There was some cheering, but also some jeering. The notorious Cannes crowd had mixed feelings about Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth. Like fellow Cannes contender Matteo Garrone (Tale of Tales), Sorrentini paints vivid tableaux, sometimes surreal. And while the story sometimes gets lost in these aesthetics, its array of colorful characters is what brings the film to life.
A luxurious Swiss resort nestled in the emerald foothills of the Alps is the perfect retreat for retrospection, reflection and ultimately rebirth.
Michael Caine is commanding as Fred Ballinger, or Maestro, a retired composer-conductor who refuses to play his famous “Simple Songs” for Queen Elizabeth II, despite the persistence of Her Majesty’s emissary. His days are spent in friendly banter with his best friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a renowned filmmaker, who is there with his team of young writers to finish the screenplay to his “testament movie,” which will star his longtime leading lady Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda). They have the title, if only they can find the closing scene…
The maestro’s daughter and personal assistant Lena (Rachel Weicz) is shattered when her husband (Ed Stoppard) — incidentally, Mick’s son — dumps her for a younger woman, British singer Paloma Faith, who plays her pop star self.
Actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) with his false air of a blond Johnny Depp is there to prepare for his next role in peace, and spends much of his time watching, observing, smiling knowingly with the wisdom of someone well beyond his years. Perhaps it hails from the frustration of being famous for having played a robot in a popular franchise (calling all superhero actors), something another guest at the hotel, the newly crowned Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea), points out to him when his acerbic irony goes too far.
A portly Diego Maradona lookalike with a self-portrait tattooed on his back shows he can still bend it like his youthful self by playing soccer with a tennis ball. He is a caricature, yet a melancholic reminder of what he had once been and what he is now — the shocking image of the cruel aging process. He finds serenity in that little yellow ball, like the Buddhist monk who meditates and levitates, although no one has ever witnessed the latter.
But levitation can come in many forms; it’s about lifting one’s soul and reaching an apex, like the freedom Lena finally feels hanging above the world by a rope with the hotel’s hiking teacher. Like the sentiments that escalate: Lena’s monologue intensifying with each reproach as she finally gets things off her chest to her father, or the acid exchange during the altercation between Mick and Brenda, comical yet tragic. Like the in-laws’ confrontation with Paloma Faith. Like St. Mark’s Square flooding, a poetic image of Venice drowning sorrows, only keeping youth afloat.
Paolo Sorrentino knows how to frame a good picture, each shot constructed as a photograph.
However, it jumps from one scene to the next in crescendo, as if Sorrentino, like his filmmaker protagonist, is looking for the ideal ending to his own testament film. That escalating pace makes for a writing that is often disjointed, wandering between these chronicles without trying to catch its breath with the conception of each new idea.
The dream (nightmare) sequence with Paloma Faith’s music video doesn’t add much to the film. It has the effect of interrupting the film rather than enhancing it. I fail to see the allegory, the rapport with her being called earlier “the most insignificant woman in the world,” except the possible inference that youth doesn’t not equal beauty. Then again, I may be reading too much into it.
But there is that battle eternal between age and youth. Some surrender to it, others try to recapture it, like Brenda, caked in layers of make-up, her blonde Marilyn wig no doubt a remnant from her 1960s glory days, while Miss Universe epitomizes the ideal picture of everything about youth and beauty.
A ravishing film, it touches on youth and aging, the past and the future, life and death, beauty and the beast, but never quite develops despite its grandiloquence and sometimes gets lost in incoherence. It remains nevertheless a poignant story with touching characters. And if you’re searching for the meaning of life or some morsel of wisdom, you will be at a loss. Just enjoy the storied postcards in this lush setting. It’s ultimately a story of love and self-acceptance.
In the end, the film’s opening scene with the hotel’s band playing a cover of Florence + The Machine’s “You’ve Got The Love” makes sense.