Dir/scr: Paolo Sorrentino. It-Fr-UK-Switz. 2015. 119mins.
The wry, flamboyant cinematic opera of Paolo Sorrentino reaches new heights of showy, utterly tasteful magnificence in Youth, a meditation on ageing, creativity and the staging of spectacles set almost entirely in a Swiss spa hotel. It opens up the pores with ravishing images and rubs in soothing musical ointments, occasionally varying the treatment with a bracing splash of cold drama, served by immaculately groomed actor-assistants.
It’s the relentless pursuit of the achingly aesthetic money-shot that holds Youth back from greatness in the end.
To resist the brilliance of Michael Caine’s central performance, or DoP Luca Bigazzi’s dazzling photography, or David Lang’s bracingly avant-garde soundtrack, or the savour of a cast that includes Harvey Keitel, Jane Fonda and Rachel Weisz, or the sheer audacity of the director’s mis en scene, would be masochistic. And yet the great challenge Sorrentino sets himself – to turn all this into a story as profound as it is captivating – does not quite come off.
It’s a close call, however. Many viewers will simply let themselves be swept along by the flow of this post-modern, neo-Baroque 8 ½ , and it’s hard to blame them. Not all those who loved the Italian director’s The Great Beauty will respond to Youth, but Sorrentino is doing little that’s different – just refining his game, paring back the distracting character development in favour of an even more impressionistic approach. What is new here is the English-language dialogue (which sounds a touch wooden at times) and the international cast of characters: in Youth, Sorrentino’s pop-auteur style, his showy virtuosity, is not leavened for international audiences by the touristy pleasures of Roman dolce vita decadence.
But it does have, in Caine’s retired composer, a character and a performance that are fully the equal of Toni Servillo’s Jep Gambardella from The Great Beauty. Caine’s character, Fred Ballinger, is first seen in the garden of the elegant, old-fashioned Alpine spa hotel that provides such an evocative setting (it’s the Grand Budapest Hotel on a diet of muesli). An emissary of Buckingham Palace is pleading with him to come out of his self-imposed retirement in order to conduct a concert featuring his most famous composition – Simple Songs – for the birthday of Prince Philip, who, we are told, listens to little else (the odd idea that the royal couple might be remotely interested in contemporary classical music is just one of Sorrentino’s cheeky reality twists).
He refuses. Another spa guest – Paul Dano’s Hollywood actor Jimmy Tree – likens Simple Songs to his own most famous role, a robot called ‘Mr Q’. It is a ‘piece of levity’, a crowd-pleaser that cancels out, in people’s minds, a lifetime of more valid and important work.
Jimmy Tree is here because he has one of the lead roles in veteran director Mick Boyle’s (Harvey Keitel) latest film. Mick is Fred’s best friend, but unlike his old pal he has chosen to go on working; he’s convinced that his latest project, Life’s Last Day, will be his valedictory masterpiece. In between brainstorming meetings with his cast and screenwriters, Mick goes on walks with Fred, in fresh, flower-strewn Alpine meadows that somehow mock their preoccupations about memory loss, prostate problems, and a girl from years back that both fancied. Or they submit to treatments in the spa, wallow in its pools and let a masseuse who seems barely out of her teens stroke their puckered skin.
Bridging the gap between extreme age and callow youth, Fred’s daughter Lena (Weisz) departs for a Pacific holiday with her fiancé, Mick’s son; but she’s soon back after being dumped for a brash pop diva (UK artiste Paloma Faith, playing herself). Lena is her father’s personal assistant, but also the voice of his conscience, reminding him of the selfishness of his lifelong dedication to his music, and poor treatment of her mother – who appears to have passed away. We don’t need this backstory to sense regrets and might-have-beens flickering in the eyes of a difficult, private man who wears a pair of thick-lensed glasses. They feel like a mask more than an aid to clear vision.
Sorrentino is once again at his most Fellini-esque in the array of minor characters that gravitate around the spa. There’s a grotesquely overweight, asthmatic Maradona – played by a lookalike – with a huge Karl Marx bust tattooed on his back. There’s a stunning, buxom Miss Universe, who features both as a guest at the hotel and as a bit player in one of the film’s tasty dream sequences (the best of which is a mad, trashy pop video starring Faith). Jane Fonda arrives for Mick’s film, in which she plays the scary ageing diva Brenda Morel. There’s a rather melancholy, bespectacled prostitute, and a Buddhist monk who is rumoured to be able to levitate. At one point, Adolf Hitler even finds his way into the hotel’s elegantly subdued dining room.
But in true Sorrentino style, Youth is choreographed as much as narrated. It oozes a love for music’s transforming powers – represented here both in the regular hotel evening entertainment acts (one of whom is US singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek) that act as chapter dividers, and a marvellous soundtrack by contemporary American composer David Lang, whose music stands in for Fred’s own compositions.
Spa rituals become Dantean tableaux (not all of them set in hell); a pause in a woodland clearing becomes an opportunity for Fred to conduct a herd of Alpine cows, bells, and birds; a climbing wall where Lena is encouraged by a lugubrious, love-smitten instructor to overcome her fear of heights is placed, for no obvious reason other than scenic effect, in the middle of a Belle Epoque ballroom. It’s this relentless pursuit of the achingly aesthetic money-shot that holds Youth back from greatness in the end. But in a film that has a good few laughs strewn among its more serious artistic and philosophical fare, at least Sorrentino is aware of his own worst tendencies. After one particularly flashy cut to a fire-breathing hotel entertainer, Dano’s character quips “all we need now is the mime artist”.
Production companies: Indigo Film
International sales: Pathe, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima, Carlotta Calori
Cinematography: Luca Bigazzi
Editor: Cristiano Travaglioli
Production designer: Ludovica Ferrario
Music: David Lang
Main cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda