How will we be remembered? It’s not something humans like to think about too often, yet we’re always left fretting over it. Of course, we all desire to be etched into the history books as conflicted and multifaceted entities that impacted on the world in many ways, both big and small. Alas, rarely is this ever the case. Life’s complex reel of film, comprised of all manner of poignant and insignificant scenes, is reduced to a single static image to be our legacy. We see this reductive snapshotting of life across all time and culture. Last month metamorphosing popstar David Bowie transcended earth, yet for all is impact on culture he’ll forever be remembered as extra-terrestrial rocker Ziggy Stardust in 1972.
Italian director Paolo Sorrentino has long been preoccupied by the idea of legacy in his work, as seen in This Must be The Place and The Great Beauty, and with the aptly titled Youth he tackles the issue head on via his unique brand of grandiose and posturing filmmaking. Despite the performances being superb, the cinematography, courtesy of Luca Bigazzi, majestic and the whole mis-en-scene a sumptuous phantasmagoria, the film never outgrows the sum of its parts. There’s something quite alienating about Sorrentino’s highbrow, arthouse, vision. Perhaps- Sorrentino’s legacy is one of absolute style over substance.
Youth plots itself in an idyllic Swiss spa resort, nestled inconspicuously amongst the rolling hills. The first guest we meet is Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a revered composer, in conversation with the Queen’s emissary (Alex Macqueen) who’s set on coaxing him out of retirement for a concert celebrating Prince Phillip’s birthday. Ballinger stands firm on his retirement, citing personal reasons, and refuses to perform his most famed piece, ‘Simple Songs’. Elsewhere in the hotel is ageing film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) desperate to pen the script for his “testament” film; reflective actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), hung up on the fact he’s best remembered for playing a robot; Ballinger’s daughter and assistant, Lena (Rachel Weisz); and a smattering of quirky guests including an overweight, breathless caricature of Maradona (Roly Serrano).
What all these characters have in common, beyond their tangible ties and relations, is a preoccupation with the presence of the past and its influence on the future. The film’s story loosely centres on Ballinger but meanders freely through the troubled cast. These detours aren’t particularly closely entwined which leads to an approach that favours the solo spectacle of a scene or shot at the expense of a cohesive narrative. The upside of this approach is that Youth is brimming with stunning and sumptuous moments.
The film opens to a dizzying sequence of a retro chic singer belting out Amy Winehouse/Zuton’s ‘Valerie’ while the defocused background spins deliriously. It’s this innovative matching of music and moving image, with a surreal edge, which epitomises Sorrentino’s style. This approach is at its most effective when delving into the wandering subconscious. We see Ballinger’s musical mind spark into life at the dullest moments when he conducts an imaginary orchestra from a field of cows or a cacophony of Cuckoo clocks. As Fred Ballinger frees himself through dreams, his daughter, Lena, suffers a traumatic MTV style nightmare revolving around Paloma Faith, her husband’s newfound lover.
It’s Sorrentino’s vivid imaginings of these Freudian excursions that brings Youth to life. There’s a lot of existential waffle in the script, more often pretentious rather than profound, which is successfully offset by the fantastical nature of the filmmaking. Seeing Maradona relive his infamous 1986 performance against England on the hotel lawn is a wonderful appropriation of popular culture. The film’s climax is a particularly rousing musical number, courtesy of David Lang, that’s absolutely amped with emotion and impact.
For the most part Youth is preoccupied with that cinematic defining money shot, however occasionally the script deviates from its mission and injects a dose emotion into the glamour. Lena’s one shot tirade at her father, during a luxury pampering session, is a fiery highlight along with director Boyle’s exchange with his leading lady Brenda Morel – a superbly brief performance from Jane Fonda. It’s in these instances that the superficial charm is surpassed and the all-star cast are allowed to deliver their excellence; Weisz and Caine the standout operatives.
I recently stumbled across the neologism, ‘sonder’ which is loosely defined as ‘the realization that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own’. Sometimes films are full of sonder, Youth isn’t one of them. Youth feels like a try-hard attempt to pastiche Italian compatriots Antonioni, with his bleak examinations of the upper class, and Fellini, via his fantastical excursions. Youth manages to astonish like the aforementioned, but, unlike his influences, rarely feel likes it’s making a resounding statement. The subject matter, ageing and legacy, are powerful topics but they never feel emotionally examined enough to resonate with the audience. Instead, Sorrentino loads his film with vibrant imagery swirling with compassion, ennui and mysticism. Youth doesn’t so much support a narrative, rather it manifests a mood and idea, it’s just a shame Sorrentino can’t resist the artificial glamour in order to dig into the mundane beauty lurking in each and every one of us.
6.5/10 – Youth is Wasted on the Young