly stiffens and she rightly pegs her behaviour as a sign of frustration. She is happy to have been in the pageant, she says, is he happy to have portrayed a robot?

    Jimmy’s skewering is gentle compared with the one Boyle receives from Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda), the actress he deems the greatest he ever worked with and who is slated to star in his next film. Brenda is a monstrous diva, brutally disabusing him of his artistic standing. Caked in full-on Norma Desmond/Baby Jane make-up and oozing acid from every pore, Fonda burns the screen. One wishes her appearance was more than a mere cameo.

    Youth overflows with strikingly composed tableaus courtesy of Luca Bigazzi, whose images evoke memories of Fellini’s 8 1/2, Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, Visconti’s Death in Venice as well as portraits of the Old and Modern masters. A dream sequence featuring a nude woman catwalking down a flooded St. Mark’s Square at night is especially knee-buckling in its visual splendour. Yet there is also a shot of Diego Maradona, belly bloated and barely breathing, as he kicks a tennis ball in soccer-like fashion. No one, not even the legends, can escape the clutches of old age.

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  • The heart of Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth lies in the lead composer Fred Ballinger’s (Michael Caine) most famous work, Simple Songs. The queen will knight him if he conducts that number in a concert for her Prince Phillip. Ballinger refuses because he wrote it for his famous soprano wife Melanie to perform and she’s gone. Not dead, we eventually learn, but frozen into a silent scream.
    Ballinger is embarrassed by his fame for that simple composition, instead of all his weightier works. Sinilarly, serious actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) is regretfully best known for his heavily costumed role as a robot in some special effects trivia. By disappearing into the robot his disappeared his serious work.
    The film is woven out of such paradoxes. That is, it’s a stab at capturing our complex reality of life. Like Ballinger’s signature piece, the film is a simple story — a mixed bag of folks at holiday and rehab at a luxurious hotel/spa in Wiesel (i.e., “pointed”) in the Swiss Alps. But everything simple is complex.
    Ballinger feels that he can only relate to music and admits to having neglected his wife and daughter Lena. “You were right. Music is all I understand.” But he remembers his tremors when he fell into love at first sight of Melanie. His current detachment expresses his pain rather than the apparent lack of feeling.
    His buddy film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is scripting his testament film but with his screenwriters is bogged down on the ending. In his Eureka moment he will allot the deathbed speech to the dying man’s wife, not him. But the film dies when that actress Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda) pulls out of the project, their 12th together over 53 years. She first explains she needs the money from a TV series she’s been offered so needs to prefer. But she goes on to declare his career dead, his last films crap, in a cruel candour all offered — of course — in the name of friendship. Love and hate bubble together there.
    In a chillingly expressive shot, on the left side of the otherwise black screen Fonda’s old, veined hand talon-like caresses the sized Kettle’s cheek. That’s Jane Fonda’s hand!?! The film is titled Youth but, paradoxically again, it’s about the old, the sere not the juicy. But here youth and age are the same telescope. Through one end it’s youth looking at the future in closeup. Through the other it’s the past, galloping further and further away.
    With Pamela’s withdrawal, Boyle knows his project is dead but determines to start another. In his last scene with Ballinger he says “You say that emotions are overrated. But that’s bullshit. Emotions are all we’ve got.” On that he strides out to the balcony and jumps to his death. Shattered in guilt, Pamela runs amok in the airplane and has to be bloodily subdued. With his gesture Boyle refuted Pamela’s disrespect: “C’mon, life goes on even without that cinema bullshit.” Another “simple song” here — bitterly comic but sombre.
    Sorrentino gives the film’s last shot to the dead but beaming Boyle. That is, he gives the last silent word to Boyle’s faith in emotion. When Ballinger conducts his simple masterpiece for the queen he tears up over its emotional force. Against Melanie’s silent scream Ballinger proffers his musical articulation of his ardor. It speaks for as well as to everyone. As in the film’s last “simple song,” over the end titles, he’s in full content and out of control.
    So the composition that seems simple but beautiful turns out resonant and profound, especially in full orchestration. That’s the funny thing about life: the simple is so complex. Conversely, as the young girl compliments Tree about one off his serious films, he taught her that the big things in life are essentially simple. Everybody doesn’t have a clue what they’re about — so it doesn’t matter. As Ballinger early told Boyle, “The flippant is also perverse.” Not here. Here the light is how we handle the heavy.
    Hence too the tension between the intellect and the senses. The young masseuse speaks of the understanding that only touch can give. Ballinger is proud he never became an intellectual. The screenwriter scenes are a parody of literary creation. On the other hand, the sensually rich Miss Universe reveals an astonishing intelligence, dissolving that antithesis. When Boyle hires the plain looking young hooker just to walk with him, he seems to be buying an emotion not a sensation. When we see the girl’s mother seeing her off to her “job,” Sorrentino seems to encapsulate the tradition of modern Italian cinema (as embodied by Fellini). The girl carries the neorealist exploration of poverty into the contemporary spa’s opulence.
    Another moment of historical resonance involves Tree, who is at the spa studying the people for clues to his next role. We finally learn his character when he appears in costume, freezing all the white-clad dinners — as Hitler. Tree pulls out off his project because “I have to choose what is really worth telling: horror or desire? And I choose desire. You, each one of you, you open my eyes, you made me see that I should not wasting my time on the senseless fear….” Mutatis mutandis, that could be Pamela’s reason too. As desire trumps horror both Boyle and Ballinger nurse charged memories of a childhood attraction to the same girl, unconsummated so ever fresh in their mind.
    In several scenes the visitors are shot underwater, or part in, part out, whether in exuberant motion or in synchronized therapy. The film’s title image has “Youth” in the top half of a horizontal split image, lighter than age, unburdened by the subconscious of bubbling memories and experience, free to float (like Miss Universe nude in the pool). The imagery connotes the subconscious’s rise against the conscious.
    Hence the film’s abundant surrealism. Ballinger conducts a symphony of cows, cowbells and birds. A woman in the elevator slips in and out of a mask. Figures are isolated against vast expanses. A boy looms up on a bicycle ridden as if one wheel. Lena dreams her rival’s music video run amok. Boyle sees a field teeming with his films’ heroines, like restless spirits carrying his torments. Surrealism is another of those resonant “simple songs” — simple in their random associations, complex in how they’re unpacked. Like youth, age and Youth.

  • “Youth is wasted on the young.” That quote from award-winning Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw means different things to different people, fittingly, depending on a person’s age. Young people may see it as just another example of being dismissed by the older generation. Older people may take the quote to mean that their mature understanding of how best to enjoy life would have done them more good in a youthful body with their entire lives ahead of them. If you think about it, the quote praises both youth and maturity. Such is also the case within the English language Italian comedy-drama “Youth” (R, 2:04).

    Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel star as Fred Ballinger and Mick Boyle, two men who have been friends since they were young adults and now, in their late 70s, are vacationing at a luxurious Swiss resort hotel. For Mick, this is a working vacation. He’s a legendary screenwriter and director who is spending his time at the resort working with a few young screenwriters on what he hopes will be his last great film. He’s writing the film for his frequent star, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda), and wants it to be his “testament” to life. Fred is a renowned classical music composer and conductor who has left his music career behind him and repeatedly refuses the requests and pleas from Queen Elizabeth II’s emissary for a command performance for Prince Philip’s birthday. Fred does little more than exist, try to remember the past, and wait for his days to end. Fred’s assistant/daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), does her best to keep her father healthy and motivated, but she’s harboring some old grudges – and has other problems to deal with too.

    Throughout this film, we see the concept of youth from both sides – those who still have it and those who had it long ago and see the world differently in their maturity. Fred and Mick have conversations about getting older (increased wisdom and perspective, reduced memory and satisfactory urination, etc.), but also try to pass on some of that wisdom to their children and struggle to come to terms with some of the mistakes they made in their own youth. They also observe the other guests, both famous and anonymous, even as some of those same guests observe them right back. There’s the older couple who eat dinner together every night but never speak, a Buddhist monk, the obese but still popular former soccer star (Roly Serrano), a young but wise and ambitious masseuse (Luna Zimic Mijovic), the small boy (Leo Artin) who Fred hears playing one of his old compositions on the violin, the vacationing Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) and the hot young actor (Paul Dano) researching a new role.

    “Youth” is the kind of movie that some may dismiss as “artsy”, but I call engaging and insightful. The wide variety of interesting minor characters, combined with the big developments in the lives of the major characters make for a unusual storytelling (somewhat reminiscent of 2014’s award-winning “Birdman”), but it’s a plot that holds the audience’s attention and pays off with some very surprising (and even shocking) moments. Along the way, we’re treated to a couple realistic and beautifully shot dream sequences and plenty of great scenery, courtesy of the Swiss Alps. Not to mention a look at other kinds of beauty, owing to the fact that this movie takes place in a resort – slash – spa, with traditional (ahem) European sensibilities. And, of course, with three Oscar winners, an Oscar nominee and a Golden Globe nominee in the cast, the performances are as impeccable as you would expect. After all that, what we’re left with is an eloquent meditation on youth, an earnest celebration of maturity and a subtle challenge to never let go of your passions. Youth can’t be held forever, but the joys of the film “Youth” can last quite a while. “A-“

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