Paolo Sorrentino takes the opulent stylisations of his last movie The Great Beauty (2013) even further with this operatic tale set around a Swiss mountain spa. Sorrentino mentioned during his LFF Connects Talk his main themes are characters dealing with a profound sense of malaise, the passing of time, and their problems having no real solution. These are all grand themes but Sorrentino’s approach intertwines high seriousness with humour. There’s also present in his work a fascination for celebrity and a love for extravagant set-pieces yet his work remains grounded in the emotional reality of the story he is telling. The flamboyance of his direction does not distract from his often very straightforward narratives but becomes an essential part of them.
Youth is primarily about two men who are no longer young. Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, an elderly composer hiding away from the world in a Swiss spa. Pestered by an emissary (Alex MacQueen) from the Queen who insists he come out of retirement to play his most famous work ‘Simple Songs’ he’s made his peace and is happy to remain quiet. Fred still composes in his head, though using a sweetie paper to keep time, and taking inspiration from the everyday sounds around him. Most of his time is spent with his longtime friend Mick (Harvey Keitel), a filmmaker working on what he hopes will be his last great movie summarily titled ‘Life’s Last Day,’ but he and his team of young screenwriters are struggling to find an ending. Paul Dano plays an American method actor researching for an unexpected role, and Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) whose husband has just run off with Paloma Faith.
Also wandering about the hotel are Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea), and Diego Maradona (Roly Serrano) now obese and attached to an oxygen tank his wife carries around behind him. Staff wise there’s a young masseuse (Luna Zimic Mijovic) who believes in communicating through touch, and a mountaineering instructor (Robert Seethaler) whose awkward attempt at chatting up Lena turns sublime as he launches into a bizarre story about finding an unlikely household item on K2.
Youth occasionally teeters on the edge of absurdity but it’s anchored by beautifully judged performances from the leads. Caine, working with a great Italian director for the first time since Vittorio De Sica in 1967’s Woman Times Seven, has wonderful chemistry with Kietel. There’s a real feeling of mutual affection present in their conversations about their memories of their shared past. Kietel does regret very well as his wonderful performance as a burnt out Hollywood agent showed in Ari Folman’s The Congress (2012). He’s funny and ultimately moving here as a Blake Edwards-type film director who is blissfully unaware his best days are behind him until in his muse (a coruscating cameo by Jane Fonda) sets him straight.
Sorrentino’s regular director-of-photography Luca Bigazzi lenses and together their mastery of images combined with David Lang’s music makes this one of the most visually stunning films of the year. Youth won’t win over Sorrentino’s detractors but for admires of his cinema of grand spectacle it’s a delight.