A retired orchestra conductor is on holiday with his daughter and his film director best friend in the Alps when he receives an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to perform for Prince Philip’s birthday.
The second English language film from Italian auteur Paulo Sorrentino is a reflective tale about youth, growing old and the eternal struggle of life in general. Set in a luxury resort in the middle of the Alps, ‘Youth’ follows two best friends, Fred (Michael Caine) and Mick (Harvey Keitel) as they contemplate life and its end. Fred, a retired musical composer, has all but settled with his fate as he constantly rebuffs the attempts of the Queen’s emissary to get him to perform at a birthday concert for Prince Philip, whereas filmmaker Mick is working with a group of screenwriters on a film he regards as his ‘testament’. Like all of Sorrentino’s works, this film is a masterpiece of visual beauty, but I found a lot to love in the story as well and the subtle way it delivers on its themes.
The performances are excellent throughout the cast, with Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel both excelling in the central roles, with solid support provided from the likes of Paul Dano, Rachel Weisz and a winning turn from Jane Fonda as an ageing actress. Caine and Keitel are particularly moving as they discuss their careers, their pasts and what the future may bring, and this ties into the film’s themes of age and youth and the reflective way people look back on their lives. I actually found the film to be quite uplifting despite the subject matter and some of the narrative developments, and I found the material to be emotionally rich and thought provoking. The film does lag at times and not everything Sorrentino tries works, but I found a lot more to like than dislike. One of the most effective aspects of the film is the beautiful and melancholy score, anchored by Mark Kozelek’s beautiful ‘Ceiling Gazing’ under his pseudonym Sun Kil Moon.
Sorrentino has always been a particularly inventive visual stylist and this comes through in ‘Youth’ which always looks incredible even in its slower moments. The Swiss Alps setting is a cinematographer’s dream and Sorrentino uses it to maximum effect, whilst there are moments of beauty in the way he frames some of the more random shots, such as a recurring sequence featuring a young resort employee dancing. This is mixed with aspects of surrealism which range from highly effective (a moment where Mick’s career flashes to him through images of his leading ladies on the grassy slopes) to less effective (pretty much everything to do with Paloma Faith’s appearance). The film does have an uncomfortable relationship with reality and at times it does seem as if Sorrentino is acting a little bit too cute. There’s joys to be found in quirky appearances of the likes of ‘Diego Maradona’ and ‘Miss Universe’ at the resort, but the appearance of Paloma Faith as herself stretches credibility a little too far, in a role that could have been filled by any fictional character.
‘Youth’ doesn’t fully succeed at delivering on its central theme, but this is a beautifully crafted, often brilliant, emotionally satisfying story and I enjoyed being immersed in it.
Directed By: Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano and Jane Fonda