CLASSIC CINEMA REVISITED: YOUTH
Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
“Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young, nor weary of the search for it when he has grown old. For, no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul.” — Epicurus
Filled with dream and fantasy sequences in the tradition of the great Italian director Federico Fellini, Paolo Sorrentino’s film Youth is a poignant meditation on youth and ageing, loss and regret, love and loneliness. It’s a gorgeous film featuring senior actors Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in their best performances in many years, with the film taking place in an upscale spa in the Swiss Alps where two old friends reflect on their life and loves. Caine is Fred Ballinger, a retired composer and conductor who, by his own admission, has become apathetic and who appears to have lost his zest for life. When asked by an emissary (Alex Macqueen) of the then Queen Elizabeth to conduct his work “Simple Songs” before the Queen, he adamantly refuses but refuses to say why, other than for “personal reasons.” His friend Mick Boyle (Keitel) is a film director travelling with a pretentious group at work on his final film, “Life’s Last Day” in which they all work feverishly on trying to find the best last line before the final credits roll. Fred and Mick talk about their life but conversation does not revolve around the eternal issues — the wonders and terrors of death, who we really are, why we are here. Rather they schmooze about the girls they regret not having sex with, the state of their prostate gland, and what they can and cannot remember about their school sweethearts.
Youth is also dotted with other interesting and bizarre) characters who are also in residence at the spa including the current Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) who reveals the seductive power of her youthful body in a memorable swimming pool scene with Fred and Mick. To prove that she is more than her looks, she engages in a conversation with Hollywood actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) whose most famous role was playing a robot named Mr. Q. When Tree asks condescendingly whether she ever watches anything other than reality TV, she retorts, “I appreciate irony but not when it comes filled with poison. When he asks why, she tells him, “Because it reveals personal frustration . . . do you like what you do? I love being Miss Universe.” Also present is a hugely overweight former footballer (Roly Serrano) as a pseudo Maradona who carries around an oxygen tank with him, a young masseuse (Luna Zimic Mijovic) who does unusual dance routines in her room, and a monk (Dorji Wangchuk) who meditates on the hotel grounds and is reportedly able to levitate. While the film mostly consists of unrelated vignettes, there are several dramatic high points. In one, Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) is brought to tears when her husband, Mick’s son Julian (Ed Stoppard), leaves her for a young woman – the actual singer Paloma Faith. When Mick presses him for the reason he left his wife, all he can say is that Paloma is “good in bed.”
Another is where an ageing actress Brenda Morel (a magnificent Jane Fonda), whom Mick hired to play the lead role in his film, tells him that she will not now be doing the film, choosing instead to act in a better-paid TV series. Her confrontation with Mick goes quickly from amiable to toxic in a few minutes which suggests the underlying shallowness of the Hollywood mentality. There is also a powerful monologue by Lena excoriating her father for being obsessed with his music, his philandering, and for never being there for her when she was growing up. While the script of Youth offers no overly profound message, its joy does not come from words but from the silences between words, the beauty of the surrounding mountains and forests as shot by Luca Bigazzi, and from the sublimity of the wonderfully diverse soundtrack, including music of David Lang including the “Simple Song #3” performed by Sumi Jo, and the tender lyrics of Mark Kozelek’s “Ceiling Gazing.” From the playful antics of Ballinger conducting the cows in a symphony of clanging bells, or the morbidly obese ex-football player stunningly kicking a small ball in direct perpendicular highs in the air, Sorrentino lets us know that there are no age limits for a youthful spirit.