A deliberate break from the success of The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth finds a lower-key kind of beauty in a Swiss sanatorium.
Old Mastersby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Returning to English language filmmaking for the first time since the confused Nazi-hunting extravaganza This Must Be The Place – only this time with the oscar-winning The Great Beauty under his belt – Paolo Sorrentino has rediscovered Youth. With Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano and Jane Fonda, it’s perhaps his most illustrious cast to date. And yet, Sorrentino has a problem. It’s perhaps not so much the fact that he’s set up camp beside Thomas Mann’s masterpiece The Magic Mountain. Nor that the mere forty-something Italian director has chosen to make a film about old age and memory. Nor even the fact that he’s bundled all his neuroses into a narrative strand about scripting. It’s just the weight of success is too great. And Sorrentino is rebelling against it with every fibre of his filmmaking being. Youth is the yin to The Great Beauty‘s yang; quiet, reflective, eccentric and self-obsessed. Much like the elderly inhabitants of his Swiss spa. There are the songs, shows, mimes and firebreathers that take centre stage on the revolving wheel in the garden of the sanatorium where our heroes are holiday making – representations of the pyrotechnics of his previous film here reduced to bothersome sideshow. There’s Paul Dano’s Jimmy, a Hollywood actor fed up with being only recognised for the robot he played in a sci-fi flick. And then there’s Fred (Caine), our conduit to Sorrentino’s crazed cosmos and a retired conductor, who even reduced to an orchestra of one sweet wrapper or a herd of cows can still make music. Deliberately episodic – with curious sequences of Mick’s (Keitel) film heroines lined up on a hillside or Jimmy’s metamorphosis into high-tea Hitler – there are some flashes of brilliance to Youth that go beyond Sorrentino’s seemingly effortless, seductive style; there’s Rachel Weisz’s teary-eyed attack on her father or Jane Fonda’s fleeting but fantastic cameo as ageing actress Brenda Morel. But jam-packed with Paloma Faith nightmare sequences and interviews with the Queen’s vampire emissary, Youth becomes a murky pool of ideas – inspirational but unfocused. Perhaps the clearest strand emerges in Sorrentino’s relationship to his art – as all three of his artists decide their own ending, Mick finding one for his film, Fred to honour his wife by playing her Sweet Songs, and Jimmy not to devote himself to works of hate. It’s a quixotic, quirky stream of thought – not always to the point or orderly – but what remains of Youth are a few happy memories.
Youth is now showing at the London Film Festival