Full of bizarre characters and even more bizarre dream sequences, Youth is a tragi-comedy about a group of people reflecting on their lives, and the universal struggle between age and youth, past and future, life and death, and everything in between.
Michael Caine stars as Fred Ballinger, a retired acclaimed orchestral composer, holidaying in an elegant hotel/health spa at the foot of the glorious Swiss Alps. He is joined by his ageing movie director best pal, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) and his daughter-cum-personal assistant Lena.
When we are first introduced to Fred, he is being pursued by a representative of the Queen to reprise his career one last time for a royal concert. He refuses for personal reasons, adamant to leave that part of his life in the past. Mick, meanwhile is working with a group of young scriptwriters to write the most important film he has ever made; Fred very much wants his youth to remain in the past whilst Mick is desperately trying to cling onto his in the hre and now.
Featuring a plethora of other characters including Paul Dano's reclusive actor, Jane Fonda's ageing Hollywood starlet, a mountaineer, a teen prostitute, a Miss Universe, an overweight retired footballer (supposedly meant to be Maradona) and an awkward cameo from Paloma Faith, Youth is a lot less about plot and much more of study of what youth means to different people.
The main strength of Youth lies with the casting and performances. Those familiar with the previous films of Sorrentino will be surprised to see his favourite leading man Tony Sevillo absent from the cast. In his place, with similar dead-pan facial expressions, is Michael Caine who Sorrentino supposedly had written the role for. Caine as usual works his charm and manages to add a level of likeability to a character that could have been completely un-sympathetic in the wrong hands.
The real heroes of this film, however, are those in the supporting roles, particularly Paul Dano and Jane Fonda. The massively underrated but always brilliant Dano stars as a Hollywood actor who is sick of being known for his robot films rather than his more "quality pictures" - a character whose sole purpose is to reinforce the art-or-commercialism debate that seems to run throughout the film (and Sorrentino's film-making career). Jane Fonda steals the film though, in a short cameo towards the end, as an actress and former muse to Mike who has recently turned down his latest film.
The overall look of Youth is stunning, with Sorrentino teaming up with his long-term collaborator, cinematographer Luca Bigazzi. The setting of the Swiss Alps is captured so beautifully and elegantly, there is no question that the upper-middle class and celebrities would vacation there. The style of camera work remains consistent throughout, even when reality seamlessly swaps to dream sequences. The natural approach to the dream sequences, including Fred conducting a symphony of cows and Mick encountering all his previous leading ladies, (I would also include the Paloma Faith caricature music video, but I found it so embarrassing I'd rather try and etch it out of my memory) could be seen as too surreal for some audiences, with them appearing out of nowhere. However, the blurred lines of dreams and reality, common in the work of Sorrentino, only helps further blur the lines between age and youth.
It is clear to see why Youth is polarizing and dividing critics and audiences alike, with the surreal and often disjointed dream sequences, meandering characters and the general shallowness of the narrative. I, however, found enough there for a deeply enjoyable watch which was moving as well as a visual delight. Youth may not be on par with previous masterpiece The Great Beauty, but if beauty is in the eye of the beholder who's to say that the beauty of Youth is not great?
Youth is now showing at FACT, see screening times here