YOUTH BItaly France Great Britain Switzerland (119 mi) 2015 ‘Scope
d: Paolo Sorrentino Pathé [France]
Only Sorrentino’s second film in English, after the oddly compelling use of Sean Penn in This Must Be the Place (2011), where the title suggests one thing, while the subject of the film is diametrically opposite, as this is more of a quirky meditation on aging, featuring Michael Caine as Fred and Harvey Keitel as Mick, two longtime, near eighty-year old friends in the latter stages of their lives that one initially suspects are brothers due to their intimate familiarity, but instead they’ve known each other for 60 years. Taking place nearly exclusively on the secluded grounds of an upscale spa for the rich and famous at the Waldhaus hotel in the Swiss Alps, the same hotel featured in the recent Olivier Assayas film, 2014 Top Ten List #3 Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), offering dazzling views of the surrounding Sils Maria countryside, this is the first Sorrentino film where the superficiality of the subject matter simply doesn’t live up to the whirlwind cinematography from Luca Bigazzi, who is among the best in the business, normally elevating this director’s films into rarified air. While it’s something of a delight throughout, often lighthearted and humorous, this film is arguably the lightest and least successful in the director’s career, becoming more of a scattershot virtuoso film where much of its power is diluted from attempting to cover so much territory, where it is entertaining throughout, though it borders on spectacle. Opening with the très chic sounds of The Retrosettes, a retro band from Manchester, You Got The Love by The Retrosettes - SoundCloud (3:20), where the female singer may as well be spewing her message on a rotating platform coming from the middle of a bonafide “fountain of youth,” the song jumpstarts the film with an adrenal rush that in every respect is equivalent to a thoroughbred breaking out of the gate at a racetrack. The problem is sustaining the pace all the way through till the end. While there are heady moments, and more than a few pleasant surprises in store, it’s hard to say this film has any lasting power, as there’s really not much of a developing story, feeling more like a series of vignettes strung together creating an impressionistic mosaic, where there are few entry points into the lives of the characters portrayed. Certainly part of the problem is the exclusivity of the place itself, catering to power and privilege, where most will never spend a minute of their lives in a swanky place like this.
Fred is a retired symphonic conductor spending most of his days being oiled and massaged, where he is pampered and catered to by kids that barely look out of their teens. Having lost his wife some time ago, he’s acutely aware that he’s in the latter stages of his life, with little to actually look forward to, instead harping on certain incidents from his past that crop up from time to time. Mick, on the other hand, has a core of young writers trying to help him finish off a screenplay entitled Life’s Last Day, the summation of his life’s work as a film director. They come off a bit like a Laurel & Hardy act, with Keitel in the role of Laurel handing out the straight lines while Michael Caine relishes playing the more pompous Hardy, where both can be seen walking the massive grounds of the place together, where their pace is a near crawl, holding cryptic conversations about their prostrates and other physical ailments, though their womanizing eyes still rove to the ladies just as much as when they were pubescent teenage boys on the prowl. Joining them is a young American actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), who seemingly has no business being there, as the place is crawling with people two and three times his age, but he enjoys the seclusion as he prepares for a new role. In a celebratory moment, Fred’s grown daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) is heading out on a Pacific holiday with her fiancé, Mick’s son Julian (Ed Stoppard), where for a brief moment the past and the present intersect, with both men reliving the exuberance of their lives through the romantic affairs of their children. Also entering the picture is an emissary from the Queen, a very squirrely Alex Macqueen, who is sent on a mission to invite Fred to come out of retirement for a gala concert performance of his most celebrated composition “Simple Songs” in London before the royal family in exchange for knighthood. Despite the honor, Fred refuses for personal reasons, and despite repeated pleas, the emissary leaves dejected and thoroughly disappointed, as the Queen does not like to receive bad news. In short order, Lena is back as well, having been unceremoniously dumped for a pop celebrity, none other than Paloma Faith playing herself, where both men find Julian’s conduct appalling (in his defense, Julian claims Paloma is a wonder in bed), where Mick even sides with Fred on this one, giving his son a thorough tongue lashing for his selfish display of male arrogance and bad taste.
Rachel Weisz, who also acts as her father’s personal assistant, is easily the best thing in the film, as she’s a smart, vulnerable and relatable character who shows some imagination and verve, who doesn’t pout about her circumstances, but instead rails against her father for his rude and neglectful treatment of his own children, as he was never emotionally accessible, always on the road traveling with the symphony, while at home she was forever being shushed and instructed to “be quiet” while Daddy was busy at work composing music, locked away in a room somewhere that was completely off limits. The beauty of this scathing monologue is that it is conducted while both are receiving side by side massages, where there is literally nothing he can do about it, where he’s forced to endure the full brunt of every blistering word. Sorrentino is the closest thing to Fellini working today, where it wouldn’t be one of his signature films without a myriad of oddball side characters that continually keep popping up on the screen, like the gargantuan Diego Maradona soccer player with a full-sized tattoo of Karl Marx on his back who has ballooned up to over 400 pounds, who swims a length of the pool and stops, thoroughly exhausted, or a brief, poignant scene of a young masseuse seen dancing alone in her room showing surprising dexterity and ballet-like grace, or the stunning arrival of Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea), the object of Fred’s daydreams even before she confidently takes a dip utterly naked in the wading pool with the eyes of two drooling men staring at her. It’s, of course, a picture of what they’re missing, a part of their pasts that can never be regained, but can only be summoned in wish fulfillment daydreams (activate the trashy music video). There’s even an all-too-brief appearance by Jane Fonda as Mick’s gutty actress Brenda Morel, the star of all his successful pictures, who is caked with so much make-up that she looks more like a campy character in drag, but she gives Mick a lacerating, no holds barred wake-up call in uncensored sailor lingo, traveling great distances to remind him face-to-face that his work has turned into “shit,” that “You’re going on 80, and like most of your colleagues, you’re getting worse with age,” declaring “Television is the future” before making a hasty retreat. (Ironically Sorrentino is working on an 8-episode TV mini-series entitled The Young Pope co-produced by Sky Italy and HBO, expected release sometime in 2016). While this summarily dismissive rant seems right out of some trashy soap opera, with equally melodramatic results, much of this operatic film is thoroughly intoxicating, where the music, much of it scored by American composer David Lang, couldn’t be more in synch with what’s shown onscreen, but there’s no real sense of urgency and some lingering questions whether any of this will matter or be remembered in the years to come.