A Review of Youth, Directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Sometimes, the truth is best told sideways. That’s not to say you shouldn’t own up to borrowing your friend’s book, or prevaricate over telling your parents just why you’re so broke. Simple truths are simple to tell: a sentence or two.
But the real truths, the universal truths, the truths about what is it to be human… these are too big to be contained neatly and syntactically into a phrase or paragraph. The Christian God cannot be comprehended by looking him square in the eye: our conscious limitations mean that the concept of infinite goodness, infinite time, infinite wisdom can only be explored in metaphor. Likewise some of the fundamental truths about humanity simply don’t make sense to us in their entirety. This is why statistics about gun crime, or loneliness in the elderly, don’t mean anything: they’re too big to comprehend. We need the small stories, the details, to get an idea of the full picture.
The modernist movement understood that fractured images and individual experiences can add up to a picture that reveals more than its own scope. T. S. Eliot, writing The Wasteland, presents us with much more than an incomprehensible poem with a lot of references: he captures, sublimely, the disenfranchisement of a whole country after war. Likewise Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse isn’t merely a story about a little boy wanting to take a trip; it is also a universally biting tale of loneliness and betrayal.
Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth belongs in this tradition. It is is set in a Swiss luxury hotel at which an aging composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is staying for the season with his oldest friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a film director whose success is on the wane. Other guests include earnest young actor Jimmy Tree (a startlingly brilliant Paul Dano) researching his next role, and Miss Universe (Mădălina Diana Ghenea). Halfway through the trip, Ballinger’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) is left by her churlish boyfriend and joins her father at the hotel. There’s also an odd cameo by Paloma Faith as herself and a shining performance from Luna Mijovic as a young masseuse. Jane Fonda pops up, too.
As for plot, Fred is being badgered by the Queen’s emissary to come out of retirement and conduct his Simple Songs in London. Mick is trying to come up with a brilliant last scene for his latest film. Lena wants to escape heartbreak and Jimmy just wants to observe everyone. And that’s kind of it.
Except, it really isn’t. The film is a series of vignettes which offer glimpses of heart rending insight into each character’s secret story or innermost hopes. They are at time unbearably moving snapshots of pleasure and sadness, loneliness and companionability. People are both a challenge and a solace in this film, and nothing offers an easy answer. The sense of faded aspirations mingled with supressed passions is palpable.
The aesthetic is nearly Japanese in its tranquillity and strangeness: there is an extraordinary scene when Fred conducts a field of cowbells. It also nods to Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. The contrast between the verdant wildflower meadows and the craggy mountains emphasises the disparity between the vitality of youth and the ossification of old age.
This is a hauntingly elegiac, poetical film, full of striking images that stay with you long after you have finished watching. Full of metaphors about life, its central theme – indeed, its entire mood - is yearning. After all, as Fred says, ‘desire is what makes us alive.’ And Youth reminds us of the many glorious mysteries of that life.
Written by Violet Hudson, Film Editor of Arteviste.com