Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth is a tender look at the adages of old age that avoids being ruled by single notions of sentimentality or the jokes of dirty old men, and instead sets them aside for a serene reflection on mortality and regret. Staring veteran actors, Michael Caine (Interstellar) and Harvey Keitel (The Grand Budapest Hotel), the film is a notch closer towards a more commercial film for Sorrentino, though it still harbours the same stylistic quirks of his earlier work (see The Great Beauty and Il Divo).
Youth follows retired orchestra conductor and composer, Fred Ballinger (Caine), as he returns to the Swiss Alps spa resort that he’s attended for more than two decades with long-time friend, Mick Boyle (Keitel). Between strolling the extensive grounds, receiving luxurious daily treatments, and observing the various quirky guests of the resort that include a rotund ex-footballer, a silent couple and a Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) with a penchant for nudity, the duo is regularly attracted to constant reflection on their own life achievements, both big and small, as well as those that were missed. It’s their perspectives of the future that greatly differ though, with Fred more than happy to fade away in his retirement, while Mick is hell-bent on creating one last master piece and unwilling to give into the stigma of an artist beyond their use-by date.
But when a Palace Emissary (Alex MacQueen) seeks Fred’s involvement in conducting his most famous composition, “Simple Songs”, in return for a Queen’s Knighthood, his stubborn refusal to conduct once more brings many of the forgotten issues of his past to the forefront that he must then make peace with. To complicate matters, his daughter (Rachel Weisz) is experiencing a similar life crisis of her own when dumped by Mick’s son (Ed Stoppard) for an insipid pop star (Paloma Faith), and her decision to move into his resort room only prompts their strained relationship to boil over, leading to an overdue confrontation.
While the film’s plot is fairly scarce, the narrative never lacks the feeling of progression. Instead, the spa resort acts a facilitator for the characters to reflect on their lives, while faced with the very aspects of the past that they lament. Caine seems to slip effortlessly in to his role, yet Fred is a carefully constructed character who seems to possess a life of experiences and regrets, either made peace with or forgotten, that remain bubbling right below the surface but held stiffly within Caine’s composed performance. He’s perfectly complimented by Keitel, who delivers one of his best performances in years, and the two establish an instantly authentic rapport. Some of the film’s most enjoyable moments are simply the two men conversing about the world gone by, with a highlight being the affecting realisation that to grow old is to unwillingly forget one’s past.
Weisz (The Lobster) is just as moving as the sidelined daughter; unable to make peace with what felt like abandonment as a child by her father and her confession that borderlines monologue, is her crowning moment. There’s also fellow spa guest, Paul Dano (Prisoners), as a famed actor struggling to find credibility after finding success playing a robot having given in “just once to a little levity”, who serves as a wise spectator yet ultimately lacks ability to apply this same perspective within his own life. Lastly, is Jane Fonda (Grace and Frankie) who appears as an aged Hollywood starlet in the vein of Joan Crawford, who visits Keitel’s Mick towards the film’s end, allowing the two to share a deliciously over the top yet poignant scene that is allowed to play out without interruption.
Sorrentino’s masterful use of composition must also be noted, and cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi (The Great Beauty), never fails to create a beautifully cinematic landscape. Shots are constructed with a mesmerising use of symmetry and space, and there’s a surprising sense of beauty that arises in their capturing of the spa resort. The film thrives on the juxtaposition of so many elements, such as the obvious youth versus old age, but also through it’s intimacy while being isolating, and its air of relaxation while masking an underlying sense of apprehension. This is supplemented nicely with David Lang’s gorgeous score, and Sorrentino’s inclusion of pop and indie-hits, performed on-screen by various artists for the amusement of the resort’s guests.
Capturing the best of both commercial and European cinema in one film may seem like an impossible feat, yet Sorrentino has accomplished it here without sacrificing exploration of it’s thematic concerns. While some may not adhere to Youth’s slow but thoughtful journey, most will find it a refreshing and unpretentious look into beauty, loss and regret.