It’s always rather impressive when a film that is light on plot manages to tell such a satisfactory story, and this is the case with Paolo Sorrentino’s magnificent Youth. It feels like the sort of work that the term bittersweet was coined for; it is a plot-light series of vignettes where retired composer Fred (Michael Caine) and still-searching movie director Mick (Harvey Keitel) reflect on personal and professional triumphs and tragedies, and wonder if any of it was worth a damn.
We first meet Fred as he brusquely turns down an invitation from Buckingham Palace to come out of retirement and conduct one of his most celebrated compositions for the Queen and Prince Phillip. Fred is none-too-chuffed at having his annual holiday interrupted with such a request. Mick is also at the hotel, staying with annoyingly earnest young writers as they collaborate on the script for his next production. We meet Fred’s daughter and personal assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz), who experiences a personal tragedy that makes her demand the type of paternal love that was absent in her own youth.
The film gently yet pointedly meanders along, also encountering sly, young actor Jimmy (Paul Dano) who is at the hotel as he prepares for his next role. These preparations are darkly hilarious and yet don’t jar with the rest of the film’s relaxed and contemplative tone. Less effective is the moment when Mick is “haunted” by the female characters of his filmography: such overt symbolism yanks the viewer out of the experience. One such character is Jane Fonda as Brenda, whose self-parodying brief and brutal appearance reminds us of just how fantastic an actress she can be.
A few of the background characters at the hotel seem to be quirky for the sake of being quirky (and naked for the sake of being naked), and yet Sorrentino’s respect for the often-ridiculous nature of life means that these absurdities are never too much. Despite the softness of the narrative, Youth is a beautiful film for grown-ups that will linger in the viewer’s memory and make them want to holiday in Switzerland and contemplate life.
Youth is released nationwide on 29th January 2016.
Watch the trailer for Youth here: