Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is an iconic composer and conductor who, after retirement from his profession, spends the summer holiday in a tasteful grand hotel in the Swiss Alps. Although repeatedly approached to conduct one more concert for the Queen herself, he persistently refuses. On strolls through the green mountain meadows with his old friend Mick (Harvey Keitel), he laconically contemplates life, love, creativity, legacy and the eponymous loss or conservation of youth. Mick, an equally famous aged film director, is not willing to give up on artistic productivity yet and clings to the idea of creating a last movie masterpiece, to bequeath something to the world. In order to achieve this, he needs the help of a team of young screenwriters, who revealingly, even in their mutual effort, never manage to come up with a proper ending to the story.
From mud pack to hot stone massage, Fred endures the cures offered by the resort, while conversing with a number of fellow hotel guests. There’s his daughter and assistant Leda (Rachel Weisz), whose need for affection he could never cater to and who has just been left by her husband, Mick’s son, for another woman. There’s an actor (Paul Dano) who’s tired of being recognised for and reduced to a single popular character he once played when he was, only this one time in his life, “giving in to levity”. His time in the hotel is spent observing people’s behaviour and gathering material for a new and very specific role. And there is Miss Universe who, against all odds, appears to be smarter than expected.
Sorrentino has proven to be capable of and willing to visually stage every scene in his own aesthetic, to masterfully synchronize them with amplifying or counteracting soundtracks and deliver an audiovisual completeness that only rarely appears as if it was made for the sake of it. This time, the Italian auteur has committed his story and himself to the spatial limitations of a luxurious Alpine hotel and it is rewarding to see what he made of the imagery provided by it. There’s beauty in the scattered scenes of everyday spa life; realism, of course, is not sought.
Only little is spoken by minor characters and their contributions tend to be concise and abstract. Nothing and no-one usually comes or goes or moves around too much; they all have their assigned and fixed position in the film’s tableaux vivants, working together as a bombastic framework for the story. Style is of sublime importance and able to artistically elevate the familiar to new profoundness, which is why only very good actors can save this director when his mise-en-scène is in danger of governing the content. It requires a subtlety like Caine’s (the English-speaking Toni Servillo) to believably deliver a number of one-liners, which look lifeless on the page.
Sorrentino’s method is risky, as his ambition and grandezza in execution magnify every idea; thus, the many delightful moments and observations become even more delightful, and the few dull ones even more dull, especially when they are too constructed. With a willing audience, ready to give itself up to the magical rush of images, he succeeds in shedding new light on old questions and questions of age: how do you perceive and react to your passing days of creation and the way the world perceives you? As the director said in defence of the subject matter, during the press conference in Cannes: “It is the only theme that everyone is interested in: the time that passes and what we do with it.”
Youth does not yet have a UK release date.
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Watch the trailer for Youth here: