It seems necessary to point out from the very beginning that nothing really happens in Paolo Sorrentino’s new film, Youth. But the film is nonetheless one of the most powerful, enjoyable, and moving films of the year. From the opening shot the viewer is transported to a visually striking microcosm of time and space. Centered on two men grappling with their legacies, the film is a warm, touching, entirely human exploration of what it means to age.
Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) has been vacationing at the same Swiss luxury resort for over twenty years, first with his wife and now with his daughter (Rachel Weisz). He’s an honored and celebrated composer and conductor, sought after by Queen Elizabeth to perform his iconic “Simple Songs” for Prince Philip’s upcoming birthday. Also at the resort, a classic spa in the Alps, is his friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), working on a script that he calls his “testament,” and Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), a young actor pigeonholed by a sci-fi role he’s struggling to get out from under. Surrounded by an eccentric, mostly silent cast of spa employees and guests, the characters grapple with their lives, their loves, and their losses.
The composition of each shot is incomparably stunning, and the entire film feels like a photo essay come to life. Full of jump cuts and wide shots of the beautiful resort, Sorrentino captures elegance and vulnerability with an unflinching willingness to allow them both to exist simultaneously. Be it the juxtaposition of an age spotted arm and the languid rhythm of a masseuse or slumped bodies reposing in a dimly lit swimming pool, the effect is both disquieting and calming, confronting the human body as it is.
Set in the lushly green and densely foggy Alps, the resort feels like a world unto itself. The easy familiarity of the guests gives rise to moments of surprising intimacy, such as when a veiled woman shows her face in an elevator as she makes her way upstairs for the night. In this secluded place, Jimmy, Mick, and Fred grapple with what they will leave behind and confront the next generation as they realize their legacies are greater than themselves.
For Fred, the Queen’s multiple requests for him to perform at the Prince’s birthday celebration bring to the fore the darker corners of his marriage, a sense of guilt exacerbated when his daughter’s impending divorce pushes her to speak honestly about her childhood. Mike and Jimmy, at differing ends of their cinema careers, are faced with what the sum of their works adds up to. But in touching individual scenes, each man learns that their work exists outside of themselves in a way that transcends generations, even if they don’t immediately see that legacy from where they stand.
But for all the heady subject matter, the film manages to keep a light sense of humor running throughout. Early on in the film, Fred and Jimmy discuss the temptation to give in to levity, and that’s a temptation Sorrentino is more than willing to indulge. For a film that grapples with some of the most weighted issues of the human experience, it may come as a surprise that a Michael-Bay-in-the-Alps pop music video stress dream takes place. It’s just one of many scenes that will draw a good laugh.
Moments that could give over to unnecessary sentimentality are cut off at the knees by frank conversations, and Sorrentino doesn’t allow the film to become too precious to be poignant. Although at times the symbolism can veer towards the heavy handed, the beauty of each shot makes allowances easy to give.
At just over two hours long, the silence and slow burn of focused shots pays off for those willing to push through the slight drag closer to the end. Youth is a meditation that, when allowed to meander at its own pace, inspires deep thought and reflection, and a few surprising moments of pain and humor. In that sense, it’s a lot like life.
WORDS BY: Bridey Heing. Bridey is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.
PHOTO CREDIT: Fox Searchlight Pictures, unless otherwise noted.