Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Jane Fonda
With their huge, carefully crafted panning shots, their by turns enigmatic and banal dialogues and their chic suggestions of existential mysteries, the films of Paolo Sorrentino have pretty much come to define art-house affectation over the last decade. Across films such as The Consequences of Love (2004) and the widely acclaimed The Great Beauty (2013), Sorrentino has defined a style that’s as easily identifiable as it can be hard to stomach. The director is clearly talented and often inventive, but there’s a glibness and gloss to his work – all that pretentious angst, all those drop-dead-gorgeous women strutting through—that can be seriously off-putting.
Those trademarks are certainly on display in Sorrentino’s latest film, Youth, which premiered at Cannes 2015. It’s the director’s first English language feature following the much-derided This Must Be the Place (2011), which starred Sean Penn as a Robert Smith-esque rocker. Though likely to be divisive – some boos were heard amidst the loud applause as the credits rolled on the press screening – I found Youth to be a much more accomplished and confident piece of work than This Must Be the Place, and, perhaps, Sorrentino’s most appealing and approachable feature to date.
The action unfolds at an Alps resort where Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) are vacationing. Life-long friends, the two men have both spent their lives as creators. Fred, who’s accompanied by his daughter-cum-assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz), is a retired composer and conductor who has been invited to perform again by the Queen, but is rejecting the offer for “personal reasons”. Mick, meanwhile, is a filmmaker who’s still diligently working and is in the process of preparing a new film to star the diva he discovered, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda). Amidst spa sessions and massage treatments, the two men reveal their lives, loves, losses and their attitudes toward art.
With the hotel’s other inhabitants – they include a corpulent ex-footballer with a Marx tattoo, and a constantly silent couple – forming a by turns exquisitely-garbed or naked backdrop (plus some slightly patronizing comic relief), much of the appeal of Youth lies in the prospect of the Caine/Keitel double act, and this element doesn’t disappoint. Caine is wry, contained, finally moving, while Keitel hasn’t seemed this alert and eager to act for quite a while.
Admittedly, when the two men are shuffling around complaining about their urinary problems, or observing a bathing beauty, the film takes on the patina of a particularly swanky Grumpy Old Men. But Sorrentino drops character detail with aplomb as we learn about the men’s contrasting approaches to the work that has defined their lives, and it’s not long before you find yourself caring for the pair in a way that pays off in the movie’s well-judged final third.
As often with Sorrentino, the dialogue here veers wildly between perceptive and dumbfounding. Sometimes it’s just plain bad: Lena, for example is given a torrent-of-accusation monologue in which she outlines her grievances against her father (“You didn’t just experiment with music but with homosexuality, too!”) that Weisz does well to get through without snickering. Moreover, I can’t imagine what we’re meant to make of the bizarre appearance of Paloma Faith, playing herself as the woman that Lena’s fiancé (a barely-there Ed Stoppard) abandons her for. What the movie will do for Faith’s career will be interesting to witness, since not only is she described here as “a totally insignificant person” but the video for her song “Can’t Rely on You” forms part of another character’s nightmare vision. (We do learn, however, that she’s very good in bed.)
But a moment after you’re groaning in dismay at what the movie is up to, Sorrentino comes through with some interesting observation or memorable image. The finest, I think, is a startling late sequence which presents Mick being confronted by the various heroines of his films. One of them is, of course, Brenda, who has breezed into the movie to become the protagonist of another terrific set-piece: a hilarious and painful sequence that provides Fonda with a stupendous cameo. In the scene, Brenda attacks Mick as a washed-up has-been who should stop making “shit”. Fonda palpably relishes the crude talk and insults here, and her appearance lifts the film into a whole new dimension of camp. Mention should also be made of Paul Dano who, after some awkward early scenes, is rewarded with a brilliant late sequence which reveals the role his actor-character has been researching.
Youth looks highly likely to generate some awards buzz: for Caine, certainly, and possibly for Keitel and Fonda, too. Undoubtedly, the movie has its share of trademark Sorrentino irritations. But mannerism and pretension are offset by humour and a surprising amount of humanity here, making Youth a memorable (and finally affirmative) meditation on ageing and art.