Ruminations on age and memory are inevitably sunk deep into the flesh and the glue of personal relationships.
Youth, directed by Paul Sorrentino. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA.
By Tim Jackson
Paolo Sorrentino’s new film, Youth, begins with four clicks from a pair drumsticks counting off the opening song, “You’ve Got the Love.” The tune is performed by the Retrosettes Sister Band, an unknown local group from Manchester, England; it was originally performed by Candi Staton in the’80s, later covered by Florence and The Machine. The film’s singer is sweet, naïve; this is the kind of band that plays resorts the world over. It is a fitting opening for Youth‘s haphazard, rambling narrative, its flowing mediations on life and music, old age and adolescence.
Along with hearing the song, we see a homely, sad, and young prostitute being brought by her mother to the film’s setting, a resort/spa nestled in the mountains of Switzerland. The aging Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) watches her with weary sympathy. The resort gives Sorrentino and his cinematographer Luca Bigazzi opportunities to compose lyrical shots of mountain vistas against intimate landscapes of weathered flesh and golden youth. Playful scenarios of love, hope, and fantasy play themselves out amid magnificent compositions; images of the corporeal and the idyllic are interwoven into conversations about the power of imagination and memory. Making use of carefully assembled poetical transitions, the story moves slowly, from the pedestrian to magical realism. Though we’re never quite sure when the line is crossed and the film becomes a dream.
Harry Ballinger (Michael Caine), a highly praised but apathetic composer, is being courted by the queen’s emissary to conduct (for Prince Philip’s birthday) his most famous symphony, called “Simple Songs.” He staunchly rejects the request. “I’m done”, he says, ”it’s a personal matter.” In contrast, Boyle, his longtime friend, is full of ambition. He is working with young actors on a screenplay that he claims will be his masterpiece. Yet they don’t yet have a completed script or an ending for the story.
Ballinger is managed by his daughter Lena, played by Rachael Weisz. The woman delivers a scathing monologue chronicling the toll her father’s single-minded pursuit of his art has taken on the family. Lena is married to Harry’s son Julian (Ed Stoppard), who early on in the film declares his love for another woman, the real-life pop singer Paloma Faith. He explains this to Ballinger, explaining that she’s “good in bed.” We get a look at one of the singer’s lively music videos, which I presume was made specifically for the film. The song is the actual pop hit “Can’t Rely on You,” and it is full of sex and fire and features Julian. Also staying at the resort, and sitting quietly behind hip shades and a droopy mustache, is Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), an actor observing the conversations and clientele in order to better his craft, but frustrated that his most recognized role remains that of Mr. Q, a robot. Imagination and passion are very much on the minds of these younger artists, but reputation, fickle and fleeting, matters as well.
For Ballinger and Boyle, who spend their time walking the countryside talking about art and women, memories of the past are vital. When memory fails, unanchored speculation takes over. Living spontaneously, allowing the freedom art demands guide your life, leads to inspiration—but it also encourages punishing delusion. In one tour-de-force scene, Jane Fonda, playing an aging actress, devastates Boyle’s carefully nurtured visions of creating a masterpiece. Similarly, despite the love and respect Ballinger declares for his wife, her appearance is a monstrous revelation.
The resort pampers an additional assortment of characters who spin variations on the theme of body and spirit. These episodes explore painful intersections of hope and memory. A young masseuse, prominent braces on her teeth, practices dance moves at night to a TV screen; a Buddhist monk mediates everyday while wistfully overlooking the mountains. “I know you can’t really levitate,” Mick snipes as he passes by. A once famous and now very rotund soccer player with a huge tattoo of Karl Marx on his back is followed by a young assistant wheeling an oxygen tank. A stunning, fully naked Miss Universe immerses herself in a hot pool where Ballinger and Boyle are relaxing. A slack-jawed Ballinger turns to Boyle, “Who was that?” he asks. Ballinger replies, “God.”
There is a lovely score by David Lang that features the works of Mark Kozelek, Sun Kil Moon, David Byrne, and others. Throughout Youth, a young boy practices Ballinger’s “Simple Songs” on his violin. By the end of the film we hear a full orchestration of the reputedly famous piece and it is stirring. The body decays—art is perpetually renewed.
Youth is about wisdom as an inextricable part of human surfaces: it is connected with the visible and the physical, with how people comport themselves and regard others. Ruminations on age and memory are inevitably sunk deep into the flesh and the glue of personal relationships. Passion, empathy, and the courage to create are at the core of humanity, but they are caged in the corporeal. “Fiction is our passion,” declares Keitel to his actors. “We’re all just extras.” For the dispassionate Ballinger: “Life goes on even without all that cinema bullshit.”
Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, is about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.