Youth | Paolo Sorrentino | 2015 | US | 2h 4min | Comedy | Drama
Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film opens with several minutes of music. We see a a musical performance of The Retrosettes ‘You’ve Got The Love’ at an alpine resort, the camera intimately close to the singer’s face as the circular stage rotates continuously. The luxurious Swiss backdrop is blurred, though we can see people dancing beneath the night sky. Several hours later, the film ends with another musical performance.
Michael Caine’s character, the composer Fred Ballinger, has a line in the movie about how he was never skilled with words. He claims that music is the only thing he was ever any good at, because you don’t need thoughts and experience to understand music - it just is. There may not be a better summary of Youth than this. It’s easy to get lost in the film’s complexity, as it’s loaded with themes and ideas that may seem all over the map. Yet the film is always captivating. There was never a dull moment where it wasn’t eliciting some type of response from me. It’s filled to the brim with comedy and absurdity, but there are moments of sheer wonder and even sadness. The film moves its audience like a beautiful piece of music, eliciting these emotional reactions in us even if we can’t say why.
On the surface, the film appears to be about two elderly friends played by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel. The two men are living out their final years at an upscale Swiss resort, reminiscing on their past experiences and feeling melancholic about their loss of memory. Caine’s character is a retired composer who is refusing to do his conduct his simple songs for the Queen of England, while Keitel’s character is a director working on his final film entitled Life’s Last Day. We’re joined by other notable characters like Ballinger’s daughter, played by Rachel Weisz, a woman looking after her father and undergoing a rough breakup. Paul Dano’s character is a Hollywood leading man, yet he laments the fact that he’s only remembered for playing the part of a robot in a blockbuster film, rather than his work on independent films. This hodgepodge of plot and character develops in interesting ways, yet it’s all secondary to the experience of watching the film. It’s not the sort of movie that has a conventional plot, as it’s more interested in the overall experience than any individual character. There’s another line in the film spoken by Keitel’s character where he says “You say emotions are overrated. Emotions are all we’ve got.” Again echoing this theme of emotional resonance trumping narrative.
As you might expect, the film is brilliantly realized in terms of direction and acting. Michael Caine and Rachel Weisz are particularly excellent here, giving the caliber of performances that we’ve come to expect from them. I’m very interested to see what Paolo Sorrentino does next, as his last two films have been stellar. If you enjoyed The Great Beauty as I did, then you owe it to yourself to watch Youth. Likewise, if you didn’t enjoy The Great Beauty, then you probably won’t be won over here, as Youth covers a lot of the same thematic territory.