Paolo Sorrentino’s YOUTH, is a visually elegant and emotionally moving film that follows two old friends, reconnecting over a summer holiday and coming to grips with the legacy they have left on the world.
The film is set in a secluded Alpine spa, that, much like the two main characters, is still well loved, but past it’s prime. Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a celebrated, but retired conductor and composer, who is ready to fade into obscurity. His serene holiday is disrupted not only by the Queen’s emissary, who tries to pull him out of retirement, but also his daughter Lena’s (Rachel Weisz) sudden and unforeseen marital split. Mick Boyle, played by Harvey Keitel, is a successful Hollywood writer and director working with a staff of young protégés on what he hopes to be his greatest piece yet, his “Testament.” While Mick still has a passion for life and art, Fred feels he has little influence left on both his personal and professional lives. Early on, Fred remarks, “At this age, we’ve made all of the big decisions.” As Sorrentino’s story patiently unfolds, however, we are reminded that there is a lot of life left after the so-called “big decisions.”
Paul Dano gives a superbly understated performance as Jimmy, a young American actor in his prime, but already second guessing the career choice that made him famous. Jane Fonda delivers a forceful cameo as an over-the-top ageing starlet who has absolutely no remorse for the decisions she made to get to the top.
Lena is perhaps the most complex character, caringly played by Weisz. She represents that point where we’ve found some safety and security, but can still be pummeled by life’s left hook. She straddles the worlds of daughter, caretaker, and self, while trying to balance the responsibilities associated with each.
Sorrentino weaves several minor story lines to support his theme of growing up and growing old. We’re treated to a physical young masseuse, an older couple who never speak, and a guest whose former celebrity we are left to guess at for much of the film. In stark, but vivid images, we see a naked Miss Universe as well as wrinkled, droopy-breasted seniors. The naked truth (pun intended) is that at some point the spa goes from being a source of relaxation to a place for medicinal treatment. And Sorrentino’s message: It’s ok. That’s life.
The eclectic soundtrack is just one more reason to appreciate this film. Simple Song #3 is the song that character Fred Ballinger was best known for, but it won real composer, David Lang, an Oscar nomination for Best Song. Before we know the importance of the song to Fred’s life, we hear bits of it peppered throughout the film. Sun Kil Moon, also known as Indie musician Mark Kozelek, makes an appearance as one of the many musical guests who perform at the hotel. My favorite song of the film, and perhaps the most powerful, is Just (After Song of Songs), also by David Lang. It’s a haunting, percussive piece that’s used just as effectively in the film as it is in the credits.
This film is not plot driven, but the stories layer upon each other to create a portrait from which each viewer will take away something different, depending on his/her perspective. It’s not a story with a well-defined beginning, middle and end, but it’s intent is to remind us that we have many beginnings and ends throughout our lives. It all depends on your perspective.