Paolo Sorrentino dazzled Cannes last year with The Great Beauty and returns in competition with his latest English-language outing, Youth. Did it dazzle? At times, but essentially this is a bit of a damp squib.
The story revolves around Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a retired composer and conductor, at a Swiss Alpine hotel whose guests include a Hollywood actor (Paul Dano), a Buddhist monk and Fred’s BFF, screenwriter Mick (Harvey Keitel). Fred is reclusive, spurning the chance to perform for Queen Elizabeth II or to recount his memoirs to ‘the French’. Daughter Leda (Rachel Weisz) is his assistant, keeping the world at bay whilst trying to juggle her own personal life.
Like The Great Beauty, the film opens with a party of sorts, a group performing on a revolving stage in the hotel garden while a bevy of beautiful women dance. But this is a tame affair and we feel the audience are more like patients in a giant sanatorium than guests in a luxury spa hotel. This is compounded by the rigidity of treatments and punctuality (we are in Switzerland, after all).
Sorrentino makes good use of his setting, for we see Fred conducting the cows in the field, their moos and cowbells in synch with his invisible baton, and we watch him in a shop creating music from a chorus of cuckoo clocks.
It is unclear whether we are in a real place: is it a waiting room before death or are we supposed to believe in the hotel and its odd array of inmates? Our confusion isn’t aided by the complete disbelief in the characters and their relationships. The queen’s emissary is a parody of British stuffiness tinged with underlying aggression, Miss Universe is not just a pretty face (but that doesn’t stop Sorrentino’s camera ogling her naked in the pool), Mick talks about ‘the Arabs and the Russians’, here viewed as generic figures, and Maradona is portrayed here as a wheezing, blubbery guest.
Fred enters a child’s room to help him with his violin practice and there is something just wrong seeing a man doing this, regardless of his motives. It is also hard to conceive why a woman who has had such a fraught relationship with her father would not only be his devoted assistant, but also share his hotel room.
Visually, the film is a great beauty, and there are some fine performances. Jane Fonda shines as an aging Hollywood star, complete with a Marilyn wig and old-style sass. Age is certainly not withering her. Michael Caine is convincing and comic, and his decades-long friendship with Mick is nicely rendered. However, as Leda points out, Fred and Mick’s is an odd relationship as they only tell each other good things.
This is one of the core problems with the film: it is too superficial while striving to tell us something deeper about memory, about relationships and about sadness. Inside Out, a computer-animated film for kids, did this so much better and was much more real than the beautiful but essentially superficial Youth.