Editor’s Notes: Youth is currently out in limited release.
Depicting apathy onscreen is a tricky thing, which is why there aren’t too many adaptations of existentialist works out there (they made The Stranger, but it is now a very obscure film and to the best of my knowledge, No Exit remains unfilmed). That is why Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth is unique and marvelous. The film looks beautiful, capturing the natural beauty of the Alps, which serves to offset the malaise of the main character.
. . . Depicting apathy onscreen is a tricky thing, which is why there aren’t too many adaptations of existentialist works out there.
That character is retired composer/conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Cain) and he is vacationing at a Swiss resort with his film director friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) and his daughter/assistant Lena (Rachael Weis). Fred, his wife and Mick have vacationed at this same resort for the past 20 years, though for the last 10, Fred has come without his wife, though it isn’t clear until the end of the film why she isn’t with him (though it feels as though she died). Mick has come to collaborate with a group of 20/30 somethings on a screenplay that he considers to be his most important. Also hanging about is a young but renowned actor named Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) who befriends both Fred and Mick while he is researching a role.
The plot is loose, to say the least, really amounting to a series of vignettes that pull the characters into more and more emotional states. The film, therefore, is really a character study and not really driven by a particular story or plot, which is rare for actors of this caliber. Typically, actors like Cane and Keitel don’t get this kind of film, mostly because they’re normally written for much younger people (or in a language other than English), so to get to see them flex their muscles and explore characters in ways we haven’t been able to in many years is wonderful.
And the acting is wonderful. Cain delivers a very subdued performance as the man who has basically given up on his life. He recognizes his work was special but he walked away from it and opts not to engage in composition or conducting even occasionally. Cain gives Fred a great little tick: he always carries around a hard candy wrapper that he uses as a kind of percussive, crinkling out a rhythm or tune sometimes subconsciously. When he is approached by the Queen’s Emissary (Alex Macqueen) with the offer of a knighthood if Fred will conduct his symphony “Simple Songs” for the Queen and Prince Phillip on his birthday, Fred refuses for “personal reasons”. When approached again, Fred explains why he won’t do it (which is too good a scene to spoil here) with a fierceness that he just didn’t seem capable of throughout the film. Cain disappears into the role of Fred, like he often does, but here he is actually the lead so it makes his portrayal even more glorious.
Sorrentino has with Youth created somewhat of a juxtaposition of his prior film, Oscar-winner The Great Beauty . . .
Keitel doesn’t slouch either, this is his best role possibly since The Piano in 1993. He shines as the ever-optimistic film director that recognizes that he’s aging but doesn’t seem to let that get him down. He plays off of Cain’s melancholy brilliantly, always there to be his friend. They have an odd friendship, one not built on knowing each other intimately but one in which “the only share the good things”. They of course know of the bad things in each other’s lives too, given that they’ve been friends for 60 years and their children are married to each other (at least until this vacation). Keitel’s Mick reminds us to always keep a good head on our shoulders, but is also a warning that if one only thinks on the bright side, a little darkness could be devastating.
Weis and Dano turn in equally great performances. Weis plays the long-suffering daughter of a genius incredibly well, always seeming to hold something back from her father because he neglected her as a child. There is always some pain underneath the surface of everything she does, including when she’s going over offers and schedules with her father. There is one scene where she finally opens up and berates him for being a terrible father, but after she continues to be there by his side, assisting him. Dano is as understated as ever, casually observing all of the patrons of the resort for his role. He is seemingly omnipresent, always off to the side, sometimes offering commentary and other times a friendly nod of the head. He considers himself something of a kindred spirit to Fred since Fred is known primarily for his “Simple Songs” symphony, which is considered light and jovial and not for his more serious works that would cement him as one of the great composers, while Jimmy has “worked with all of the great directors” delivering some important roles, yet he is most recognized for playing a robot in a sci-fi film. Dano plays the pretentious actor very well, possibly out of experience but one can’t know that without actually meeting him. Then Jane Fonda shows up for one scene that reminds us why she (like Cain) has two Oscars on her mantle.
Sorrentino has with Youth created somewhat of a juxtaposition of his prior film, Oscar-winner The Great Beauty, where he showed a man realizing the wondrous beauty in the world. Youth turns that around by having the characters see sadness and malaise while ensconced in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. His direction is understated, but with flair, utilizing a lot of negative space but also employing some beautiful moves and tracking shots. It’s all constructed so beautifully to draw out the notion that Fred has something that he has not dealt with that is obstructing his ability to see beyond himself. From his actors, all of them, Sorrentino gets performances that stick with the viewer even after the film is over. He makes sure that even supporting characters are shown as people who live their own lives outside of whatever story function they may have.
Given Youth’s languid pace and lack of any sustained plot or narrative, some will find the film boring and hard to get into, but for those with some patience and the desire to see truly gifted actors at the top of their games delivering career performances under the sure and steady hand of a talented writer/director then the film is exceedingly rewarding. Sorrentino has delivered a magnificent film with an ending that is shocking and if you have become invested in the characters and are drawn into the film, it will linger long after the credits roll.
Sorrentino has delivered a magnificent film with an ending that is shocking and if you have become invested in the characters and are drawn into the film, it will linger long after the credits roll.