Youth: Two Men Sat in the Alps Reflecting on Existence, by David Bax
One word for the setting of Paolo Sorrentino’s teeming and vibrant new film, Youth, is “hotel.” But there’s another term for this kind of mountain retreat with its spas and fitness classes and on-staff doctors, a “sanatorium.” The more productive and hopefully healing implication of that word makes a more fitting description for this story, which is not about people leaving their cares behind but instead leaving everything else behind so they can confront their cares, past and present, head on.
Michael Caine plays a famed, retired composer named Fred Ballinger, spending a season at a scenic Swiss resort. This is something we soon learn has been an annual tradition for the past twenty years or so. His closest friend and yearly companion is Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) a renowned film director using his time in the mountains to work on a new screenplay with a team of young writers. The two old pals are occasionally accompanied by Lena (Rachel Weisz), Fred’s daughter and assistant, and Jimmy (Paul Dano), a self-serious young film star (imagine Johnny Depp fifteen years ago).
There’s little that could be described as a story in Youth. The film unfolds as a series of confrontations, occasionally between characters like Fred and Lena or Mick and Brenda (Jane Fonda), the actress who has been his muse for half a century, but more often between a character and their legacy (Fred pretending to conduct farm animals in a field as if their bleats and the clangs of their cowbells were an orchestra), their potential future (Jimmy tries to decide whether or not to take a role as Hitler by dressing up as the man and going about his day at the hotel, a darkly and uncomfortably hilarious sequence) and, most commonly, their past (Mick’s reputation as a director of actresses challenges him when a rolling field is suddenly populated with the leading ladies of his past films, repeating their lines and giving him looks that seem to imperceptibly shift from expectation to scorn).
That sequence is in step with Sorrentino’s visual and textual approach overall, where the world (of both corporeal and metaphysical varieties) stands nearly still in order to be studied or, possibly, to torture those who behold it. The hotel’s other inhabitants – in the pool, at dinner, taking in the evening’s entertainment outdoors – are largely motionless, just like the young former teammates of the aging soccer star (Roly Serrano) when they appear to him in the grass outside his bedroom window, all lined up for a penalty shot. Sorrentino presents these tableaux with some of the irony of Roy Andersson but more of the wide-angle grandeur of Fellini.
Sorrentino’s fanciful and extravagant sense of presentation is nicely balanced by the articulate and measured performances. Caine is great as always, managing to convey through endearing, curmudgeonly sighs and sarcasm a tidal wave of depression threatening to crest. Dano and Weisz more than hold their own in the company of the elder statesmen and Fonda’s brief turn makes up in hilarious grandiloquence what it lacks in screen time. If there’s any one standout, though, it’s Keitel, who radiates with the soul of the hungry young artist he once was while also being a man who has found his comfortable place in the system of entertainment commodities.
Sorrentino has been making films for over twenty years but it was with 2008’s hypnotic political biography Il Divo that many started to take notice. Then, two years ago, he blew minds with his La Dolce Vita homage The Great Beauty (which landed atop my list of the best films of 2013). With Youth, it’s now undeniable that he is one of the best directors working today, in no small part because he understands that movies can be powerful and expansive without sacrificing intimacy and personal resonance. In fact, he makes films that are as big as cinema should be, the size of the mind.