Paulo Sorrentino is a master manipulator of sound and image, specifically harnessing music to upend and eviscerate you, so no doubt his latest film, Youth, centres around a musician, an actor and a director. The elements essential to conveying feeling in film. If it’s not autobiographical then it’s certainly a beautifully complex and self aware love letter to the industry and its heroes and not without a reminiscent nod in the direction of Federico Fellini‘s 8 1/2.
Paul Dano does nothing but confirm that he is already, and will continue to become, one of the leading lights of his generation. When his character takes a dramatic turn you can’t imagine anyone else playing it quite as well as he does. A great testament to any actor. As for Jane Fonda, playing the self-referential plastic-surgery-victim Hollywood diva, it’s excellent casting, for that very reason, and brave of any actor to knowingly mock oneself, but, amidst such stellar company, she shines somewhat less brightly. Appeasing that her contribution is pivotal yet limited.
It’s Harvey Keitel (Mick Boyle) and Michael Caine (Fred Ballinger) who are the film’s centre and their relationship delivers an unexpected tenderness. “We only tell each other the good stuff”, they both say of their 60 year friendship. Although, they will openly discuss their latest bladder movements, or lack thereof, and prostates. Youth pulls no punches in its honest depiction of ageing, nor does it shy away from the exposed human form. Both of which are still taboos worth breaking.
You would be forgiven for thinking Keitel is in a supporting role, until the final scenes, when it becomes clear that his character has been intentionally woven into the narrative that way. Then, and only then, his performance is simply devastating. A trick of Sorrentino’s, perhaps, as evidenced in an earlier scene with Ballinger’s daughter (played with some poise and craft by Rachel Weisz), what begins as a seemingly trite and innocuous speech can snowball with such momentum and velocity until suddenly it’s become some key internal unleashing.
Some of the dialogue can, at times, feel slightly like ‘dialogue’ but then you’ve got the perfect parody of a team of screenwriters trying to finish their film script, coming up with simply awful, beyond clichéd, lines in search of something honest and meaningful. This is where the film begins to transcend its own medium. Being heavily self aware, able to acknowledge the absurdities of itself as a film and the many vain processes that go into its production, it still manages to make you forget you’re watching one and moves you in ways that only a movie can.
The intricacies of Sorrentino’s observations can be misconstrued as flippantly comical, at times, when really he’s delving far deeper, into the tragicomic core of what it is to be human. More specifically, to be human in extremely, even rarely, comfortable circumstances; where everything is provided and nothing is required. For these people what remains is a void which they can no longer fill with ostentation, nor with themselves. Sorrentino ably pulls the strings of laughter as easily and often as he does those of sorrow (as Fred Ballinger himself says, at the very outset of the film, “levity is also a perversion”). He is our conductor, the ‘maestro’, conducting an orchestra of emotions and hugely talented actors. And bringing down the house in the process.
The similarities between Caine‘s immaculately coiffed rolling mullet and that of Toni Servillo‘s in The Great Beauty suggestibly belie Sorrentino’s underlying themes and an aesthetic contingency between the two projects. An opulence is clearly present in both, albeit this time around much more muted, subtle and evaporating, in stark contrast to the almost hellish hedonism of La Grande Bellezza. And yet, the same feeling pervades: richness surrounds itself with emptiness. A vacuum of emotional poverty swallows up the materially wealthy. And it’s the affluent residents of this elite hotel that form our microcosm of introspection.
Life in all its stages inhabits this strange alpine retreat. Caine’s Ballinger and Keitel’s Boyle propping up one end of the age spectrum, Dano’s wonderfully named Jimmy Tree firmly stuck in the middle and poignant turns from a stroppy teenager (Emilia Jones) and a charming left-handed violinist (Leo Artin) giving us the hope and eponymous youth. The scene where Boyle and Ballinger sit on one side of a swimming pool staring with the eyes of their teenage selves at a completely naked Miss Universe on the other, pretty well sums up the film’s message.
Touching, warm, gentle and funny but with enough working behind its rich façade to grind a few emotional gears, maybe even pull a few heart strings, Sorrentino’s Youth is one for the ages.
“Life goes on, even without that cinema bullshit” – Brenda Morel.
Life goes on but it might just resonate for an hour or two after you leave that ‘cinema bullshit’ on this occasion.