Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, a pondering film reflecting on the nature of growing old is a salute to stylistic cinema oft forgotten in English language features.
Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a retired orchestra conductor who is approached on holiday by the Queens’ emissary (Alex MacQueen) to perform on Prince Phillip’s birthday. Sorrentino takes this as his canvas for what beings as an opera and ends as an emotional ode to life’s regrets, celebrations and all the baggage that comes with it. Harvey Keitel, playing movie director Mick Boyle forms a delightful double act with Caine, each of them embracing both their age and comedic sensibilities in performances that remind us of their enduring talent. While Paul Dano, hot off the heels of playing Brain Wilson in biopic Love and Mercy continues his hot run of form with an underscored performance as actor Jimmy Tree, himself caught in an existential quandary of both career and purpose. The film meditates on these issues hanging over its characters with artistic strokes of obscureness, surrealism and lucid cinematography that results in a film that keeps one bemused whilst at the same time being slightly confused as to what it all means. This confusion is not to the film’s detriment however, as it’s use is most certainly deliberating. Sorrentino’s understanding of his art is always impressive, just as in 2011’s This Must Be The Place, but here instead of being overly dour it is riveting, a bubbling collection of ingredients stirring in the enclosed Swiss resort in which the characters stay.
It could even be argued that the theme of confusion is reflected on us audience members as a means of grasping the central themes to which the title of the film points us towards. This film, by sheer treatment of its premise invites us to decipher, discuss and analyse but it doesn’t leave us with nothing to hold onto by the time the credits roll. Indeed, there is direction, but here its not force fed – it’s patient and thoughtful. Rachel Weisz delivers a superb turn as Ballinger’s daughter/assistant, the fine line that cuts the balance between Caine and Keitel with a performance of shrewdness and powerful gravitas that in many ways provides the heart of the films drama.
The complex issues and ideas underwriting this film are explored in ways that are hit and miss, with some inclusions of the film feeling a little uninspired compared to the rest of the film. One such case is Paloma Faith who struggles to even play herself in a thankfully minor role that in an annoying way cheapens part of the film. This is countered however by a performance of roughly the same screen time from Jane Fonda, playing (fictional) actress Brenda Morel with a vivacity that when let loose on an acid tinged monologue, provides quite possibly the highlight of the film. One hopes that we saw more of her and less of Faith, but it is a minor gripe in a film that is really a treat for fans looking for an arthouse flavoured, English language film. They don’t come about that often, particularly with this kind of cast.
It’s difficult to ask for anything more of this film but it as a whole feels slightly incomplete, possibly due to a second act that could be given more time rather than giving way to the final act that drags on just a little. Small complaints though, for a film that deserves the contemplation it demands.