Beginning with a loungy performance of Florence and the Machine’s “You’ve Got The Love” on a spinning stage in a lavish courtyard, you are immediately drawn into the beauty of Paolo Sorrentino’s new film Youth. The acclaimed director’s second english language film is an absolute feast for the eyes that is punctuated with mesmerizing performances from a great cast including Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Paul Dano and Rachel Weisz. It’s a film that constantly kept my visual attention even if it lost me a little here and there with the story.
Sure to dazzle the Hollywood foreign press and the Academy in the next couple months, Youth is an ode to creation in all fields, but mostly focusing on music and film. Sorrentino gives possibly one of his closest Fellini comparisons with the cinematically heavy film. Each shot drips with a deep subtext, lingering just long enough for you to drink in every nuance contained therin. It won’t be a long shot to say that at least two of the performances in it will get some heavy notice and possibly Sorrentino himself as well.
The film follows two aging best friends, Fred Ballinger (a retired orchestra conductor), and Mick Boyle (a screenwriter and filmmaker), on vacation in a remote hotel in the Swiss Alps with Fred’s daughter Lena. Fred is being sought out by Queen Elizabeth II to come out of retirement to conduct one of his most popular pieces of music at an event for her. Fred staunchly refuses the job, citing personal reasons that bar him from performing.
Mick is constantly weighed down by his current project, taking a lot of his focus away from his vacation. Along with a team of his writers, all prolific in their own emotional writing styles, the filmmaker is struggling to write a satisfying ending to his film which stars his longtime muse, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda). Mick seems to have a satisfaction with his career while Fred differs and has an almost dismissive quality about his work As a result, the two friend’s daily walks result in talk about if they’ve urinated or darker nostalgic thoughts like if Mick had bedded one of Fred’s former infatuations.
It’s interesting to see the remorse of past projects that Fred feels mirrored in a younger character at the hotel, Jimmy Tree, a movie star played by Paul Dano, who seems to channel a lot of Johnny Depp with a pinch of Brad Pitt. Tree is almost disgusted by the level of fame he’s achieved in a successful sci-fi franchise, which deters any focus on the work he’s more passionate about. All of these characters seem on the edge of decisions that could send them down a new path or teetering off to emotional darkness.
As far as mainstream audiences are concerned, Youth is a film that may be tough to access entirely. There’s a quiet reservation to every shot and the direction at times can feel a bit oddball, causing some confusing to “What was that?” or “What does that even mean? Is it important to the story?”. I was kind of lost in all those thoughts, as I truly think everything Sorrentino presents in this film is a ll massively important to the entire mosaic he’s trying to paint. It honestly will take me a few days to make sense of it all.
Being a huge fan of Sorrentino’s more gripping work, as in 2008’s Il Divo, a masterful crime boss film, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Youth. Dealing with two characters in the later stages of their lives, I expected the film to be focused on being wistful and remorseful, which it does to a small degree. What I wasn’t expecting was some of the oddball comedy within that threw me a bit. There’s a pay off to Dano’s character that had me inexplicably laughing near the end.
Through all of Youth’s visual splendor, I can’t help but think that my appreciation of the film was dulled a bit by the odder qualities of the story that didn’t really fly for me or characters that were without any sort of meaning, like a masseuse who spends her off time doing a slow sort of interpretive dance to something that looks like the XBOX Kinect’s Dance Dance Revolution. What was Sorrentino going for with this portion of the film? I also have a less classy “happy ending” question, but lets leave that one well alone. The visuals did help sell me this one for the most part, as did the acting, and I give Youth a three and a half out of five.