Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
It’s an obvious thought, but one that needs saying – you obsess more about what you don’t have than what you possess. So, it is with some good reason that the central characters of director Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth – Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) and Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) – have both hit eighty. More a retreat for the world’s celebrated few, the Swiss hotel in which they live is also a temporary home to Ballinger’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), Diego Maradona (Roly Serrano), the year’s Miss Universe (MՆdՆlina Diana Ghenea) and actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano). Such a motley cast allows Sorrentino the poignancy of juxtapositions. He constantly pits innocence against experience.
Ballinger tries to pick up the pieces of his daughter’s heart. He and his pal Boyle are left speechless when they see a naked Miss Universe entering their pool. Filmmaker Boyle is writing a movie called ‘Life’s Last Day’, but Youth still never panders to death or its inevitability. The two aging friends don’t discuss the size of their coffins. They instead share notes about their visits to the washroom.
At the heart of Youth is John Ballinger, a retired classical composer, who rejects an invitation by the Queen when her emissary pays a visit. He later refuses to write his memoirs. His obstinacy, however, doesn’t necessarily make him humourless. When meeting the representative from Buckingham Palace, here is how he responds to the claim that Queen Elizabeth II would be delighted to confer upon him a knighthood – “Her Majesty the Queen has never been de-lighted at anything.” The melancholy of the film – there is a bit of that – is constantly punctured by such levity.
Sorrentino had walked away with the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2014 for his Italian film The Great Beauty, and Youth seems to carry on from where that modern classic left off. In both films, we find aging artists struggling with the burden of their age and celebrity. Boyle, for instance, is writing a film that he refers to as his “testament”, while Ballinger’s reticence appears similarly sentimental. Youth, like The Great Beauty, also looks exquisitely symmetrical.
Many of the scenes make you want to find that school geometry box. A line down the middle of your screen shows the left side exactly mirroring the right. A compass will also reveal intricate patterns. The protractor may even help you detect perfect camera angles. The film and its palette are both overwhelmingly beautiful.
This precision which defines Youth’s cinematography is also reflected in the finesse of its dialogue. Taking a walk down the Swiss countryside, Boyle tells Ballinger, “I have to believe everything in order to make it up.” Ballinger, in turn, tells actor Jimmy Tree, “Levity is a perversion.” Sprawled on a table, dressed like Hitler, Tree once says, “I have to choose what is really worth telling – horror or desire? I choose desire.”
Sorrentino undoubtedly has plenty of style, and his cast delivers the required substance. Caine, Keitel, Weisz and Dano effortlessly wow in every scene. Even bit players – a masseuse, a monk who maybe levitates – prove hard to forget in the end. And despite screen time of only a few minutes, Jane Fonda was nominated for a Golden Globe. She really is that good here.
Much like the weather, aging affects us all equally. Predictably, Youth, a film that plays out in a remote hotel with aging and eccentric characters, does sometimes touch upon questions of mortality and creation, but it is never ponderous. Its beauty doesn’t allow that. Too much beauty – now that might be a problem for some. But really, when is too much of a good thing ever enough?