How on earth do you follow up the best film of the decade to date? It’s taken Paolo Sorrentino only two years to move on from his monumental masterpiece The Great Beauty, this time abandoning his native Italian for the English language, a furrow he ploughed with little success once before in This Must be the Place. Youth, meeting a divisive chorus of cheering and boos on its Cannes debut, is a clumsier work, tacky on occasion, indulgent all the time. And yet it’s much more than its missteps. A powerfully evocative exploration of ageing and desire, it’s staggeringly beautiful, sad, playful and seductive, about as pure as cinema gets.
With no Toni Servillo to wow us in his snazzy yellow blazer, an apathetic Michael Caine has to make do instead. Caine is Fred Ballinger, a famous and now retired composer. Holidaying at a luxury Swiss resort with a collection of notables that includes daughter and assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz), best friend and film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), acclaimed young actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), acclaimed older one Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda) and apparently Maradona, he spends his days milling around refusing to engage with the world.
Retirement is out of choice. When an emissary from Queen Elizabeth arrives to tempt him into a Royal performance of his signature work, Simple Songs, he dismisses him out of hand. Fred doesn’t want to conduct again. He doesn’t really want to live. He’s not suicidal, just disinterested. From this starting point, Sorrentino works slowly to open Fred’s eyes to the world all the while dipping in and out of the other lives swirling around Caine’s placid figure.
Many of the tricks he showcased so perfectly in The Great Beauty are back in force. There’s another eclectic soundtrack ranging from choral compositions to a Florence and the Machine cover, and even a track by Canadian post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor whose work is notoriously hard to licence. Everything is the picture of elegance in the luxury resort including the stylishly attired guests who often sit looking pensive and composed as the camera swoops in on them. Sorrentino keeps his camera busy, shifting angles around conversations, zooming out of the lush Swiss countryside, and back in to follow that beautiful woman as she walks by catching Fred and Mick’s attention in a scene that reminds them what they once were and no longer are.
The English language screenplay is not a complete success. A number of lines feel forced, the kind of cod philosophical musings that show up the emptiness of so many films. But this isn’t one of them. It’s even quite funny in places. Eventually bringing his disparate scenes together, Sorrentino marshals themes with melancholic splendour. There’s Jimmy gradually coming to terms with the moment of levity that has marked his career, a problem Fred also has, Lena looking at her freedom with finally open eyes after her husband walks away, and Mick demonstrating that his best days are so far behind him he can’t even see them anymore. Strong performances aid this, particularly from Dano.
The moments of purest heartbreak belong to Caine. Determined to have nothing more to do with the bustle around him, he’s at first content to make music in his head alone, rustling a sweet wrapper rhythmically and conducting cow bells (still attached to the cows). It’s a long road but Mick informs him emotion is all we’ve got, a glibly accurate comment he eventually takes to heart. He was never really without emotion anyway. He brings tears to the eyes of those listening when he reveals why he will no longer conduct Simple Songs. He’s an emotionally distant artist everywhere apart from within his art. Then he takes off.
There’s absolution for many of the characters, not for all. Some find the years don’t always have to be cruel, some discover new perspectives. Others leave empty-handed. Sorrentino indulges himself so far past the point of acceptability in demonstrating this, he comes out the other side, turning operatic excess into triumph. The Great Beauty Mark II it may be, but there’s so much beauty here. Youth is like standing on the beach eyes closed, losing yourself every time waves lap around your feet. Sometimes crashing down, sometimes falling short, always they keep coming. Again and again and again…
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Writer: Paolo Sorrentino
Stars: Michael Caine, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Mark Kozelek
Runtime: 118 mins
Country: Italy, Switzerland, UK, France