It’s a common enough theme that life, in all its contrary glory, tends to defy our youthful expectations.
Most people don’t have time to sit there and ponder how differently things might have turned out since life rarely, if ever pauses, and we must run to catch up and deal with its twists and turns.
However, as the characters in Paolo Sorrentino’s gorgeously meditative film Youth discover, and not all to their betterment, there comes a point when the pace eases off considerably and you left with nothing but time to consider what you gained and lost throughout the many years you have lived.
Friends for 60 eventful years, retired and much-revered composer/conductor Fred Bollinger (Michael Caine in superlative form) and movie director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), both septuagenarians with startlingly different approaches to the closing chapter of their lives, are on holiday in the Swiss Alps staying at a luxury resort.
The days unfold at an ordered though leisurely pace with a great deal of spare time leftover to peer into the fast-disappearing years of a far too expansive past for anyone’s liking, one that Mick notes to Fred more than once looks ever further away the longer you live.
Sorrentino captures the languid, almost too-slow banality of these days in a poetically artistic fashion, many of the film’s scenes bookended by still-life scenes of people sitting in saunas, staring out from pools or walking languidly along plant-lined paths or through large, exquisitely-furnished rooms.
It’s both a statement of the pace of life at the resort where Fred is doing his best to leave his storied career far behind him, for reasons that become clear only in Youth’s final act, and Mick is working on his last great film, and a commentary on the sheer boredom that can consume a life where there is nothing but time and very little of any substance to fill it.
Mick is doing his best to use the hours well, working with a youthful team that all revered his considerable body of cinematic work to craft what is commonly referred to as his testament.
The film is intended as the crowning glory of his career, and all appears, initially at least, to be going well, as successive drafts are completed, an elusive ending is found, and champagne corks are popped in celebration.
What isn’t apparent to Mick until the end of the film, when his close friend and the actress he feels he shot to fame, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda), arrives in all her ersatz, fake-blond glory and informs him that the twilight of his career is not quite as lustrous as he thought and he should cease and desist immediately, is that he’s a hamster desperately spinning the wheel of his life to little or no effect.
Granted, Mick understands he’s not neck deep in the creatively fecund period of his career but his work still matters greatly to him, and any suggestion that it’s lustre has dimmed or it’s of little consequence any more, cuts deep.
Fred on the other hand, is taking a quite different approach, doing his “apathetic” best – it’s a descriptor, he notes with slightly-amused resignation, used by everyone at the resort to describe his mentality in retirement – to put his whole career far behind him.
It’s made a little difficult when Queen Elizabeth’s emissary, played with comical desperation by Alex McQueen, turns up not once but twice to beg him to perform his most popular work, Simple Songs, hitherto only sung by his absent wife Melanie.
Fred turns him down most firmly on every occasion, only consenting to explain why when the emissary makes it clear the Queen is not used to taking no for an answer and he must go back to her, though he is loathe to do so, with some reason for the refusal.
It’s clear from some beautifully-framed scenes, such as when Fred conducts a field of bell-wearing cows to create a symphony only heard in his mind and assists a young boy with his violin-playing technique, that there has been no diminution is his enduring love of music nor his willingness to share it with others.
But he’s adamant that his professional musical life is over and he spends his days in indifferent conversation with fellow resort vacationers such as actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), helping his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) cope with some bumps on life’s road, and placing bets with Mick on whether an older couple in the dining room will ever speak a word to each other (they do a little later but it’s hilariously nothing like you’re expecting).
Youth‘s greatest strength, and the source of its engaging narrative and emotional power is that it never hurries through its storytelling.
Much like the eclectic group of characters who fill its 2 hour running time, it unfolds at a languorous pace, one punctuated by some moments of unexpected but highly-effective levity, content to let Fred and Mick especially, but also a host of well-sketched supporting characters, debate the big and small issues of life without any sense of urgency.
It’s exquisitely wrought as a result, using Luca Bigazzi’s sumptuously-lit cinematography, which casts everything into shades of light and dark so arresting it’s hard to disappear into them, and David Lang’s imaginative score and song selection to grand effect.
This is a film that sometimes looks pretentious but is anything but, with well-thought our reasons for every angle, every lighting decision, every lingering shot that highlight the deep existential issues that everyone is wrestling with, whether they’re aware of it or not.
Thanks to some well-timed injections of comedy and a willingness to balance deep discussions on life, the universe and everything with discussions on things like how often Fred and Mick’s are peeing and in what quantities – greatly important it turns out as the sun sets on your existence – Youth manages to be an accurate reflection of life’s ability to be both luminously rich and devastatingly banal and disappointing.
Boyle may not necessarily have got his masterpiece but Sorrentino most definitely has, giving us in Youth a well-crafted, visually and verbally thoughtful, meditation on the nature of things, and our inability to fully comprehend what is happening to us or going on around us until life forces our hand and we are forced to deal with it until a resolution, good or bad, is found.