Youth: Sorrentino’s Oscar Card? Most Entertaining Art Film at 2015 Cannes Film Fest

youth_4_sorrentinoWith Youth, vet Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino proves that he is one of the most talented and imaginative directors working in the international art cinema today.

 

Though it received mixed reviews, especially from Italian critics, in May at the Cannes Film Fest (where it received its world-premiere, in competition, like most of Sorrentino’s films), Youth is easily the most entertaining film I saw there  (I watched about 40 pictures in 10 days).

Rich, multi-layered, beautifully shot and splendidly acted, Youth offers numerous pleasures–thematic, visual, aural, even cerebral–it’s feast to the mind, eyes, and ears.  The movie serves as a useful testimony that the dangerously precious specious–the art film for adults–made in the tradition of classic Italian and French cinema–is still possible in today’s increasingly infantile marketplace.

youth_6_sorrentino_caineCommercial prospects for this Fox Searchlight Christmas release are excellent, with strong possibilities for Oscar nominations across the board: Picture, Director, Screenplay, Best Actor (Michael Caine), Supporting Actor (Harvey Keitel), Supporting Actress (Rachel Weisz), and others in the technical departments.  Caine and especially Keitel have not been allotted such rich and complex roles in decades, and they return the favor with astute and subtle performances (something that Keitel is not known for).

As critic and historian, I would like to forget Sorrentino’s first foray into English-speaking cinema, This Must Be the Place, starring Sean Penn, which was an artistic and commercial misfire  But it was a flop that Sorrentino easily overcame with the lush, post-modern Felliniesque The Great Beauty, which deservedly won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar two years ago.  (Incidentally, The Great Beauty was better appreciated by American critics than by our Italian counterparts).

youth_5_weiszVery much in the vein of The Great Beauty, but on several levels, even more involving and less self-consciously absorbed, Youth tackles serious issues of older age and declining faculties and artistic creativity (and the inevitable interface between the two) in a captivating and whimsical, but not silly or trivial, ways.

As a filmmaker in his 60s, Sorrentino looks at two artists who are older than him by a generation in a critical yet totally empathetic mode, placing them in a loose (sometimes rambling) narrative that is peppered throughout with witty observations, stunning images, and surreal touches that would make proud Bunuel and Fellini (among others).

What could have been a heavy-handed meditation on aging artists in diminished career phase, clinging to their old ways, or crotchery men lusting after young and desirable women, becomes a savvy, light, playful, post-modernist text that never forgets that its primary task is to enlighten and to entertain.

youth_3_sorrentino_danoSorrentino and his reliable writing collaborator have constructed a loose (slender) narrative about two artists who, despite friendship and some similar concerns, differ substantially as to how to live the last creative chapter in their careers in a personally satisfying and meaningful way.

Caine plays a man of his real age, an 80 year-old composer-conductor, while Keitel, 72, plays a veteran film director eager to make one more picture before it’s too late. Though sporadically containing farcical tones, Youth is not an old-age comedy in the trivial and condescending manner that Hollywood has treated similar subject matter.  Remember the two awful movies that Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon made at the end of their careers, Grumpy Old Men in 1993 and its sequel, Grumpier Old Men in 1995?

Caine and Keitel enjoy the sights of a young, beautiful, voluptous woman–and their gaze at the sudden appearance of  (a beauty queen who has no bad bones or wrong angles)  is a show stopper in more ways than one–both for them and for us viewers–but it is not the look of dirty old men, unaware of their ages or positions in life.

youth_2_sorrentinoIn a series of brief but illuminating interactions (Sorrentino’s specialty and signature), the men reflect on their varied careers and personal lives, and also about the kind of artistic legacy they would like to leave as gifted artists, jaded family men (Caine’s Fred is a widowed father), and eccentric but also human men.

Perhaps as an homage to Fellini’s 1963 Oscar-winning masterpiece, 81/2, a large, high-end resort spa in the stunning Swiss Alp mountains provides the setting for the gathering of an aggregate of rich and famous guests.  A stunning opening shot of a female singer (identity yet unknown) performing provides a vividly sensual pleasure that is sustained throughput the narrative–up to the end.

youth_1_sorrentino_caineIt’s quickly established that Fred Ballinger (Caine), is a well known and highly respected musician who, out of the blue, is approached by Queen via emissary (Alex Macqueen) to return to London to conduct  a single, last concert of his most celebrated composition, “Simple Songs.” Despite the prestigious offer, which comes along with a factual promise for a knighthood, initially, Fred refuses, but he keeps the motivation for his rejection strictly for himself; an interesting revelation of his secret is made in the last chapter, but we keep guessing

In contrast, Mick Boyle (Keitel), Fred’s old chum, arrives with an entourage of young writers, assigned with the task of helping him finish the long, troubled, protracted writing (though it’s not clear if they are skillful enough to do that, which may be one of the film’s inside jokes).

In half a dozen scenes, set indoors (in the spectacular restaurant, pool, and other locales) outdoors, the two men discuss their present situation (tough to urinate, physical pains, declining memory) and reminisce about their past, which keeps intruding in all kinds of ways. Fred, a famously womanizing Brit, is still ager to know whether the slightly young but equally ladies man American had ever slept with the one woman who notoriously rejected Fred.

Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz, in top form), a neurotic middle-aged femme, is a victim of her father’s absences and a long-suffering mother. At one point, the never good daddy, tells Lena, “We only ever told each other the good things,” which, of course, later on, he contradicts, when he explains her latest disappointment with a man who dumped her for another femme.  In moments, the film assumes the shape of a farce with its unexpected coincidences, twists and turns:  It turns out that it is Mick’s son, who has jilted Lena in the past.

Mick and his writers-doctors finally finish the script, though the process is interrupted by the sudden visit of Mick’s vet star (played by Jane Fonda), first hoping, and then demanding to play the lead, promising financial backing of the new project.  Heavily made up and deliberately exaggerated as a caricature, with a dirty mouth and sleazy one-liners to match,  Fonda registers strongly in once scene, sort of imitating Bette Davis or Joan Crawford at the autumn of their career, when they played “horror queens” (Robert Aldrich’s 1962 “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”)

The other characters, though equally eccentric and colorful, are underdeveloped, a recurrent problem in Sorrentino’s films.   The versatile and talented Paul Dano, who smoothly and capably changes his physique from one picture, nails his rather cliche role of a young American actor, Jimmy Tree, training for his next big role and worried about how he will be remembered (if at all).

Still other guests at the spa are given small roles or cameos, such as an obese man, sporting a portrait of Karl Marx that’s tattooed on his back (why Marx?), or a masseuse who claims a bizarre combination of skill, or an old married couple who never exchanges one word during their daily dinners, until anger builds up and they display animosity and violent behavior.

All kinds of stunning images are displayed on the screen, deliberately disrupting and intervening in what his already a very loosely structure narrative. I have already mentioned the appearance of Miss Universe, who unselfconsciously decides to swim naked in a pool, almost causing heart attack to the fiercely gazing older men.  Almost memorable is the sight of Fred, solo on a stroll in the mountains, trying to conduct the moos and bells of some cows.  There is a very emotionally touching scenes of Fred listening to a young boy practicing one of his compositions on the violin (on his way to become a famous musician).

Spoiler Alert

In the last reel, some melodramatic revelations are made in the name of a plot.  The Queen has not given up and a second visit by her ambassador motivates Fred to reconsider his earlier adamant rejection.  He explains to Lena, who’s caught off-guard, that he has only conducted “Simple Songs” once, when his wife was rendering them, which is the reason he will never do it again.  You have to see this fabulous picture to find out whether or no Fred keeps his word.

Credits:

Released by Fox Searchlight

Running time: 119 minutes

Production companies: Indigo Film, Medusa Film, Barbara Films, Pathe, France 2 Cinema, Number 9 Films, C-Films
Director-screenwriter: Paolo Sorrentino
Producers: Nicola Giliano, Francesca Cima, Carlotta Calori
Executive producer: Viola Prestieri
Director of photography: Luca Bigazzi
Production designer: Ludovica Ferrario
Costume designer: Carlo Poggioli
Editor: Cristiano Travaglioli
Music: David Lang

Cast:

Michael Caine

Harvey Keitel

Rachel Weisz

Paul Dano

Jane Fonda

Mark Kozelek

Robert Seethaler

Alex MacQueen

Luna Mijovic

Tom Lipinski

Chloe Pirrie

Alex Beckett

Nate Dern

Mark Gessner

Share this:
Share this page via Email Share this page via Stumble Upon Share this page via Digg this Share this page via Facebook Share this page via Twitter