Any film that commences with a character spurning the slippery recruitment drive of one of her majesty’s sycophantic ‘yes men’, automatically has me on-side.
Happily, this remains the case throughout director Paolo Sorrentino’s poignant and thought provoking, Youth.
Retired composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and his friend, film-maker, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), are relaxing at a beautiful health and wellness retreat in the Swiss Alps.
It’s a serene location; somewhere where two friends can unwind and contemplate their lot.
Fred’s position in life seems certain. He’s retired with no plans of a return, whereas successful film-maker Mick, surrounded by a group of eager and substantially younger up-and-coming writers, is using the trip to work on the script for his latest, and greatest (in his mind at least), magnum opus. Here, he thrives on the youthful energy and creative influence that his young cohorts inject into his project. Mick may be of older years, but he remains a man full of drive and ambition.
Unlike Fred… whose rebuttal of the Queen’s advances, whilst commendable in isolation, is not simply some anti-establishment stance that he’s chosen to take; there are far more deep-rooted, personal reasons for his dismissal of the offer placed on the table that will become clearer as scenes unfold. That is of no consolation though to a clearly staggered royal foot soldier.
Together with Fred and Mike at the resort is Fred’s daughter, Lena, (Rachel Weisz) who organises Fred’s affairs and schedule in her dual role as his assistant. It’s a loving yet strained relationship owing to Fred’s largely absent father routine during Lena’s formative years.
One of the chief triumphs of Youth is David Lang’s superbly evocative soundtrack. One quirky musical scene in particular stands out with Fred conducting a sort of cowbell ensemble in a field. The performers? The cows themselves.
There is however one key motif in particular taken from one of composer Ballinger’s renowned ‘Simple Songs’ which springs up time and again throughout the film in a variety of forms, from the rhythmic rustling of a sweet wrapper in hand, to a child’s afternoon violin practice, right up to its tumultuous, full-on emotional realisation at the film’s conclusion. It’s a theme that plays a key role in shaping the film’s structure and flow.
Indeed, it seems that Sorrentino is a director highly influenced by the power of music in film, as confirmed in Lang’s own words: “When talking to him [Sorrentino] about it, it was very clear that music was part of the organizing principle of the film.”
Youth is a piece that ruminates over those existential questions that we all mull over. In observation of a wide variety of weird and wonderful fellow resort dwellers, Fred and Mick try to contemplate what it is to be young, to be old, famous, reclusive, obese, decrepit or of body beautiful; a luxury perhaps only afforded to those that can truly say that time and worries are not pressing on them?
Try as they might, this is a luxury that neither Fred nor Mick can truly claim to have.
It’s a visually stunning, sonically sumptuous piece, rich in symbolism, and both Caine and Keitel are tremendous in their respective roles, as is Weisz. Whilst there are a couple of questionable, ‘clunky’ moments which appear to come straight out of left field – the Paloma Faith sequence in particular seems out of place and unnecessary within the whole scheme of things – such moments fortunately vanish as quickly as they appear, and crucially, leave no lasting negative impression.
Youth is a melancholic meditation on ageing, coming to terms with both life and mortality, and our attempts to find some semblance of inner peace as we inch ever closer towards our maker.
Alternatively, Youth is about the kind of levels of gratification that can only be achieved through finally being able to pass four drops of piss after three days of trying.