Sunday, December 6, 2015

Youth (**1/2)

Written and Directed by Paolo Sorrentino


Consider the opening shot of Youth. It's not incredibly complicated. It consists of a young woman singing into a microphone, in the middle of a circular stage. A band surrounds her, but we don't get a very good look at them. The background spins slowly, but the singer's face stays stationary, performing with the gusto of a veteran professional. It's very captivating. It helps that the song is great ear candy - "You Got The Love", originally performed by Candi Staton in 1986 - and it helps that the singer is beautiful. It tells you everything you need to know about the film's director, Paolo Sorrentino, how he values beauty and aesthetic. Hell, his last film was actually called The Great Beauty. That film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and borrowed liberally from Federico Fellini's 8 1/2. Like Youth, The Great Beauty focused on a white-haired man in advanced age, who's resounding success and life of excess has left him feeling empty as death creeps closer. I remembered loving The Great Beauty when I saw it in 2013, but I must admit to not remembering much of the plot. I remember the beautifully constructed shots, the brilliant use of music and the strong performances, all wrapped within a very frivolous narrative. Youth is more of the same. It contains performances from two film legends (Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel) that are perhaps the best things they've done in decades, while sustaining such a high level of filmmaking throughout. But what does it all mean? Youth will make you ponder that question more often than not.

Sorrentino's tastes tend to trend away from narrative clarity. He borrows plot points from Fellini, but in reality, his style is closer to the work Michaelangelo Antonio, who seemed to openly despise accessibility in his stories. His films, like Blow-Up and L'Avventura, have defined plots, and yet the characters (and the director) seem to lose interest and the films tend to dissolve into mood pieces. Sorrentino isn't quite as anarchistic, but he does love visual cues that come to nothing; images that construct a reaction, even though the audience is never sure what it is they're reacting too. The story he's working with in Youth involves Fred Ballinger (Caine), a retired classical music composer vacationing in the Swiss Alps at a luxury spa resort filled with elegant guests of all shapes, sizes, colors and identifications. The holiday is arranged by his daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), who is also his personal assistant, and he's also joined by his best friend Mick Boyle (Keitel), a formerly great filmmaker pow-wowing with a group of young writers and actors to develop the script for his next movie. Fred's a little more resigned to spend his autumn years lying in the sun, not thinking about his career or his family. Mick is a bit more active, it's obvious that when he hangs around with younger people that he sees them more as peers than as pupils. Their friendship is built upon their mutual carelessness and egomania. Lena is married to Mick's son, Julian (Ed Stoppard), but when Julian suddenly ends the marriage and leaves Lena for another, less attractive woman (for the very direct reason that she's simply "very good in bed"), not even his own daughter's despair can put a rift into the long-lasting bond between Fred and Mick.

After the end of her marriage, Lena decides to stay at the resort with Fred, and uses the opportunity to bemoan Fred's apathy, his coldness toward his children and his abandonment of his wife and her mother. It's the family that had to pay the price for his genius, and now, broken hearted, Lena cannot find any reason to censor her frustration any longer. Occasionally, Fred also runs into Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), an artful character actor who feverishly hates his newfound fame, since it comes from his most superficial, commercial film. There's also a rotund South American man (Roly Serrano) whose morbid obesity feels particularly morbid, but whose eye-catching, room-quieting fame is never quite explained (a giant Karl Marx tattoo on the man's enormous back feels like an inside joke that Sorrentino couldn't help but include). All told, the resort seems like a meeting ground for lost souls, those past their primes and those searching for meaning. For a place of relaxation, no one seems to be particularly at ease. Men and women (but mostly women) strut around completely naked, bath in the pools, participate in obscure exercises and indulge in intense massages. There's even a monk who claims to be able to levitate. All these odd characters allow Sorrentino to browse through, to take side glances when he's less interested in Fred or Mick's story. Sorrentino's tangents are all over the place, and a choppy editing style suggests to me that the film was even more out of control in previous cuts. More so than The Great Beauty, Youth has an almost oppressive artiness that floats dangerously toward pretension, but Sorrentino is a talented director, and above all, a master at shot construction. Like all great surrealists, he can make nonsense that's still more beautiful than most films.

The closest that Youth comes to central conflict is Fred's refusal to perform his famed "Simple Songs" for Her Majesty, The Queen on Prince Phillip's birthday. Phillip is a huge fan of Fred's, and what begins as a simple request from a representative for the monarchy (Alex Macqueen), turns into a quiet demand. Fred continues to refuse, for vague "personal reasons", reasons that when revealed offer the film's only glance into the tragedy within Fred's soul. That scene is an astonishing piece of acting from Caine, which is nice coming from a performer who seems perpetually caught between profound elegance and paycheck-by-paycheck self-parody. It's the performance from Keitel, the less appreciated of the two actors, that really moved me here. Playing Mick Boyle as some long forgotten forefather from the New Cinema, his emotion counteracts Fred's chilliness. His obsession with creating his testament is his downfall, but also a perfect example of what makes him endearing: a naive optimism, a blindness toward what the future really has in store for him. Mick's most treasured collaborator is the diva actress Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda), an award-winning legend whose performances in Mick's films made her a much bigger star than he ever was. In what is essentially a one-scene performance, Fonda brutally makes clear the state of Mick's middling contribution to the culture of cinema. It's a great glimpse of the coldness of Hollywood business. In the film's best moment, Mick is haunted by the dozens of female characters that he has created, haunted by the loves that he conceived in fiction, but couldn't find in real life. I'm not sure if I've ever seen Keitel be better or more vulnerable, still brimming with all the intensity that has made him so watchable for over forty years.

There's a shallowness to Youth that didn't feel as apparent in The Great Beauty, though both movies could be derided for their preference of style over substance. In both movies, humans are just props for the camera and their emotions are just by-products of the window dressing. The Great Beauty works more because it is essentially about that kind of frivolity which it displays. For Youth, that frivolity pushes against the inherent melancholy of Fred and Mick's story. Youth has the benefit of the performances from Caine and Keitel. Beyond that, Weisz's Lena has a surprisngly larger character arc than you might expect, and the actress makes the most of the first meaty role she's gotten in a very long time. I quite enjoyed this film despite myself, like very good cheap beer. There's a moment early in the film when Fred and Jimmy both speak to the similarities of their careers. Both are supremely talented artists, but both are most famous for their simpler work - Fred for his "Simple Songs" and Jimmy for his performance as a robot named 'Mr. Q' in a big-budget Hollywood spectacle. They'd sacrificed their reputation for levity and recognition. "Well, levity is a perversion" Fred explains, and the conversation ends with the men exchanging knowing smiles. Youth understands levity and it certainly understands perversion. There's something admirable in the way it values its strict shot composition over audience-pleasing story arcs, but Youth is not prestige art as much as it might present itself that way. It's a very well-dressed indulgence, like those sugar cookies that are shaped like vegetables, but it is quite the treat at its best.

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