Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano and Jane Fonda
Release Date: January 29th
Paolo Sorrentino has never been a filmmaker who has been overly concerned with the structure of a traditional narrative. His films, particularly the four he has made in his native Italy with actor Toni Servillo, tend to be composed of fragments revolving around a certain theme which feel like a series of observations rather than a cohesive story. Youth, his follow up to 2013’s Oscar winning The Great Beauty and his second English language feature after 2011’s wishy-washy This Must Be the Place, continues this approach. The only real narrative arc that it concedes to is whether or not renowned composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) will accept an offer to perform his most popular composition “Simple Songs” for an audience with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, an offer that he politely but firmly turns down at the beginning of the film. For the most part Youth revolves around Fred’s reminiscing on his past and present while observing the other inhabitants of the luxury spa he is staying at with his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) and best friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel).
Sorrentino fills the spa with a group of eccentric guests that include an actor (Paul Dano), who is preparing for a shoot in Germany, an obese Diego Maradona who sports a huge bust of Karl Marx on his back, a whip smart Miss Universe, and an uncommunicative middle aged couple who Fred and Mick watch and take bets on whether or not they will talk to each other. Sorrentino drifts in and out of these characters, not only creating a sense of the place and a melancholic tone but giving us an idea of the interconnectivity of these characters as a group of lost souls seemingly trapped in a place that they can check out of but never leave.
Despite these diversions, the primary focus is on Caine’s Fred, in particular his relationships with Lena and Mick. The scenes between Fred and Mick provide some of the film’s highlights as they discuss the number, or lack there of, of times the urinated during the day and attempt to remember if they had bedded the same woman during their younger days. Sharing some excellent chemistry together, which plays off the contrast between Caine’s reserved Englishness and Keitel’s more energetic Americanisms, the two put in what must be their best performances in years, Keitel in particular hasn’t been this committed in a long time.
The relationship between Fred and Lena isn’t as entertaining or as focused as the one he shares with Mick, but retains some level of interest, especially after the breakup of her marriage to Mick’s son Julian who has left her for the singer Paloma Faith, playing herself in a cameo that suggest she should probably stick to the singing. One scene, in which she lashes out at her father for his treatment of her mother, may feel a little contrived but is still riveting all the same.
As to be expected from a film by Sorrentino, Youth is gorgeous to look at. Working again with regular cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, Youth may lack the grandiose stylings of The Great Beauty, but remains a wonder to behold. All these visual accomplishments could lead to the film being regarded as a case of style over substance, and despite the excellent performances, particularly from Caine, there is an argument this is possibly the case here, certainly after the initial viewing. This was my first reaction upon seeing it, however as I started to think about it the more its themes and ideas about past regret and oncoming mortality, it began to affect me more. It is by no means a perfect film, in fact The Great Beauty covered much of the same themes to more success, but nevertheless if it is ultimately a case of style over substance, when the style is as good as this, the substance isn’t necessarily too important.