Relying on vignettes that surrender his characters to recollections disparaged and tainted by the vexations of old age, Paolo Sorrentino’s second English language film sets its aim lower than his recent Oscar winner The Great Beauty (2013). In Youth (2015), which takes us to a stunning locale, a mist-enshrouded Swiss hotel abutting snow-capped mountains, Sorrentino introduces his two main characters informally. A former famous composer Fred Ballinger, (Michael Caine), is being visited by a representative of Her Majesty, politely enquiring if he would like to briefly interrupt his retirement to conduct a concert of his ‘Simple Songs’ for a gala occasion. Elsewhere, Fred’s best friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a director in his waning days, has convened with a group of young writers, tossing around ideas for his next project.
With his usual, meticulously conceived visual set-ups, Sorrentino employs the vignette to great effect. There’s no attempt to over-involve us with detailed versions of the lives of Fred and Mick. We’re offered snippets of their internal processes at work, but most of the joy of immersion in Youth comes from the dry wit, the predilection for pondering the past, present and future as though they’re individual worlds, each open to being randomly juxtaposed for the sake of enrichening Sorrentino’s separation of scenes.
Peripheral characters regularly enter the fray, including Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), who’s been abandoned by her boyfriend – Mick’s son – and a young actor, Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), suffering existential angst after only ever receiving public recognition for a single lame commercial success that he resents for leaving him hopelessly typecast. There’s a Maradona-like former football star treading heavily around the grounds, whilst a couple glimpsed only in silence in each other’s company provoke mild consternation for the curious Fred and Mick. Various moments are inserted for comic value, for their ability to serve as meaningful refrains; others still are used to break up the pacing and dimension of scenes.
All of these interactions are like snapshots, moments from short stories that don’t necessarily add up to much – laced as they are with a degree of melancholy, piquancy or irritation – but bring a distinctive characteristic to the narrative nonetheless. In terms of a literary equivalent, there’s the feel of something like Paul Theroux’s Hotel Honolulu about Sorrentino’s film in its overall arc being inverted through standalone moments that reflect the author’s themes in miniature.
There’s no great profundity to be gleaned from Youth; as good as it is, this is lesser Sorrentino, but a pared-back, contemplative gem even for its lack of ambition. Here revealed is a director at total ease with his process, returning to a form of storytelling that demands as much or as little as its audiences demands from its narrative through-lines and idiosyncratic blind turns.
Sorrentino establishes a deliberate pace early on and simply trusts that either his audience will become locked onto the same wavelength or bail. For me, he’s a director who can rarely be faulted; even his weakest film, the overwrought and convoluted Il Divo (2008), has a stunning cinematic style to keep you hooked regardless of narrative threads losing focus. He’s a remarkable craftsman, constantly challenging his own standards of creativity and Youth is no different, each set-up feeling as organically derived from its scenario as can be. No part of Sorrentino’s frame is neglected, ensuring that something striking is always on show, whether because of his depth of composition or oddly slanted perspectives.
The performances in Youth are a joy; Caine, for example, hasn’t been offered a role as good as this in quite a while. He’s not asked to expand beyond his range, certainly, but he brings the weight of years lived to his interpretation of Ballinger, whilst Keitel is similarly sublime and toned down as the director aiming to rekindle his creative passions; he attempts this through conquering uncharted territory before having to truthfully come to terms with his long diminished skills and fading reputation. A cameo from a heavily made up Jane Fonda as Mick’s long-ago muse provides decisive in opening Mick’s eyes; like many scenes, it feels lacking in discipline and a little rough around the edges, but is full of bittersweet truths that are in line with Sorrentino’s overall objective for Youth. That is, to offer humour, spice and a tinge of regret in what is ultimately a half-serious lamentation for the past – a time and a feeling mired in the memorable and forgettable, each as impossible to evade or disremember as the other.
Youth opens in Australian cinemas on December 26th.