In “The Great Beauty,” there’s a flashback in which a young Jep Gambardella recalls the promise of love — its loss, with the betrayal of youthful ideals, leads to Jep’s crushing self-contempt. It’s a tender moment in a film of deep cynicism, and now Paolo Sorrentino, with “Youth,” delivers his most tender film to date, an emotionally rich contemplation of life’s wisdom gained, lost and remembered — with cynicism harping from the sidelines, but as a wearied chord rather than a major motif. Set in a Swiss spa with two old friends — one a retired composer-conductor, the other an active helmer— “Youth” is less flashy than Sorrentino’s recent pics but no less beautiful. Shot in English, with leads Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel bringing lifetimes of depth to their roles, the film, which Fox Searchlight is releasing Stateside, could become Sorrentino’s biggest box office hit yet.
Everything the director’s fans expect is here: stunning compositions (with Luca Bigazzi again behind the lensing), a second-to-none understanding of music’s emotional range, delightfully unexpected interludes, and a towering performance, this time divided in two (or two-and-a-half, since Jane Fonda’s brief turn is indelible). In addition, there’s a stronger female presence than has been seen since “This Must Be the Place.” Fellini’s influence, especially that of “8½,” remains, and while the whole package isn’t as demonstrably bravura as “Il Divo” or “The Great Beauty,” it’s more in touch with human experience.
Structurally, Sorrentino continues to craft his films like a composer (making Caine’s character especially apposite): There are the grand themes, including aging, memory, love and thirst for further fulfillment, and the minor entr’actes, ranging from spectatorship to the visual pleasure of contrasts, to a near-mystic sense of wonder at beauty in all its forms. And what better locale than the hermetic elements of a spa resort — a setting that unmistakably calls to mind Thomas Mann, Anton Chekhov, “Last Year at Marienbad” and “8 ½,” among many others.
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For more than 20 years, Fred Ballinger (Caine) has been coming to this resort. Now retired after decades conducting orchestras in London, New York and Venice, he’s approached by a Buckingham Palace emissary (Alex MacQueen): The Queen is offering a knighthood, and wants him to conduct his most famous composition, “Simple Songs.” Fred refuses, “for personal reasons.”
With him at the spa is his old friend Mick Boyle (Keitel), trying to finish a script with a group of young collaborators (Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Alex Beckett, Nate Dern and Mark Gessner). The film, titled “Life’s Last Day” (without a touch of irony), will be Mick’s “testament,” though exactly how is unclear. Besides being buddies from way back, the two men are also in-laws, since Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), is married to Mick’s son, Julian (Ed Stoppard). That changes when Julian announces he’s leaving Lena for Paloma Faith (playing a parody of herself and featured in a very funny musicvid caricature/nightmare of “Can’t Rely on You”).
Lena’s emotional fragility following her abandonment leads to a powerful monologue in which she lashes out at her father for his lack of paternal warmth, his past affairs, and his all-consuming devotion to music. Viewers will sense there’s more to the man than that, and Sorrentino rewards the audience when Fred speaks of children not knowing their parents’ ideals — it’s a deeply affecting moment, encapsulating much of what “Youth” says about ideals harbored and lost, and the reservoirs of sentiment so often guarded deep inside all of us.
Also at the spa is intellectual actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), famed for playing a robot in the smash hit “Mister Q” and unable to escape from its long shadow (think “Birdman,” but far less neurotic). Jimmy is a fascinating character, a consummate spectator who watches the world with bemusement, and often a calm purveyor of wisdom. Yet he doesn’t always understand what he imagines he sees, especially when he equates his frustrated inability to shed the “Mister Q” image with Fred’s refusal to perform “Simple Songs.” “We allowed ourselves to give in, just once to a little levity,” Jimmy tells Fred, mixing up “simple” with simplistic and thereby missing the whole point about the music (as well as the value in levity).
So often in film (as well as life), aging becomes a subject for jokes about prostate problems and memory loss. These things are there in the banter between Fred and Mick, but it’s all minor chitchat that leads to equally natural discussions, and greater silences, about lost possibilities and the yearning for more out of life, even while it’s slowly ebbing away. Unwilling to let any of it ebb is Hollywood star Brenda Morel (Fonda), who’s come to tell Mick she won’t star in his movie and gives him a cold shower of invective about his arty pretensions. Brenda is something of a monster — one finds them peppered throughout Sorrentino’s films — and Fonda grabs hold of the role with all her consummate presence, a tough-as-nails aging woman quick to deride others but not capable of holding up a mirror to herself.
There’s a great deal of humor in “Youth” as well as quiet melancholy, and the spa is populated with its fair share of quirky characters, from an obese man sporting a Jesus pendant and a giant Karl Marx tattoo on his back to a masseuse (Luna Mijovic), dancing with her Wii to a hilariously unexpected Adolf Hitler. They’re used almost like minor musical passages to maintain tone, but they’re also possible expressions of the philosophy of fragments propagated by the German Romantic philosopher Novalis, who’s referenced in a conversation between Jimmy and Fred: Fragments can often convey ideas more powerfully and subtly than grand statements.
It may be odd to see a Sorrentino film without Toni Servillo (though of course his other English-lingo pic, the underrated “This Must Be the Place,” was also sans Servillo), but Caine and Keitel understand the director’s style equally well, and their partnership is a joy to watch. Caine’s very English reserve, vocally expressed via his line delivery in phrases, forms a terrific contrast to Keitel’s more flowing Americanisms, yet both men use their natural characteristics to convey a lifetime of success as well as delusions, love as well as pain. Mick still wants more out of life; Fred, less comfortable with emotion despite an inner ocean of feeling, is more resigned to letting go.
Bigazzi’s evocative lensing is once again a marvel to behold, compositionally striking yet never emptily so, deeply cognizant of Old and Modern Master references (and not just the appropriate Susannah and the Elders scene). Fellini’s influence is felt more than once, especially when Mick imagines all his female characters spread out over an idyllic Swiss pasture, but the parallels are less deliberately exact than in “The Great Beauty.” Contempo composer David Lang’s gorgeous post-Romantic music offers rich aural rewards (the finale in particular), and as always Sorrentino’s amusing use of indie tunes, such as a cover of Florence + the Machine’s “You’ve Got the Love,” is ever apt, and always a wonderful surprise.