'Youth': Cannes Review

A fountain of cinematic intoxication.

Paolo Sorrentino's second English-language feature stars Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel as two aging artist friends with different ideas about how to wrap up their creative careers.

Youth is a voluptuary’s feast, a full-body immersion in the sensory pleasures of the cinema. A film about old artists by a much younger man, Paolo Sorrentino’s second English-language feature is an immeasurable improvement on his first, This Must Be the Place, standing much closer to the level of his 2013 triumph, The Great Beauty, as it takes on potentially heavy material in a disarmingly whimsical, intelligent and keen-witted manner.

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, both at the top of their games, wonderfully carry this spirited look at two aging artist friends with distinctly different ideas about how to wrap up their creative careers. Luring younger audiences to a film about mostly older folk at a Swiss spa will be a challenge, but a decent commercial career looks possible with critical support and a knowing distributor’s expert massaging.

Given that the central characters are a retired 80-year-old composer-conductor and a veteran film director anxious to launch yet another picture, one might reasonably expect to encounter these old gents in autumnal, summing-up mode. Or if it were a Hollywood production, perhaps a farcical old-age comedy.

Read more Cannes: THR Critics Pick Their 10 Favorite Films (So Far)

But Sorrentino does nothing so obvious, establishing an oddly paradoxical tone of relaxed rigor that embraces his characters’ unpretentious reflections on their advanced years and artistic legacies while filling the screen around them with fanciful and bizarre characters reminiscent of Sorrentino’s stylistic forebear Fellini but with none of the latter’s grotesquerie.

A stunning revolving opening shot of a singer performing produces a sensual rush that is remarkably sustained for the next two hours. First and foremost among the odd assortment of wealthy guests at a large hotel spa in the Swiss Alps is Fred Ballinger (Caine), a long-eminent musician being entreated by an emissary of the queen (a very fine Alex Macqueen) to return to London to conduct one concert of his most celebrated composition, “Simple Songs,” in exchange for a knighthood. He adamantly refuses and will not say why.

By contrast, Fred’s old pal Mick Boyle (Keitel) has a staff of four young writers with him to help finish the screenplay to his upcoming project. The two men briefly compare notes on physical maladies, such as peeing and memory problems, and the famously womanizing Brit tries to get the equally experienced Yank to say whether he ever scored with the one woman who frustratingly eluded Fred. But mostly they simply enjoy just batting things around; as Fred later tells his daughter, "We only ever told each other the good things."

As ravishing images cascade onto the screen in what becomes a sustained torrent of great beauty, assorted other characters swim into view. There’s smart young American actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), there preparing for a new role; an enormously fat man with a huge portrait of Karl Marx tattooed on his back; a masseuse with a variety of ambitions and skill sets; an old couple who never converse at dinner; a Miss Universe who thinks nothing of striding nude into a spa in front of the geezers; and Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), a neurotic, touchingly wounded victim of her father’s frequent absences and a link to his long-suffering wife, whose fate is only clarified at the end.

See more Cannes In Competition: The 19 Films Vying for the Palme d'Or

Although Fred insists he’s retired for good, a hint that he doesn’t have conducting entirely out of his system surfaces in a funny sequence in which, on a stroll in the mountains, he "conducts" the moos and bell-clangings of a bunch of cows. Sorrentino has Caine wearing his longish hair combed straight back in the style of Toni Servillo, but it’s actually more disconcerting that the actor has been asked to sport virtually the same hat and, sometimes, sweater habitually worn by Woody Allen. Fortunately, Caine’s enough of his own man to get past this.

As scant as the film is on "plot," it gets by just fine on progression. A lovely scene has Fred listening to a young boy practicing one of the man’s compositions on the violin; a lewd music video features the new rock star girlfriend of Mick’s son, who has jilted Lena in the past; a second visit by the queen’s representative forces Fred to explain that he has only ever conducted "Simple Songs" with his wife singing them and he’ll never do otherwise, which provokes a moving reaction from Lena; and a scene in which Mick and his writers finally hatch the script ending for which they’ve been searching is beautifully and simply rendered in a single take.

But then comes the humdinger, an unexpected visit from the great veteran star Mick is counting on to play the lead and assure the financing of his new film. It’s never convincing when anyone less than a famous actor is asked to play one, so it’s supremely fortunate that Sorrentino was able to enlist Jane Fonda, who struts in deliberately over-made-up and foul-mouthed in Joan Crawford/Ava Gardner mode and brutally tells it like it is to a man who has directed her many times. In her wake, interesting surprises lie in store, for both Mick and Fred as well as for the viewer.

Most dramatists in film and the theater cannot tackle old age as a subject without piling on philosophical homilies about wisdom, loss, regret, acceptance, what’s most important in life, et al., so Sorrentino’s avoidance of these conventional postures proves enormously refreshing. Youth is sharp-witted and light on its feet, sober-minded and heady, nimble yet lush, mature and vivacious both.

Crucial to this success are the contributions of Caine and Keitel. Fred Ballinger would seem to represent an exception among musicians, in that composers and conductors in the real world rarely retire; they keep on until they can’t anymore (and sometimes even then, as with Delius). Entirely in possession of his faculties, Fred exhibits no evidence of turmoil over his voluntary withdrawal from creative work. The script pointedly offers reasons to believe his personal life has been tumultuous (including a period of homosexual exploration) and there have to be regrets, but it appears he’s successfully digested, submerged or, as he insists to Mick, forgotten much of it. A final revelation resolves at least part of his mystery, and Caine is at his unerringly truthful best in a climactic interlude.

See more Breaking Down the Cannes Jury: Who They Are, How They'll Vote

As for Keitel, he has clearly been rejuvenated by the best part he’s had in a long time; he’s alive to the occasion at hand and to the opportunities of every scene. It remains unclear how and when men from such different creative spheres ever found the time to become such close friends, but the rapport and mutual understanding are absolute.

Weisz hits unexpectedly touching, and sometimes amusing, notes of distress as Fred’s emotionally unresolved daughter, while Dano is vastly entertaining as the actor trying to discover how to play his next character.

Of course there is no brew that is everyone’s drink of choice, but in its realm of accessible international art films, Youth will be, for some, entirely intoxicating in the way it forges its immense visual richness, musical intensity, actorly precision and unpretentious approach to thematic concerns. It’s like a great spa treatment for the cinematically fatigued.

Production companies: Indigo Film, Medusa Film, Barbara Films, Pathe, France 2 Cinema, Number 9 Films, C-Films
Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Mark Kozelek, Robert Seethaler, Alex MacQueen, Luna Mijovic, Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Alex Beckett, Nate Dern, Mark Gessner
Director-screenwriter: Paolo Sorrentino

Producers: Nicola Giliano, Francesca Cima, Carlotta Calori
Executive producer: Viola Prestieri
Director of photography: Luca Bigazzi
Production designer: Ludovica Ferrario
Costume designer: Carlo Poggioli
Editor: Cristiano Travaglioli
Music: David Lang

No MPAA rating, 119 minutes