Either you have it or you don’t. And is there nothing in between? Poised at the age of 45, the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino may well be asking himself this question in his new film, a lushly orchestrated sojourn in a retreat in the Swiss Alps that only the old can afford and the young can manage if they are rich and famous. The director took us into similar territory in The Great Beauty with an older man contemplating his younger years, yet this gesture across a much broader canvas, is different and better.
Here in Youth are two old friends united by age and stage of life. They have met up at a luxury establishment encircled by snow-capped mountains, a grand old pile from the time when there was prestige in building wide rather than high, and intend to rejuvenate physically and intellectually. Film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel has returned to the screen, at last) is at the resort and health spa with his team of collaborators workshopping his next work. He wants it to be his testament. His friend, retired conductor and composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine, now 82), only wants peace while he goes through a thorough health check. Even an emissary from the Queen cannot compel him to accept an invitation to perform his own work in the royal presence. In their different ways it seems Mick and Fred search for solace in each other’s company along with some fresh, new direction from well-trodden paths.
So, there’s just two old geezers one step away from an old folks’ home…? No, even though the trailer give this impression, Youth casts widely across the micro-culture of hotel guests with vignettes of other much younger lives. As disaffected Hollywood actor Jimmy Tree, Paul Dano appears to have something in common with his elders, wishing he could change his legacy, that of robot ‘Mr Q’, the only role he seems to be remembered for. While Fred’s daughter and personal assistant, Leda (Rachel Weisz), is there her husband – who also happens to be Mick’s son – leaves her for another woman, a pop diva. Like the soprano Sumi Jo who sings a stunning ‘simple song’ of Fred’s at film’s close, Paloma Faith plays herself in a key role in which the known world intersects with Sorrentino’s narrative, bursting into the rather chilly, ascetic fictional world with passionate promise. A Maradona look-alike lolls around when he’s not signing autographs across the perimeter fence or kicking tennis balls, and a stunning girl who would do perfectly well for Miss Universe is in there too.
There is much to surprise and enjoy as the laughs creep up on you and the ravishing images hold you in their spell. Instead of confining itself to masculine angst, Youth gives voice to women like Leda and a young girl who speaks up in a cuckoo clock shop. Although my mind kept wandering back to The Lobster, Weisz has a fairly straight role among the quirky ones here, and the way her unlikely relationship develops with the mountaineer is a deadpan delight. Jane Fonda appears as an aging diva (not herself) who visits to turn Mick down, although his film was written with her in mind, and gives him a piece of her mind. Despite the promise, the scenes with Fonda worked least well.
Yet a niggle here and there doesn’t take away from this meditation on life and personal endeavour, told with wit and skill. The blending with surrealistic sequences show Sorrentino a master of his craft and Keitel and Caine are a delight together. Sorrentino has involved himself with similar themes before, and even if he has taken a leaf from the cinema autobiographies of the masters like Truffaut and Fellini, here he has excelled himself.