by Matt Levine
Youth is a movie that is not afraid to appear foolish much of the time. It’s a film in which a young girl with braces dancing in slow-motion to a video game is meant to convey unspeakable beauty; in which an arthouse auteur and his movie-star muse have a serious conversation on the state of "cinema"; and in which said auteur at one point imagines all of the female characters throughout his career converging in a meadow and uttering their inane dialogue (in several languages) at once. Many critics have refused to jump on director Paolo Sorrentino’s wavelength, perhaps dismayed by the Italian filmmaker’s recent turn to ostentatious, Felliniesque visuals and drifting narratives. Yet more so than Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty—which left me cold despite (or probably because of) its elaborate visual style--Youth is an odd and stirring experience. It manages to instill in the viewer a great optimism and fondness for life, even with its incessant tragedies and doubts (and even with the movie’s unavoidable flaws). Part of the cantankerous critical response to the film seems to stem from its unabashed sincerity, which can indeed be off-putting in an age of fashionable irony.
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Producers: Carlotta Calori, Francesca Cima, Nicola Giuliano
Writer: Paolo Sorrentino
Cinematographer: Luca Bigazzi
Editor: Cristiano Travaglioli
Music: David Lang
Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Alex Macqueen, Madalina Ghenea, Wolfgang Michael, Ed Stoppard, Paloma Faith
Premiere: May 20, 2015 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: December 4, 2015
US Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Like the movie as a whole, Youth’s two main characters are out-of-touch with the present. Retired composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) at least knows that he’s an anachronism; he spends his days idling at a luxurious Swiss resort, making wry comments about the past and bemusedly observing his fellow vacationers. When an emissary from Queen Elizabeth II offers Ballinger the chance to conduct his own celebrated symphony Simple Songs for the prince’s birthday, Ballinger’s refusal to do so initially seems like a spiteful desire to avoid human contact at all costs, though eventually we learn the reason for his reluctance to come out of retirement (and contrary to some critics’ claims, it is an affecting revelation). Ballinger’s best friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a has-been film director, has followed him here on a work vacation, finishing his latest script with a troupe of young screenwriters; more loquacious than Fred and less willing to believe that he’s washed up, Mick has begun calling this latest project “my testament.”
These characters’ rapport and emotional differences form the loose backbone around which Youth is structured, but you shouldn’t expect a strong narrative going into the film. Like The Great Beauty (but unlike many of Sorrentino's previous films), Youth enjoys wandering through its vivid setting and offering a series of ruminations along the way, in this case pertaining to aging, death, love, art, commerce, and family. Some moments exist solely to please us with their visual compositions; a gorgeous nighttime shot of two soccer teams preparing for battle, for example, has absolutely nothing to do with the movie’s plot or themes but is ravishing to behold. This being the case, the movie could easily be accused of overindulgence and hollow aestheticism, but that complaint has often rankled me as a film-lover; movies are, after all, a visual art form, and I see nothing wrong with devoting some of the running time to images that are transcendently beautiful in their own right, separated from narrative and theme. If we don’t accuse Impressionists like Monet of empty beautification, why is such an aesthetic goal off-limits to a director like Sorrentino?
Youth is less successful in its meandering dialogue, which ranges from the touchingly comic to the cringingly ponderous. It can never be described as naturalistic—the screenplay seeks to dispense wisdom a little too blatantly, and several lengthy monologues make it clear that realism is not on the agenda—but for the first hour or so the dialogue is humorous and occasionally moving. Ballinger’s conversations with a young actor named Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano)—made famous by a role as a robot in a schlocky sci-fi movie, which he takes every opportunity to denounce—allow both characters to make semi-insightful comments on balancing personal lives with artistic careers (or not balancing them, as the case may be). The arrival of Ballinger’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) also provides a much-needed emotional anchor to the film; Weisz’s delivery of a bitter diatribe, directed to her father, might be the movie’s strong point, thanks almost entirely to the actress (the dialogue could have seemed phony in someone else’s hands).
At a certain point, though, Sorrentino (who also wrote the screenplay) seems too worried about checking off the Grand Themes on his itinerary; the dialogue becomes clunky and simplistic as characters begin voicing the movie’s themes outright. “We are all extras,” says one character; “life goes on even without that cinema bullshit,” says another, continuing an obvious life-is-a-movie analogy. Late in the movie, Jimmy Tree dresses up in full Hitler garb, apparently to provoke the aged denizens of the spa, only to realize that the stories he now wants to tell are those of desire, not “senseless fear.” This is where the film’s overeager attempt to seem rueful and aphoristic comes off as self-indulgent; Youth is more powerful when it’s coasting along on its wise and playful vibe than when it’s trying to make declarations about life and aging.
Ironically, though, the moment at which Youth starts to seem forced and obvious is also when it becomes clear that the movie has more on its mind than witty geriatrics spouting life lessons. One dialogue scene in particular is unconvincing on a narrative and emotional level, but it also sets up a third act in which characters suffer intensely, brutal epiphanies are learned, and the regrets and self-loathing felt by some of the characters take on mortal weight. This is the paradox that makes the film’s ending so powerful: while it’s happening it seems self-conscious and artificial, but you leave the theater with a sense of mortality and a desire to embrace life and its oddities while you have the chance.
On the surface, there’s much to dislike about Youth. It focuses almost entirely on upper-class characters who are rich enough to spend several weeks at a spa in the Alps that caters to your every need (though there are two characters, a prostitute and her mother, who are clearly less wealthy and who are subtly dismayed by the opulence that surrounds them). Youth rarely tries to recognize that aging is a complicated process for people from any economic background. The film’s perspective is also conspicuously male; though Weisz’s character is affecting, she is defined almost entirely by the men with whom she has relationships, unlike characters like Fred and Mick and Jimmy, who are artists first and fathers/husbands second (or not at all). There is an appearance from “Miss Universe” (Madalina Ghenea) simply for the purpose of showing off her flawless bodily measurements and awakening the old men’s dormant libidos. (There’s another caveat here, though, as a conversation between her and Jimmy reveals her intelligence, self-awareness, and her reasons for taking part in her own objectification.) The aforementioned scene in which Mick, accused of creating weak female characters, imagines all of them railing against him in a meadow seems like a preemptive defense against the very same criticism, though it does nothing to defuse it. More simply, the movie never wastes an opportunity to set a visually meticulous scene against an artful soundtrack of classical or folk music, an onslaught of sumptuous stylistics that becomes a bit much for even the most indulgent aesthetician.
So why does the film remain so powerful and pleasurable in so many ways? Despite its flaws, Youth is more accurately defined by a scene in which Ballinger, seated on a rock in a quiet field, “composes” the natural sounds around him, his body responding to the world’s crescendos and harmonies. Not many movies can make a scene in which an obese man kicks a tennis ball into the air resoundingly moving. Although the film is dedicated to Francesco Rosi—writer-producer-director of the classics Hands Over the City (1963) and The Moment of Truth (1965)--Youth is more reminiscent (or, if you prefer, derivative) of such bawdy Fellini movies as And the Ship Sails On and Amarcord. (In fact, Francesco Rosi's influence can more clearly be seen in earlier Sorrentino movies like Il Divo and his English-language debut This Must Be the Place.) If Youth is a Fellini imitation, though, it’s a very good one, at times as moving and striking as some of La dolce vita’s finest moments. Its flaws derive from a naked emotionalism and a belief that movies can be a messy, pleasurable experience, which at least are admirable excuses for stilted filmmaking (though its focus on rich white men is another problem altogether). While many movies become disposable in their attempt to soften rough edges and appeal to all audiences, Youth is stunning at least partially because of its passé romanticism, which will undoubtedly seem maudlin and pretentious to some. With his latest film, Sorrentino constantly aims high; it’s hard to fault Youth for not always reaching its target.