Perhaps there is nothing new to be said about the challenges of making art, the difficulties of growing older, and the regrets that eat away at our lives. But while it would be inaccurate to say that filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino has found fresh insights into these familiar cinematic themes, Youth goes a long way on the enthusiasm he has to try. The umpteenth story about an aging artist wondering what it all means, this sensuous drama soars as high as Sorrentino’s dance of images and sounds can carry it. And Youth soars plenty—even if you know the terrain well.
Michael Caine stars as Fred Ballinger, a retired composer and conductor who’s vacationing in the Alps at an exclusive hotel. Not quite melancholy but also not exactly invested in doing anything, Ballinger is approached by an emissary from the Queen of England, who would like him to give a special performance in London of his most beloved composition. He politely declines, citing unspecified personal reasons.
Youth doesn’t spend much time on the queen’s request, nor does Sorrentino structure the entire narrative around what those “personal reasons” are. But they’re part of the tapestry of this film, which tends to float from incident to incident, with plenty of random musings in between. Ballinger’s close friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a movie director, is also vacationing in the hotel, and he’s laboring away on a script he hopes will be his artistic testament. The only problem is that he can’t hit upon how to write the ending, which is a deathbed scene. He can’t write it, of course, because he’s not sure how to sum up his own life.
Since his 2008 international breakthrough Il Divo, Sorrentino has made his name as a bold visual stylist, weaving together dreamy, colorful images and expressive, startling music. It’s not just because he’s Italian that he gets compared to Fellini: Both filmmakers get drunk on film’s transportive, carnival-like quality. His 2013 movie The Great Beauty won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and Youth can be seen as a continuation of that film’s operatic, powerfully wistful tone and its study of older men taking the measure of their lives.
The entire film is set in and around Ballinger’s fabulously elegant hotel—it could be The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Gustave’s idea of heaven—and other characters wander into the story. A respected actor’s actor (Paul Dano) is doing intense prep for a secret role, while Ballinger’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), who works as her dad’s assistant, has arrived heartbroken after learning that her husband (Boyle’s son) has fallen in love with someone else. The characters get massages, walk the grounds and attend nighttime events put on by the hotel. Mostly, they talk: The hotel could be viewed as a sort of way station for these individuals, who are all working through mini-crises. Nothing in Youth is that urgent, and Sorrentino encourages a lighthearted approach, although the underlying issues—love, death, the meaning of life—are all rather substantial.
This is one of Caine’s better performances in recent years: confident, sharp, reflective, modestly commanding. Ballinger doesn’t seem like a greatly conflicted artiste—he’s no deeply tortured soul—which is a refreshing change of pace from the usual protagonist we see in these sort of films. If anything, Ballinger seems to be content with how his creative life has played out—it’s everything else that has him feeling uncertain. Caine never makes Ballinger a particularly deep character, but he’s a warmly engaging one—our friendly ambassador into this world of privilege and ennui.
It’s really Boyle who’s wrestling with his legacy, and it’s through this subplot that perhaps Sorrentino gets a chance to express his own feelings about the future of cinema and the role of the artist in society. (His previous English-language film was the poorly-received Sean Penn drama This Must Be the Place, also about an aging artist looking for some sense of closure.) Youth hits all the predictable notes—making fun of vapid pop stars, criticizing filmmakers who don’t know when it’s time to hang it up, bemoaning an industry where flash outstrips substance—and Sorrentino doesn’t have much to add to the conversation. Also, Keitel’s too-casual performance doesn’t always do justice to Boyle’s creative dilemma, making his quest to land his longtime leading lady (Jane Fonda, in grande dame mode) not particularly compelling.
But for a film about deep issues, Youth isn’t a movie that encourages a lot of thinking. As is often the case, Sorrentino works the heart and nervous system, completely bypassing the brain. Which isn’t to say that Youth is a dumb movie—merely that its emotional, sumptuous rush is meant to overwhelm you, lift you up, shake you out of the everyday. It succeeds wildly on that front. His frequent cinematographer Luca Bigazzi composes shots as if each is meant to be featured in a expensive coffee-table book: We’re knocked out by images of singers performing on rotating stages, rows of people all nearly assembled in a row, the sight of a gorgeous naked woman walking toward the camera. Working again with editor Cristiano Travaglioli, Sorrentino turns some sequences into mini-arias, a choice piece of music from, say, mournful American singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek helping to set the stage for a rapturous tour around the hotel that suggests the isolating effect of extravagance.
The more the characters express their desires and worry about the roads not taken, the more you long for Youth to simply rely on Sorrentino’s instinct for pure cinema, the way that the right visual paired with the right piece of music can say more than dialogue ever could. Because of Ballinger’s profession, it’s easy to draw comparisons between him and Sorrentino: Both men rely on emotion to produce stirring rhapsodic effects. Not all the best cinema works on unfiltered sensation, but Sorrentino’s definitely does.
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Writer: Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda
Release Date: Screening in Competition at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.