Paolo Sorrentino makes his follow-up to the Academy Award winning film The Great Beauty with Youth. Retired composer and conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), and filmmaker friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) are vacationing in an elegant spa hotel located in the Alps. Joining on their vacation is Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), who is recovering from an intense break-up and is desperate to seek solace. Mick and his entourage of young writers are struggling to complete their screenplay, and Hollywood actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) is bitterly conflicted about his profession and the state of contemporary arts.
The narrative pacing reflects the relaxing ambiance of the spa, with many long shots and their accompanying dynamic compositions of individuals from the multitude of varying ages relaxing in saunas, steam rooms, and the poolside. Each evening concludes with a complimentary performance piece for further emphasis of the inclusivity of the spa, as well as the artists that are bound there. These facets foreground the film’s themes of expressivity, familial issues, and self-reflexivity, and are all rendered so with purposeful melancholy.
Sorrentino’s screenplay is enriched with oft-kilter comedic exchanges, notably Mick and Fred’s running ‘pleasure pissing’ gag and their respective fading memories, all balanced with dramatic intensity – notably Lena’s espousal of her suffering in a single-shot. ‘The narrative twists in characters and slow revelation in their respective back-stories are nuanced, and maintain a quiet momentum reflective of the films aura. In short, the film is unafraid for the exposition to flow naturally.
The expressionist moments can be jarring when one considers the colloquial nature of the dialogues and the realist portrayal of the film’s characters’ bonds. These pieces could have been detrimental to all preceding moments, but it is Sorrentino’s own visual flare, both restrained and poetic, which elicits pathos rather than pretention. It’s purposefully constructed for a broader sense of Fred and Mick’s own psychoses, and Lena’s vulnerability. As the spa hotel acts as an enclave away from the outside world, one is already transcended into another plane, and this gives much liberty in stretching reality.
Besides the aforementioned Caine & Keitel double-act (that sounds cheap, but at times they evoke that), Dano’s performance as the troubled actor is equally aloof and grounded. This compliments the apathetic Caine and the zealous Keitel as he acts as a binary between the two moods. The ensemble from the other characters, notably the blunt diva Brenda (cameo Jane Fonda) and the nervous Queen’s Emissary (Alex Macqueen), enrich this world of varying emotional states. Every character, beyond the ones mentioned, brings something to the film, and each is given tiny idiosyncrasies to make them rich and full.
Youth is a poetically rich film that approaches its themes with ambiguity and ambivalence through its strong complex characters. The expressionist set pieces offer plenty for contemplation, its stance on the arts is unabashedly snobbish and it tells much of its characters mentality. Its narrative flow reflects its spa setting that is both relaxing and enlightening, with an undercurrent of cynicism.
Youth screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2015 ahead of a UK release on 29th January 2016.