Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth – his second English language film – is largely concerned with the process of aging, and the way in which artistic careers usually stumble along, rather than flow (a fact that we probably need to be reminded of in the wake of countless obituaries and other eulogies for actors and musicians that seek to provide a highlights reel of someone’s entire life before they are even in the ground or their ashes are scattered). Leaving artistic endeavour behind briefly, the word ‘aging’ first brings to mind physical deterioration, perhaps most obviously manifest here by the health concerns and bodies of retired composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine, rarely better) and his filmmaker friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), who are staying in a luxury spa hotel in the Swiss Alps. In this idyllic mountain valley setting the pair receive massages, lie around in hot pools, are entertained by performers and undergo regular medical tests to identify any ailments brought on by old age; it seems every second employee in their hotel is a doctor or pharmacist. Fred and Mick sit around discussing bodily functions, comparing how many drops of urine they’ve managed to shake out, as much as they sit around discussing any deeper issues relating to their lives. Their bodies, which have obviously seen trimmer days, are contrasted with those of other guests. Most notably there’s the one belonging to Romanian actress and model Mădălina Diana Ghenea, who plays Miss Universe, but Sorrentino is quick to point out that age is only one factor determining the body’s appearance: also staying at the hotel is a distinctly out of shape Diego Maradona (Roly Serrano), considerably younger than our two main protagonists and unable to walk from the swimming pool to his deckchair unaided.
Sorrentino also looks at the effect aging can have on mental wellbeing, and on creativity, principally the idea that it diminishes slowly as we age. Both men are struggling with fading memory, and we repeatedly see Fred playing with a sweet wrapper, which he is presumably using to jog his memory or to think about someone or something in particular. Keitel’s Mick is a director of some reknown but his best days are behind him. He is trying to feed off the creativity of a team of young writers, who are also staying at the hotel, but it’s not proving successful and they are collectively experiencing writer’s block. Late on in the film his long-term actress muse, played in a pair of scenes by Jane Fonda, shows up to tell him she’s ditching his next film for TV and that his last three movies were terrible. Meanwhile Fred’s career appears to be over, though he receives repeated requests to conduct ‘Simple Songs’, the piece for which he is best known, at Prince Phillip’s birthday, by order of Queen Elizabeth II herself. Initially he bats these away, but when pressed he explains that the music was written for his wife, now senile and left in a Venice care home; yet the question the film puts forward is whether that is the real reason Fred chooses not to perform. Is he simply in a creative rut, like his best friend? Has he just grown tired of being known for one piece above all others? Whatever the answer may be, Sorrentino again uses other guests to highlight the fact that age is not necessarily the only factor, this time in terms of creativity: as well as Mick’s writers we also regularly see Paul Dano’s holidaying actor, struggling to come to terms with the fact that he is best known for playing a robot in a blockbuster, rather than his serious work, to the point that – like Fred – he has put his career on hold. Dano’s character regularly looks at Fred as if he sees a kindred spirit, a fellow artist who has lost the will to continue making art.
Sorrentino takes a similar approach with regard to relationships. The process of aging can, of course, shape or end them: Fred’s wife’s senile dementia, or rather Fred’s reaction to that illness and the pain it has caused him, is initally presented as the reason for their separation. It is an illness associated with aging. But the marriage the film places more emphasis on is that between Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) and Mick’s son (Ed Stoppard), which has also crumbled. She has been ditched in favour of a younger, supposedly racier and more sexually adventurous partner (the singer Paloma Faith, appearing in the film as herself). Lena’s approach, quite rightly, is to move on. But the underlying point seems to be that youth isn’t the state of perfection, the idyllic past, that we imagine it to be as we get older. For every issue facing Fred and Mick here there is a younger character (or more than one) experiencing similar difficulties or negotiating their own equally-problematic struggle with appearance, creativity or relationships. The things that are apparently holding septuagenarians Mick and Fred back from continuing with their lives are also being faced by people 20, 30 or 40 years younger than them.
Sorrentino’s film mixes comedy – it has a light-hearted touch, and is droll rather than laugh-out-loud funny – with quiet moments of drama and surrealism. The action is repeatedly interrupted by dream sequences as bizarre as they are entertaining: at one point Dano’s character appears as Hitler; at another all of the actresses playing female roles in Mick’s films appear in a vision in costume on a hillside; a Buddhist monk levitates; there’s a weird Paloma Faith dream sequence that’s shot in the style of one of her music videos; and there are more. The director dares us to try and interpret all of this – quite honestly, who knows what it all means? – and in terms of the amount of surprising, or beautiful, or seemingly unconnected imagery thrown at the screen it’s clear that Sorrentino is paying no heed to long-standing criticisms about his lack of restraint. One wonders whether everything we see here is entirely relevant, but the interruptions are fun, at least, and the director doesn’t let them impinge on or detract from the film’s serious moments. (Without wishing to spoil things there is a moving scene here that simultaneously managed to remind me of similar moments in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster and Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida.)
For all the self-indulgence, by the end I identified with characters I have no right to identify with, laughed at the bits I was supposed to laugh at, felt enough goodwill to give Sorrentino a pass on some of the translated dialogue, which presumably sounded better in Italian, and enjoyed the acting. Caine in particular hasn’t done anything as good, or as interesting, in years. He plays Fred in a calm, measured way, never overacting and happy to leave plenty of gaps and blank spaces for others to fill (in fact he is alone or silent in his best scenes here). Keitel, Weisz and Dano are typically dependable, while the occasional duff notes – mainly from Faith, I’m sorry to say – occur within mercifully short passages. Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi shoots a mix of long shots and close-ups, often framing interiors symmetrically, and he regularly uses water to distort the images of the bodies on screen, contributing to one of the film’s themes. There are problems – the way in which Sorrentino has the Miss World character intellectually besting Dano’s actor, for example, which is a transparent attempt to compensate for the way she is shot/subjected to the male gaze during the rest of the film – but overall it’s an interesting, moving and quirky piece that both challenges and accepts different widely-held ideas about aging and creativity.
Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino.
Written by: Paolo Sorrentino.
Starring: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Roly Serrano, Mădălina Diana Ghenea, Jane Fonda, Paloma Faith, Ed Stoppard.
Cinematography: Luca Bigazzi.
Editing: Cristiano Travaglioli.
Music: David Lang, Mark Kozelek.
Running Time: 124 minutes.