For many, especially Italians, there will never be a comparison to Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 pièce de résistance, La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty). Its Fellini-esque content and absurdity makes it stand alone in the Neapolitan’s canon of work, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of room in viewers’ hearts to let in Youth (La Giovinezza).
Set amid the surrealist backdrop of a luxury resort in the Swiss Alps (Sorrentino always does best with the surreal–it’s a congenital condition of being born in Naples), Youth explores the battle between aging and clinging to the folly of youth via the friendship between two artists in their seventies, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) and Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine). Mick, a renowned director still passionate about his craft and working on a new script with five other co-screenwriters in their twentiesish, is a complete foil to Fred, who has renounced composing or conducting any new music–in spite of the fact that the intro to the movie finds him being approached the queen’s emissary to receive a knighthood and perform his most lauded work, “Simple Songs” for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. Fred flatly declines, much to the delight of actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), also staying at the luxury resort for creative reasons.
Later that night, Jimmy points out to Fred that the two have a lot in common in that, “We allowed ourselves to give in, just once, to a little levity.” In Fred’s case, that levity was composing “Simple Songs” and in Jimmy’s case, it was playing a robot in Mister Q, the only film anyone ever mentions when they approach him. Fred takes this comment to heart, but knows, ultimately, that Jimmy is being overly grandiose and generalizing. As life putters on in the ambient spa setting, it’s clear to the observant natures of both Fred and Jimmy that most of the people there are hiding from something, including an (even more) overweight version of Diego Armando Maradona (Roly Serrano) with a giant back tattoo of Karl Marx on his back. His escort/keeper follows behind him everywhere hauling a giant oxygen tank, an overt metaphor for the deterioration of even the greatest of idols, who become nothing more than dead weight in the end.
And yet, there are also caricatures of youth, like a gawky masseuse (Luna Zimic Mijovic) with braces and protruding ears that tends to Fred’s spa treatments. Her uncomfortableness in her own skin–yet overly comfortable with touching that of others–reminds one of how painful youth can be. At the same time, there is a beauty in the gracelessness of her movements, in her sense of wonder. In this way, Sorrentino is constantly pushing and pulling at the audience’s perspective on youth and old age–each rife with their own separate set of benefits, though, of course, everyone assumes youth is preferable on the surface.
With a rich aesthetic similar to The Great Beauty‘s–thanks to director of photography Luca Bigazzi’s return to Sorrentino’s side–there is something cruel in the irony of such an idyllic milieu punctuated by all of the rotting people within it. Apart from Jimmy Tree, the “young people” at the resort are few and far between, but does include Fred’s daughter, Lena Ballinger (Rachel Weisz), who also acts as his assistant. When she tells him she’s going on a trip to Polynesia with her husband, Julian (Ed Stoppard)–Mick’s son, incidentally–Fred seems unmoved. Indeed, the doctors at the spa tell him he suffers from apathy. But he doesn’t care.
And then there are the frequent references to his wife, Melanie (Sonia Gessner), who, from the sound of it, is buried in Venice and has been neglected by Fred for ten years. Though Mick and Lena often make the suggestion that he should go “see” her, he never responds, letting the gentle nudge wash over him instead. But it is precisely because of his wife that he can’t accept the queen’s continued and persistent offer to perform for her in London. It is because of her that Fred cites “personal reasons” as his motive for declining–Melanie was the only one who could belt out “Simple Songs,” and he isn’t about to let someone else fill the role just because “she can no longer sing.”
Upon hearing the true reason for her father’s reluctance to engage any further with his art, Lena appears to have a newfound affection for him, where, previously, she chastised him harshly for never being there for her as a child and treating their mother like a disposable creature–and all because of his music. Fred admits, “You were right. Music is all I understand.” As Lena picks up the pieces of her own emotional wreckage, she encounters a shy, overzealous mountain climber named Luca Moroder (Robert Seethaler), a self-effacing man in direct contrast to the pomposity of Julian, who left her for Paloma Faith (a very random, yet somehow fitting celebrity cameo) simply because “she’s good in bed.”
While Lena opens her heart to Luca, Mick endures in opening his heart to writing an ending to what he calls his “testament,” Life’s Last Day. Collaborating with his co-screenwriters to come up with what will be the protagonist’s final line on his deathbed, Mick struggles to find the right words, possibly because he himself doesn’t really want to think about what life’s last day would entail–even though it’s ever looming. As he tells his acolytes via the use of the large and small ends of a telescope, “You see that mountain over there? Everything seems really close. That’s the future. And now…everything seems really far away. That’s the past.” From one end lies youth, and from the other old age and death. The inability to “see” or remember the past is iterated by Fred, who laments to Mick that he can’t remember anything about his parents or childhood, only that the two of them were both in love with the same girl, Gilda Black. The name registers with Mick, but he refuses to get detailed about it, merely insisting that he kept his promise to Fred never to have sex with her.
As Mick draws ever closer to concluding the pre-production details of his script, he becomes certain that his go-to muse and leading lady, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda), will agree to star in the film. Like Mick, she has aged significantly–but unlike him, she has lost all sense of wonder and passion for her art. When she personally visits Mick at the resort, she rejects his project with vitriol, informing him his last three films “were shit,” and that he’s only going to make a mockery of his career if he continues to sully it with subpar cinema. Although Mick doesn’t let on during the argument, he’s devastated by her assessment of the screenplay and refusal to take on the role. As he rehashes it to Fred in the hotel room, he asserts, “You say that emotions are overrated. But that’s bullshit. Emotions are all we have.” With that, he jumps off the balcony in front of Fred.
The drastic action, decidedly cinematic for a life’s finale, is fitting for Mick, who forces Fred to realize that, as one of the doctors at the resort says, “You know what’s out there? Youth.” By refusing to engage with life all this time, Fred has squandered what’s left of it. And that’s a pity, when you’ve got so much music still left in you.