I’m not sure Youth is a great movie. But I’m certainly glad it exists and that we have an opportunity to watch it.
What I don’t think can be argued is that director Paolo Sorrentino, along with cinematographer Luca Bigazzi made a film with beautiful and curious visuals. And I’m not just referring to the scene in which a naked Miss Universe glides into a pool, in full view of an awestruck Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel. (Keitel’s character even remarks that they may have just witnessed God.) Even the most seemingly banal behavior, such as a couple eating soup for dinner, looks magnificent on screen.
But there is very little banal behavior depicted here. No, it’s not a movie full of frantic action, gigantic set pieces or dramatic exchanges between characters. Although there is a cathartic monologue that a daughter (played by Rachel Weisz) unleashes on her father (Caine) in which she unloads 25 to 30 years of emotional baggage that’s been packed up. But that entire scene takes place with a close-up on Weisz, who’s caked in therapeutic mud and lying on a table.
From the opening minutes of the movie, it becomes clear that Youth isn’t like anything you’ve seen recently. The Retrosettes are performing a cover of Florence + The Machine’s “You’ve Got the Love,” as the camera stays on lead singer Helen Rodgers and the stage rotates to give you a slight idea of what’s going on in the background. Are we at a party? A wedding? Or are we practically in another world?
The setting imagined and brought to life by Sorrentino certainly seems to be outside the existence to which most of us are accustomed. The entire story takes place at a luxury hotel in the Swiss Alps, where many people visit for relaxation and recuperation. But for some, escaping also means avoiding the realities of their regular lives.
Keitel’s character is a filmmaker whose glory days have long passed, but he’s working on his next script with a handful of proteges who worship him for past work and thus won’t tell him what he probably needs to hear. Weisz’s marriage is a shambles and she blames her father for her shortcomings. Paul Dano appears to be channeling Johnny Depp as an actor best known for playing a robot, but yearns to be recognized for his other work. How far he’s willing to go for turns out to be one of the more amusing, yet somewhat disturbing, surprises of the film.
Whether or not Caine’s Fred Ballinger is also taking a vacation to escape what’s become of his life is the central question of the story. Ballinger is a renowned composer and conductor asked to come out of retirement to perform for the Queen at Prince Philip’s birthday concert. But if being summoned by Her Majesty was at all tempting, any interest is quickly doused by the request to perform his most popular piece, “Simple Song No. 3.” (The song is such a standard that he later meets a young boy who practices the violin with it.)
Is Fred like the actor who doesn’t want to be known solely for his most popular role? Or does he have more deeply personal reasons for not wanting those songs to be performed in his presence ever again? He appears to be waiting for the inevitable end and the title of the movie apparently refers to what he’s lost, what he both remembers affectionately and laments.
While that sounds incredibly sad — and Youth is indeed quite sad in places — I wouldn’t necessarily call this a sad movie. Not every character in this story ends up in a sad place. Yet almost everyone involved is in a different place (figuratively more than literally, of course) by the end of the film. “Youth” may be more of a state of mind than state of being, when we’re playful, inspired, passionate, open to trying new things and thus most creative. When that’s gone, we might as well be dead.
That’s probably as close as I can get to explaining what this movie is about, if anyone were to ask. But trying to make Youth fit into a tidy answer to that question is probably also doing it a disservice. That will surely frustrate some viewers. Some people are going to think the film is outright weird. I heard such mutterings from a few on the way out of the theater. If you’re expecting something about older people accepting a new stage of their lives and being rejuvenated by that, movies such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel tell that story and do it relatively well.
While Youth shares some of those elements, it’s not interested in making you feel better. It’s more concerned with following some very interesting characters, putting them all in one place and seeing what happens from there. Yes, some of that includes performers making giant bubbles, fat men kicking tennis balls in the air, seemingly stoic young girls dancing to Kinect in private, or seeing a life’s work come to life on the Swiss countryside. Strange, but it all looks so beautiful that I’ll bet you can’t turn away from it.