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A surrealist dream disguised as a hazy memory, mesmerizing as exploration of the beauty in our own mundane desires.

 

Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth opens with a singer belting out a tune on a sort of lazy susan, rotating in an opulent and colorful terrace before a grand hotel in a remote part of the Swiss Alps. The camera sits static, observing the singer up close as the terrace and resort spin around her as she sings. At first, we wonder why this creative decision was made, but as the camera sits, lingering on her face, a strange thing happens: we begin to wonder about her, what her story is and how she came to be singing on this platform in a beautiful terrace in front of a prestigious Swiss resort. The longer Sorrentino plants the camera on this singer’s face, the more I personally grew attached to her, like two patrons at a bar locking eyes for just a little too long. I wanted to explore this character’s life and find out what exactly led her to where she is in life in that moment. That feeling doesn’t fade away, as it becomes somewhat of a theme for the rest of the movie.

Youth’s theme and central idea isn’t exactly tough to pick out based on the name alone. It’s the focus of not only the movie itself but of the characters. Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel play Fred Ballinger and Mick Boyle, respectively. Ballinger is an older retired concert director and composer and all-around music aficionado while Boyle is an older film director working on his next script with a small gang of co-writers. Both men have escaped life for a break at this prestigious resort deep in the Swiss Alps, although Fred’s escape was mostly forced by his daughter and assistant, Lena, played by Rachel Weisz. Fred just wants to retire gracefully, but is frequently approached by the Queen of England’s emissary in the hopes that he’d return to the conductor’s spot for a go at one of his most iconic works, a work that he himself is almost solely remembered for. Each time this happens, Fred tells him to essentially buzz off, and when he’s not doing that, he oftentimes converses with fellow hotel guest Jimmy Tree, a young, famous movie star also only known for one major role, played by Paul Dano.

That is essentially where the plot ends, as Youth is more focused on exploration than hard storytelling itself. One of the biggest characters in the movie is the resort itself, and the camera elegantly takes its time floating about it, observing the other guests (mostly old) as they live their luxurious escape like cattle straight out of Metropolis. Guests line up, donned in soft white robes, to be led to their daily massages, swim sessions, and sauna trips. A mute couple frequently eats meals alone while sitting at the same table. A younger masseuse practices dance moves in her room off the clock. A monk sits outside on the lawn trying to levitate. It’s like a hazy dream coming to life as the camera explores all of it. It’s not crazy to attribute this to a striking influence from the late and great Federico Fellini, which Sorrentino has frequently stated is the case. Life in Youth does not begin and end with the lead characters, but the entire world breathes with activity and an individual sense of self. But the story is also about “youth,” of course, and these lounging and relaxing conversations these characters have primarily focus on the topic, be it the good and the bad.

At one point Keitel’s Mick points one of his disciples to a set of tourists’ binoculars and explains that the close-up view from the normal front is the future, for them, while the farther away view from the reverse side is the past. For him, however, it’s the opposite, with the far away representing the past while the close-up view is what’s coming. It’s a remarkable way to show that, for an aging individual, youth seems so far behind them as the time they have left is so close ahead of them. It’s a sobering concept, but with a special kind of beauty to it that only Sorrentino (with the help of Fellini) can capture. No director these days makes movies quite like Sorrentino, with his unique eye for rich composition and an editing style that includes that lingering and observing camera acting almost as a break from the action. Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi has no problem capturing the elegant beauty of the resort with his stylistic composition that watches the random guests go about their mundane routines, from the bedrooms to the bathhouses, to the dinner halls. Not one shot in Youth can be considered boring, and proves that Bigazzi works remarkably well with Sorrentino, as is evident by their work together in both Youth and Sorrentino’s two previous works The Great Beauty in 2013 and This Must Be The Place in 2011.

Almost every actor gives a remarkable performance in Youth, with Michael Caine giving one of his best. Paul Dano further proves to excel in range, from quietly subdued emotions to outbursts of rage. Harvey Keitel, like Caine, is always great, but I found his performance here to be lacking in authenticity quite a bit. In some scenes, this performance hole isn’t present but in others it’s very distracting. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what causes it, if perhaps it’s a character trait or fault in the acting itself, but if it is a character trait, it knocks down my appreciation for the character substantially. This can most easily be seen in the aforementioned binocular scene with the disciples. One particular standout is Jane Fonda, who enters late in the game as a famous actress frequently working with Mick, and only for a small bit of time, but leaves a substantial footprint by the time she exits.

What does it mean to age, and is it possible to hold onto that youth we had at the beginning? What does youth look like, and does it have a face? The latter question is more or less answered in a poster scene in which Fred and Mick are alone in a pool while the stunning Miss Universe joins them in the nude, and the astonished looks on the two men’s faces have all the answers you’d need to the question of youth’s physical form. The whole movie drips with references to the idea of age, the act of aging, and the idea of nostalgia or looking back at your life. Lena once names off the massages, doctor checkups, and other amenities she has set up for her father to “get back in shape” but Fred says in response “at my age getting back in shape is nearly a waste of time.” But Fred often visits -both mentally and physically- ways to stretch his musically creative mind on the property, so his priorities regarding what should and should not be “in shape” may take their own form. It’s not exactly a bad or depressing thing to be in this resort, but looking around may make you notice a pattern amongst the aged intellectual lodgers.

Like The Grand Beauty, Sorrentio again crafts a film that I highly suggest will be very divisive. The editing composition and choice of forms of narrative escape will certainly not be for everybody (they weren’t at all for me with The Great Beauty), and oftentimes these choices left me wondering just what the hell the point of making them were. Some people also prefer a much more centered and focused plot, while others like the idea of “exploring,” a term I’ve exhaustively overused here. The plot is there, but mostly seen through words rather than actions. All things considered, what the writer/director has done here is create a sort of hypnotic dreamscape among a palace in the clouds (or mountains, more literally) which takes its time exploring literally while letting you form questions in your own mind, and while it may leave it up to you to find the answers, this resort gives you all the amenities needed to leave you with a lasting impression.

 

Directed By: Paolo Sorrentino

Produced by: Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima, Carlotta Calori

Written by: Paolo Sorrentino

Starring: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda

Distributed by Fox Searchlight

Release Date: December 4, 2015

Run Time: 124 Minutes

Rating: R

About The Author

Steve Carley

Steve Carley is a Michigan-born lover and resident of the film industry in Atlanta, Georgia. When he's not infiltrating the nearest Waffle House or giving up on the most recent movie-adapted book he can be seen lounging in his apartment complex's pool and regretting the way he wrote his Film Takeout bio.