By Joanna van der Veen
A couple of years ago, whilst planning a visit to Rome, a friend who lived in the city gave me some excellent advice: watch The Great Beauty. He told me that the film, which earnt Sorrentino an Oscar, was a love letter to the city and that I couldn’t possibly visit without seeing it first. Whether or not that’s true, the film hooked me on Sorrentino: his distinctive style of rich, lavish visuals, unusual and revealing camera angles and memorable and eccentric characters is addictive.
I mention this by way of preamble to Youth because, once again, the thoughtful cinematography is the first thing that hits you about the film, and is the main thing that stays with you afterwards. It is Sorrentino at his best, with unexpected delights and unusual subplots woven in around the main narrative.
The plot is this: two ageing friends are on holiday together at a spa resort in the Swiss Alps, reflecting on their lives and what the future means when there’s less of it than the past. One man is Fred Ballinger (an excellent Michael Caine), a retired composer fending off requests from the Queen to perform one of his best works for Prince Philip’s birthday. The other is Hollywood director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), who is using his holiday to pen a script for his ‘testament’, a final film dedicated to his muse Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda). The chemistry between Caine and Keitel is perfectly pitched, and the dialogue by turns laugh-out-loud funny and bittersweet.
Ballinger’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) accompanies the pair for the majority of the film, trying to get over her recent break-up with Boyle’s son, Julian. This subplot cleverly brings out aspects of Ballinger’s past, but also provides the foundation for some of the film’s most hilarious scenes. In one such scene, Lena pleads with her father to tell her what Julian’s new girlfriend (Paloma Faith, making a cameo as herself) has that she doesn’t. I won’t give the answer away, but the denouement of the conversation left the lady sitting beside me in the cinema in fits of laughter, muttering ‘just brilliant’ to herself.
The premise of the film may deceive you into thinking you’re in for a slow and subtle affair – and at times, lulled by the extraordinary scenery and meandering walks and conversations of the main characters, you may think that you’re correct. But an awful lot of stuff is packed into Youth’s 118 minutes. There are many twists and turns throughout the film – and some shocks towards the end that I definitely wasn’t expecting.
However, at least for me, the real stars of the show are the background details. Sorrentino fully capitalises on his chosen setting: the film is scattered with voyeuristic glances behind the scenes of the luxury resort. There’s the climbing instructor with an extremely stilted conversational technique; the singer who greedily gnaws on chicken in an empty dining room after her show; the masseuse who spends her free time doing workout videos. Then there’s the shots that break up the main narrative: the naked silhouettes crouched together in the sauna; the distorted bodies halfway into the pool; the hotel’s bizarre evening entertainment, which includes a lady blowing enormous bubbles.
The supporting cast is excellent as well. Paul Dano excels as an actor trying to break free of the one role everyone remembers him for, a robot called Mr Q. He acts as a foil and confidante for Ballinger, highlighting the fact that they have a lot in common despite the gulf in their ages. Miss Universe (Romanian model Madalina Ghenea) makes an appearance at the hotel, surprising everyone with the fact that she’s not stupid at all. A scene in which she saunters into the pool entirely nude is both hilarious and poignant, as Ballinger and Boyle mutter that they’re enjoying “the last great idyll of their lives”.
A few lines also need to be dedicated to the brilliance of the film’s soundtrack. Music plays a key role in the film, and Sorrentino has said that having a conductor as a main character gave him a chance to ‘indulge in a fantasy of his own’. But it’s not just orchestral music that elevates the film – there’s pop, electro and even a piece made up of cowbells (complete with actual cows).
If I had to make one criticism of the film, it would be that all these glorious background details risk overshadowing the main event, the reflection on what ‘youth’ really means. And whilst most of the characters are likeable, I found something slightly unpalatable about Rachel Weisz as Lena, and couldn’t help seeing her as a plot device rather than a properly rounded character.
Nonetheless, for me, the mark of a good film is if it’s memorable and if you want to badger friends, relatives and strangers with details about it for days after watching. Youth ticks all these boxes for me, and I will definitely be nagging all and sundry to go and see it when it’s released in the UK early next year.