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At one point, retired and aging orchestra conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), while walking along a country road in the middle of a lush green field with his lifelong friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), comments on time and memories as “Tremendous effort with modest results.” It’s tempting to say the same about the latest film from writer/director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, 2013), a mix of exquisitely photographed moments and good dialogue wrapped around often jarring and not-so-subtle imagery that is sometimes sensuous to experience and yet frustrating to endure.
Ballinger is a once world-renowned composer and conductor on vacation with Boyle, an aged film director who is planning his next film, a testament to life, enlisting his lead actors and writers to join him for daily walkthroughs of the as-of-set unfinished script. The two men are nearly inseparable and discuss all things expected, from food and drink, to urinary issues to a woman one may have slept with and the other craved sixty years before. Ballinger is being courted to return to music for a special performance for Queen Elizabeth II, requested to resurrect a piece he refuses to revisit for very personal reasons. Meanwhile, his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) has come with distressing news. Her husband has left her for a younger woman. That her husband is also Boyle’s son makes for some minor conflict but shows how long and how deep the two men’s relationship has been.
Joining the mix is a young actor named Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) who has come to this resort at the foot of the Alps to prepare for a new somewhat controversial role. He is forlorn and moody and distraught that, despite being a classically trained thespian, he is only remembered for a blockbuster part where he portrayed a robot. No one could see his face in the role and he seems to despise the fact that he was ever in it. He wants to feel respected and legendary and finds the allure of the two highly acclaimed elder statesmen irresistible, feeling he somehow belongs in their midst. He tends to linger just in their peripheral.
Sorrentino films with a style that is at times rich and undeniably breathtaking with ponderous, deliberate shots that linger on the subject with a kind of love affair that, like youth itself feels curious and exploratory yet so fleeting. These moments tend to punctuate the spaces between the story and most are steeped in metaphor, often heavy and solemn and while wonderfully filmed leave the experience much like a tapestry with a single loose thread barely binding it together. Take for instance an early image when Ballinger, having glanced at an article in a newspaper announcing the arrival of Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) to the country, then has a dream in which he has a literal brush with her on a very narrow walkway over a pool of deep water. They approach each other silently, she, elegantly dressed in her winning crown and golden gown with deep, revealing décolletage, pacing forward with statuesque beauty. He, in his maestro tuxedo ambling onward. The two meet, eye each other, the camera framing their faces, the obvious gap between their ages a stark reminder of what once was and what will be, then pans down to her large breasts sweeping across his chest as she saunters away arms gleefully in the air never looking back as Ballinger begins to sink into the watery abyss, struggling to keep afloat before he is consumed by darkness. The moment is telling of the tone and Sorrentino’s singular obsession with visually defining the title of the film but feels weightless in context as it is only one of many moments that illustrate the chasm between young and old.
The performances are genuinely good all around though, even if they are wrapped in the convention that each character must embody. Weisz is the daughter who lives in the shadow of genius and lash out at her feelings of betrayal at having none of the talent. Still, she is very affecting and given the task of convincing us of that anger and hurt, even though we’ve seen it in so many other films, makes it fresh. Jane Fonda shows up and masterfully sustains one of the longest scenes in the movie, layered in cakes of makeup, jewelry and a wig, herself an exaggerated visage of how beauty consumes us all. Keitel is gripping as a kind of Scorsese-like character with a brilliant past with much still to offer, but it’s Caine who holds the most attention. He excels in the the art of earned nobility and stands above the cast with his poignant stares, calm demeanor, and often emotional delivery. There’s a potent moment when Lena demands of her father the reason why her husband left her–something he knows but tries to hide–and she presses him relentlessly until he finally does. When she replies that he didn’t need to say that, he speaks nothing, but Caine is able to express in such deceptively simple ways, a powerful sense of regret that reaches all the way back to perhaps the moment of her birth and the years from then to now as her father and all the mistakes he perceived he’s made in telling her anything.
But issues arise in pacing and a frustrating “clip effect” permeates, where we are slowly invited into a stream of mesmerizing moments that disappear after the actors dispense with their often highly philosophical insights. And while sometimes these moments feel right, as when Boyle “sees” all the women he’s ever directed in costume and reading their lines on a green grassy slope, more often they feel manipulative and without depth, offering no personality to their meaning. Take for example the moment captured in several marketing images of Ballinger and Boyle in a pool gazing upon a fully nude woman as she joins them. The poster (See below) feels vouyeristic, like it’s an ad for a sleazy comedy but in reality, the scene is another in a long string of silent moments when the aged notice the young and leave us the audience to ponder the obvious. Of course we want to be young.
Youth is a surreal, unapologetic film that is purposefully poetic in its presentation, and while it’s truly good to look at, like an abstract painting, will be either a mess of color and interpretation or a vivid, moving experience. Maybe just like youth.
Movie description: Youth is a 2015 drama about a retired orchestra conductor on holiday with his daughter and his film director best friend in the Alps when he receives an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to perform for Prince Philip's birthday.
Director(s): Paolo Sorrentino
Actor(s): Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz