TIFF Review: 'Youth'

(Italy/France/UK/Switzerland, 123 min.)
Written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Wesiz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda
Programme: Special Presentations (North American Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.
Youth shines with the wisdom of experience. Italian director Paolo Sorrentino surpasses the very high bar set by his well-deserved Oscar winner The Great Beauty, which scooped the prize for Best Foreign Language Film for Italy in 2013. Sorrentino moves back to English-language filmmaking here, but Youth carriers a higher, greater, sexier European flare. It's a Fellini-esque extension of his spectacular work in The Great Beauty that (re)affirms him a great Italian maestro as he joins a roster of international talent who all perform at the top of their games. One couldn't find a better film this year that reflects on the bittersweet richness of the golden years as an A-level ensemble that includes vets Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, and Jane Fonda gives audiences one of those great films that immediately feels immortal.

Youth seduces the viewer from the opening frame as the film opens with a roaring (and sexy) rendition of ‘You Got the Love’ performed by a lounge singer as the night show for guests at a posh Swiss spa. The guest list includes Fred (Michael Caine), a retired conductor and composer, and Mick (Harvey Keitel), an aging director drafting what he hopes to be his next great picture. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, this place is not, as the elderly patrons lounge around in the finest atmosphere with Hollywood stars like Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) and the newly-crowned Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea). Young and old mingle here with equal measure, and Youth lets the old-timers pass on the wisdom of their experience to the generation while receiving some much-needed contemporary guidance from the comparative youths.

The golden years are still the prime of life, however, as Fred holds on to the very best elements of his talent. He doesn’t wallow in his past success; rather, it’s behind him, yet always with him. He refuses a request to perform his famous “Simple Songs” for the Queen of England (“personal reasons”), but he insists that conducting is a gift one never forgets. A highlight scene brings Fred to the peaceful hillside where he rehearses his skills in full force. Moving his hands to keep the time of “Simple Song,” Fred conducts a symphony of life as Sorrentino and composer David Lang fade the surrounding sound effects like the orchestra of Fred’s imagination. As Caine carefully, patiently, and attentively guides his hands and leads the cows to the rhythm, he keeps the pace and invites more instruments to join the imaginary ensemble as cows ding their bells and moo in unison. The score employs the cowbells and the ambient sounds of the mountainside, underscoring the moment in the euphoria-inducing openness and peacefulness of the secluded hideaway. It’s one of those rare moments in cinema in which a filmmaker perfectly captivates the viewer through the powerful interconnection of character with the elements of sight and sound the elements, like, say, the sexy prawn scene in I am Love.

 What a beautiful and strange sequence this is, as Youth assumes an air of magical realism in the subjective sound of Fred’s experience. Sorrentino punctuates the rhythmic pattern of the film, which plays like chapters as days mirror one another with structure and routine, with various sequences that draw on the viewer’s suspension of disbelief and reveal the innermost dreams, memories, and insecurities of Fred and Mick. An early interlude, for example, puts Fred in a gorgeous Italian square face-to-face with Miss Universe in an extravagantly stylish dream place that quickly floods with water—gallons and gallons of the stuff, taunting Fred of his inability to piss more than a few droplets a day. Another scene makes Mick confront the women he’s mistreated and neglected over the years as actresses he’s cast and seduced convey how much he misunderstood the women in his life. These scenes invite Fred and Mick to meet their mortality: they feel the sting of old age as they revisit shades of their youth. Sometimes it helps them and sometimes it haunts them, but facing the past puts aging all in their minds.

If The Great Beauty is Sorrentino’s La Dolce Vita with its gorgeous portrait of the emptiness of the sweet life, then Youth is the director’s as memories and magical realism force these elderly artists to reinterpret their lives, especially in relation to work and women. Youth, like The Great Beauty, is unabashedly Fellini-esque with its jaw-dropping beautiful visuals and it playful, yet devastating analysis of the relationships between men and women and the institutions that govern their lives. Working together again with cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, Youth features some spectacular aesthetics as the natural power of the spa setting plays like a character unto itself. The artsy performances by the hotel entertainers appear in compositions of absurd beauty, like a hypnotic sequence with enormous bubbles that shimmer in a spotlight. Bigazzi’s camera hugs faces even better than it frames swelling mountains, and the creases and wrinkles of the veteran actors are sobering portraits that wear the weather of experience. The film furthers a European arthouse aesthetic despite its English dialogue, while its single-artist soundtrack envelops the story with a cathartic emotional arc. The formal dexterity of the film demands the viewer to reframe his or her perspectives on life, aging, and death.

Caine gives his best performance in over a decade as Fred as he rises to the challenge to confront his own age and legacy by carrying a film about old timers at a resort. His aforementioned conducting session is an especially fine scene in which Caine shakes off Fred’s curmudgeonliness and lets the power of his music swell over him. He’s never been more vulnerable than in Youth as his crotchety guise shatters at the end when Fred loses his nearest and dearest, and he realizes that the only one next is he. There is quiet, unwavering dignity and humour in Caine’s performance, though, as Fred holds on to the legacy of his work. Sorrentino symbolizes this grasp on Fred’s legacy with an unusual twitch Fred employs when angry: he crinkles a candy wrapper with an agitated beat. It’s not sheer madness, but rather a nuanced evocation of Fred’s enduring mastery of his craft as he uses candy wrapper compositions as an outlet for his emotions. His final performance of the “Simple Song” is a career highlight. Caine gives one of the best performances of the year.

The supporting cast is excellent across the board with Keitel proving a spot-on sidekick to Caine. The two have droll, wry chemistry as Fred and Mick compare notes on their deteriorating bodies and tread towards nostalgia as time lingers in the mountain. Rachel Weisz adds major dramatic weight, too, as Fred’s daughter, who adds a burning streak of anger as her crumbled marriage inspires a no-holds-barred tirade on Fred’s own marriage that Weisz deliver with full-throttle frankness. Each of the players gets a pivotal scene in the film that showcases their skills at their best, but the best comes from Jane Fonda, who appears late in the film as Mick’s old flame and star performer. Like Beatrice Straight in Network or Viola Davis in Doubt, Fonda gives one of those monumental single-scene performances that turn the film on its head. Made up with a gaudy wig and puffed up cleavage, Fonda’s Brenda looks back at her life with campy pride and puts Mick in his place. Her forceful delivery of Brenda’s monologue stresses every error Mick’s made in reflecting upon his life and work, especially as it pertains to her, his muse—the word “shit” has never sounded more vulgar than it does coming out of Fonda’s mouth. Her magnetic full stop of a performance reframes one’s perception of Youth’s grumpy old men.

Fonda’s Brenda doesn’t get the last word, though, as Youth culminates with a marvellous encore for Fred. His signature “Simple Song” is the film’s grand finale as Caine owns his Fred’s big moment and conducts the orchestra. Everything builds to this scene and it pays off. Beautiful, moving, and artfully composed, the “Simple Song” speaks to youth and wisdom with ravishing simplicity. Youth easily stands as one of the year’s best films.

Rating: ★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Youth opens in theatres December 11 from Fox Searchlight Pictures.
It opens at TIFF Lightbox Dec. 18 and expands Dec. 25.

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