A cornucopia of secrets, betrayal, friendship and regret, Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth is the old sod to The Great Beauty‘s bright young things.
The Golden Ageby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
You might think it strange for a director still in the prime of life (only 45) to be festooning the silver screen with his reflections on youth, old age and memory. But Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth is no swan song. Instead, it’s a riposte to the swooning success of The Great Beauty – with a low-key huis clos (kind of) set in the grounds of a Swiss sanatorium. Yet obsessed with legacy, success and filmmaking, Youth provides a quiet counterbalance to the Felliniesque extravagance of his previous film, staging the singers, mimes and fire breathers within the grounds of the spa, but reducing them here to a once-entertaining, now tiresome sideshow. Up here in the Alps, we aren’t a guest inside the demimonde of Rome’s hedonistic glitterati, but rather a spectator – alongside composers, retired football players, actors and filmmakers reflecting on the glow of life happening down below.
Lifelong friends Fred (Michael Caine) and Mick (Harvey Keitel) are spending their holidays in a Swiss spa. Fred is a retired composer, who receives a request from the Queen to come out of retirement and conduct the performance of his most celebrated piece Sweet Songs. While Mick is a film director with an entourage in tow, putting together with his writers the script for his next film. Only the elusive ending escapes him. And while Fred receives a visit for a few days from his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) in the throes of splitting up from her philandering husband Julian (Ed Stoppard), Fred is descended upon by Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda) – the would-be lead for his new film and the actress that made both their careers.
Returning to English language filmmaking for the first time since This Must Be The Place, Sorrentino ups the ante with Youth with a heavyweight cast that includes Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Jane Fonda, Paul Dano and Rachel Weisz. And while the two women steal the show – Jane Fonda with the film’s funniest moment as Hollywood diva Brenda Morel, quickly unpicking the niceties and narrow loyalties of the actor-director relationship; and Rachel Weisz who makes off with the film’s most touching scene as Lena describes her childhood pain to her father who was never there – Youth is nevertheless a strangely episodic stream of two-handers and set pieces.
With all the strangeness of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster or Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Youth is at its best in its moments of brilliant eccentricity – such as Paul Dano’s appearance at afternoon tea as Adolf Hitler or Fred’s conducting of a herd of cows and their symphonic bells. But while some moments achieve a particularly Sorrentino-esque greatness, with streams of bathers organised into beautiful rhythms something akin to Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes, others fade into inconsequential fantasy; such as the Paloma Faith inspired nightmare or the alpine hillside scattered with Mick’s actresses.
A disorderly jumble of thought-provoking and inspiring ideas, Youth coagulates into an autobiographic study of the director’s relationship to his art; the filmmaker struggling to write and produce his film; the composer struggling against external pressures which infringe on both the relationships with his loved ones and his art; and the actor who – gifted, and yet pigeonholed for one big, commercial success (as a robot in a sci-fi flick) – decides not to devote himself to works of hate. They all struggle with their art in its various implications, and certainly Youth is Sorrentino’s most self-referential film to date. Perhaps, rather than the lascivious regret of two ageing men, a reflection on his own sweet works of youth.
Youth is released on 29th January 2016 in the UK