One of the few statements you can make about life as a whole is that it’s much of a muchness— and that it ends.
The counter-intuitively titled Youth sees two older gentlemen, a retired composer and Stravinsky pupil, Frank (Michael Caine), and still-working director (Harvey Keitel), Mick, both coming to terms with this while on holiday at a Swiss spa; a spa inhabited by red-robed Buddhist monks, a Middle Eastern woman in a hijab, a morbidly obese celebrity with a Karl Marx back tattoo and Maradona hair.
With his mane of white hair, heavy spectacles, and sun hat, Frank cuts a foreboding figure. Even when invited to perform at a special concert by the Queen Elizabeth II’s Envoy (a bashful Alexander Macqueen), he will brook no argument as to his refusal: “personal reasons”. Though his demeanor is softened somewhat by Caine’s wide, expressive eyes, you believe it when his distraught daughter and nominal assistant (Rachel Weiz), freshly abandoned by Mick’s son, goes to town on his parenting skills.
Without composing or conducting to occupy him, Frank’s days are occupied by massages and musical concerts — music is at the heart of Paulo Sorrentino’s film, usually in the form of Mark Kozelek’s dreamlike score. Mick, meanwhile, has nothing but the work: he’s there with a team of young writers, working on the script for his latest film, which he calls his “testament”.
Youth is structured around a series of nature walks through the painterly countryside, profound ruminations on memory and loss, gloriously rendered by Luca Bigazzi’s cinematography. A moustachioed Paul Dano appears as a frustrated actor best known for playing a robot, Madalina Diana Ghenea makes a deeply insightful Miss Universe, and Jane Fonda scene steals as an aging diva resigned to TV work — “Television is the future. Hell, television is the present.”
It’s difficult to categorize the ambition on display here: Paloma Faith pops up somewhat intrusively as herself; there are visions of actresses in costume splayed out on a hillside, reciting their most famous lines; nature itself is conducted as symphony; and the whole thing ends with a somewhat indulgent recreation of Frank’s pivotal work. Mick’s search for a final scene, the final words to sum up a life, is apt: there’s always more to say. Sometimes you just need to give in to that last great idyll.
There’s a lot of life to Sorrentino’s work here, and grand statements; some convincing, others less so. The sheer offbeat thingness of Youth, as its reception at Cannes shows, is likely to evoke scorn and admiration in equal measure. There’s a certain mixed magnificence here, sure, but it’s magnificent nonetheless.