Dir: Paolo Sorrentino
Against a sky of deep crystal blue, in the remote and heady peaks of the Swiss Alps, Michael Caine conducts a symphony of cattle, their bovine lowing and bell-chimes in harmony with the birdsong of the forest. Such a moment of preternatural surrealism is entirely in keeping with the rarefied atmosphere of Paolo Sorrentino’s handsome reverie Youth.
Retired maestro Fred Ballinger (Caine) is taking an extended holiday in this beautiful Alpine retreat, amid stars of screen, music and sport. All, naturally, are retreating from something. Ballinger spends his days taking in breathtaking vistas while strolling the mountain trails, soaking in the pool, and receiving bodily massage. He has his old friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) for company, a film director working on his latest screenplay with a retinue of wistful writers. The elderly pair reflect on their yesterdays, bemoan the deteriorations of ageing, and try to keep the intrusions of fame at bay. His assistant (Rachel Weisz) joins him after she receives devastating news and feels her own need to escape. She’s also his devoted daughter.
Events begin with Ballinger being asked to come out of retirement to perform his most famous work one last time. By royal request. A fantastically pompous Alex McQueen plays the emissary of the Crown charged with securing his agreement. Utterly dismayed, his stupefied bewilderment at someone voicing the unthinkable; saying no to Her Majesty, is a delight.
Like Ballinger, the film is distinguished yet mildly eccentric. Appropriate at this elevation, its subtly unique tone is a touch woozy, lightheaded, bordering on the unearthly. But while certain events carry a hint of the mystical, it has its other foot planted firmly, sometimes disconcertingly, in the ‘real’ world. The cameo from Paloma Faith (playing herself) is a strangely jarring diversion. One of Caine’s fellow guests is seemingly football legend Maradona. Or is it a lookalike? While Jimmy Tree, the actor portrayed by (the real) Paul Dano is entirely fictitious. Confused? Well, no, but perhaps a touch bemused, and not unpleasantly so.
Primarily though, this is a visual treat. The stunning sunlit mountainscapes provide an unfailingly gorgeous panoramic backdrop by default. Against them, Sorrentino’s elegant compositional flair is foregrounded. Every frame is artfully constructed and balanced, often with a satisfying symmetry reminiscent of Kubrick. And it’s a pleasure to eavesdrop on the warm bickering of the cantankerous central duo. Later, Jane Fonda almost upstages the two leads with a most memorable entrance. Maximising the briefest of turns, she is captivating as the belligerent and ageing screen diva Keitel professionally wants to woo.
Youth is a plaintive blend of nostalgic drama and meditative reflection, concerning the tragic consequences of the mere passing of time. It’s an aesthetically sumptuous, curiously original and mostly successful meshing of actual and imaginary. Yet, a little like the Buddhist guest striving to transcend natural laws to levitate, Sorrentino is aiming to achieve something he can’t quite reach. Set so close to the heavens, his film reaches upward to the skies, but stays awkwardly attached to its earthly moorings. While the haunting refrain of Ballinger’s signature piece stays with you, a vague sense of something lacking lingers also. Such an altitude may naturally guarantee awe-inspiring visual spectacle, but the atmosphere can feel a little thin.
★ ★ ★