Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth is an interesting nut to crack. Though the director’s previous film, the Academy Award winning The Great Beauty, has been sitting in my Netflix queue for months, this marked the first time I actual dipped my toes into the waters of his canon. While I am not sure if I soaked up all the subtle symbolism in the film, I was more than happy to swim in its plush pool for a few hours.
Despite its deceptive title, the film is more a meditative reflection on youth rather than a celebration of it. Taking place at a lavish spa in the Swiss Alps, the film focuses on best friends Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) as they ponder their lives up to this point. Vacationing at the same spa for 20 years, the retired Fred is happy to leave his days of composing music behind him. However, the world is not through with his music yet. While at the spa Fred is approached by representatives of the Queen to perform his famous “Simple Song” at Prince Philip’s birthday celebrations. Though he rejects the offer, it is clear that his composing days are far from over. Using the sounds of the spa like instruments in his mind, Fred cannot help but construct a symphony in his mind when he is alone.
Unlike Fred, Mick shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, when not with Fred, he spends his time crafting a script, with a group of young writers, for what he believes will be his greatest opus yet. Banking on longtime muse Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda) to once again take the lead role, and thus help him secure financing, Mick is forced to reflect on the state of cinema when the actress makes a surprise visit to the resort. Aside from their professional issues, the two friends are also forced to confront issues of family when Fred learns that his daughter and assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz), who is married to Mick’s son Julian (Ed Stoppard), has been dumped by her husband for pop star Paloma Faith (played by the singer herself).
Unfolding at a leisurely pace, at times Youth feels like a series of vibrant vignettes tied together by a thin thread. Similar to actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), who is at the spa researching a role, the audience spends a lot of time observing the events, some of which are random, from a distance. Everything from celebrity culture to infidelity to love is fair game in the world Sorrento creates. While occasionally humorous, especially when Fred and Mick compare ailments, there is a sense of melancholy that flows throughout the film. The duos nostalgic views are not as rosy as they may remember them to be. One only needs to listen to Lena’s blistering account of what it was like growing up with the work obsessed Fred as her father as proof of this.
Juxtaposing the moments of melancholy with a stunning visual palette, Sorrentino’s film is a treat for the senses. Whether focusing on the beautiful and grotesque bodies of Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) and former soccer star Diego Armando Maradona (Roly Serrano) repectively, or calmly observing the activities of the nameless guests at the spa, Youth consistently feels like a vibrant painting that audiences want to get lost in. One can spend hours studying the wonderful framing that Sorrentino brings to each scene. There is not a bad shot in the entire film.
A visually delicious meditative soup, filled with plenty of commentary on aging, love, and society’s obsession with celebrity culture, Youth proved to be quite spry indeed.