Paolo Sorrentino’s new film – a review by theTramp.
Youth is, on the face of it, a film about composer and Maestro Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), nearing the end of his life and facing quite what that means, whilst mulling over the offer to direct his music at a special concert that the Queen of England would like to host for her husband. He does so in a health retreat, somewhere in the Alps, with his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), best friend, film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) and other wealthy guests that include actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano).
It is a deeply odd, and rather melancholic, film. At first it appears to be a film about getting older and looking back, rather than ahead, at life, and certainly this is what the trailer hints at, but this film is concerned with more than this. For instance, how we connect with each other and how we interpret the world; the touch of the masseuse, Ballinger’s’ music, Boyle’s words, actor Jimmy Tree’s Performances (played wonderfully by Paul Dano), Miss World’s beauty, the old couple that never speak to each other over dinner, the friendship and conversations of Ballinger and Boyle, the betrayal of Weisz’s husband.
There is also the musings of the protagonists over artistic success, and what that entails. And yet the more I reflect on this film, the more it feels like a love letter to women: The fantastic, brash cameo by Paloma Faith, the longing gaze of the mountain climber toward Rachel Weisz, Boyle’s preoccupation with writing a great role for his actress muse Brenda (Jane Fonda), the way Ballinger notices his masseuse and his lack of desire to perform without his wife, Tree’s moment of enlightenment thanks to a brattish young teenage girl and the beauty, but also brains, of Miss America.
In Youth women should not be judged by their covers, they are as essential to men as breathing, and without them life holds no meaning. Passion, here, is art, success and women. But the women in the film, notably Weisz and Fonda, but also Paloma Faith and Miss World, aren’t passive objects for the men they are surrounded by. They are brash, they have brains, they have opinions, they have sex appeal, they are mistresses of their own destinies and they know it. Whether at the beginning of life (brattish teen), or closer to the end (Fonda), the women in this film are here to be heard and not just seen. The male gaze may be noted, but so too is the women’s understanding of it and desire to step outside of that for definition; which is, it probably doesn’t need to be said, somewhat unusual for a film primarily about older male protagonists to consider.
It could also be said that the film focuses on different moments and builds upon them, much like the music of Ballinger, to create a whole. Certainly it is fair to say that there is bittiness to this film, which often feels like a succession of character vignettes, rather than a cohesive whole. Looking back as I consider if the sum of its parts has made a successful whole I can only conclude that it has not. Which is a shame because Youth feels very close to being something rather special. The performances are fantastic, Caine and Keitel may be the obvious standouts here, and I would suggest that there was an expectation that Fonda at least would get some supporting actress awards attention, but Dano and Weisz are the heart of the film, with Dano in particular putting forward a complex and compelling supporting role as actor and observer Jimmy Tree.
Youth is one of the strangest films I have seen in some time. In its immediate aftermath I felt like I had watched a rather beautiful, rather melancholic poem on screen. Since then, I have recalled several of the moments from the film and felt myself drawn back to them, whilst also pondering how on earth they all sat together in one movie. This is perhaps the failure of the experiment. If, as I suspect, director Paolo Sorrentino, was attempting to mimic the cumulative impact of each instrument in an orchestra through the lives and loves of the characters that he showed on screen, to create a vision that offered a truth greater than the sum of all its parts, he failed. But Youth is a curious failure that is worth watching.