In the twilight
Youth is Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino’s second English-language picture, but it retains Sorrentino’s elegant Italian-ness. It’s redolent of Federico Fellini, his countryman and greatest cinematic forebear. It’s a movie where very little actually happens, but in which there is always a great deal going on—going on within the camera itself (in Luca Bigazzi’s often stunning cinematography) as well as in front of it.
Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a renowned British composer and conductor, quietly reveling in his retirement at a picturesque spa in the Swiss Alps, a discreetly luxurious hotel where he has been staying regularly for over 20 years. It’s his home away from home, refuge and retreat—although from what exactly, we can only guess.
We first see Ballinger parrying the questions of an emissary from Queen Elizabeth II. The emissary (Alex Macqueen) has come to coax the maestro out of retirement to conduct a concert of his most famous composition for Prince Philip’s birthday celebration. The man even dangles a knighthood as an inducement, but Ballinger, ever polite, declines. “Why?” the man asks.
In time we will learn more about those personal reasons. The emissary will return, refusing to take no for an answer, and Ballinger’s studied politeness will crack, ever so slightly. The nature of those personal reasons constitute a major thread in what we can loosely term the “plot” of Youth.
Also at the spa is Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), an old friend of Ballinger’s and a movie director equally famous. Where Ballinger is content to withdraw from his art, Mick clings to his own with the tenacity of a man who fears he may not have time for all he has to say. He is at the spa with a cadre of young writers working on the screenplay of his next film, titled Life’s Last Day.
Oh dear, you wonder, is Youth as obvious as all that? Well, no. There are times when the movie feels as placidly shallow as the pools in which the spa’s guests soak themselves, but obviousness is not among its shortcomings. Sorrentino structures his story delicately, like a barista making pictures in the foam of a caffe latte, or a chef preparing a soup on low simmer, stirring constantly and gently.
Others at the spa figure in the story, such as it is. Chief among these are Ballinger’s daughter and assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz), whose solicitude fails to mask her resentment, and Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), a serious young actor preparing for his next role—and trying to escape the shadow of a silly blockbuster where he played a robot.
How all these characters, and others glimpsed in passing, weave and flow around each other is Youth’s sensual pleasure, and best not to say too much here; when so little “happens” in a movie, the risk of spoilage is high. But there’s a ruefully telling moment late in this visually voluptuous movie that can’t pass unremarked: Mick is confronted by the star of 11 of his movies (Jane Fonda, acidly funny), who breaks the news that she’s taking on a TV series and won’t be in Life’s Last Day. “Television is the future, Mick,” she says. “To tell the truth, it’s the present.”
No doubt. But movies like Youth, rare as they may be, belie the epitaph.