Youth is a film about old men
This reviewer is an old man, so one may expect his eye and ear to be particularly critical. In fact, the harshest words about this film came from the young newspaper blades, the professional film critics. It was on general release from January 2016 and was soon available for free streaming on Amazon Prime. I think that counts as a flop, a pallid effort compared to Sorrentino’s previous masterpiece, The Great Beauty. Robbie Collin of the Telegraph compared the two films. ‘A small-scale low-calorie alternative to the earlier film’s full-fat, coronary-inducing splendour.’ Fortunately, I have yet to see The Great Beauty, and thus, enjoyed Youth, unencumbered by comparison. Rotten Tomatoes wrote, ‘Youth is precisely the kind of pompous film that gives arthouse a bad name. There is no plot. Only a coterie of quirky individuals.’ Sounds boring! Was I bored? Never. The great alpine photography surrounding the pricey spa location, the sleazy pool scenes within the hotel, the salacious drools, whenever composer/conductor Fred Ballenger (Michael Caine) and his film-director friend, Mick (Harvey Keitel) spotted young female flesh, kept the cringe emotion tuned in. The squirming emissary from Buckingham Palace (Alex MacQueen) trumped the bad behaviour of the septuagenarians. His job was to get Ballenger back in the concert hall one last time, for the Queen’s pleasure. He had no pride.
At least Caine and Keitel kept the dignity of the aged alive as they clandestinely ogled the pretty girls.Getting Fred Ballinger, the retired conductor/composer, out of retirement for the Queen is more or less the plot. That is not a lot, but there are plenty of entertaining subplots. Ballenger’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz) has the dignity role as the woman jilted by Mick’s son. Dignified she was in her misery and stole every scene in which she appeared. The cameo from Paloma Faith as the husband snatcher kept the element of surprise alive. She played an awesome minute as the femme fatale. When the man Paloma snatched gave the reason for his desertion of his wife, we were on the edge of the sofa. Ballenger had tried to intercede on his daughter’s behalf, but was told by the errant son-in-law, that his daughter was ‘no good in bed’. Paloma assured us she was amazing between the sheets. I believe her!Then came the ‘ouch’ scene in which Ballenger has to break the reason for the desertion to his daughter. Those two minutes of father/daughter dialogue made the film worthwhile.
There were other fantastic characters and moments that Sorrentino didn’t bother to develop. (The film was already 2 hours long). The young, virile, punk masseuse was sensational, but the cast list is vague about her. It was a bit part, but the respectful rubbing of young hands on old dying skin affirmed our admiration for youth. Her dippy behaviour, when not on duty made her so human. Sorrentino evened things up, between youth and age, by giving her a truly ghastly brace. But still, we loved her in a way the old men could never elicit. By comparison, we were indifferent about the heroes. I want to know more about her and about the jilted wife and what Paloma does in bed. They should be the subject of the sequel. And that is the point of the film. It illustrates how the Darwinian need to procreate makes us youth-centric and indifferent to the needs of old age – unless the old have money.
Another cameo came from Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea). She swung her hips provocatively past Fred and Mick, who were reminiscing in the pool. Then she stripped off and left them speechless before hiding her body beneath the rippling water. The question is, was her nudity real or a figment of the imagination of two old men? We have to make up our own minds, but the scene slays the popular notion that urges are no longer present in bodies old and infirm.
More than a cameo was Jane Fonda’s tour de force as the aging film star Brenda Morel. She had the task of telling Mick he had to stop making movies because he and his films were rubbish and an embarrassment.
There we have the reason why young film critics don’t get Youth. They have yet to learn, the older you get, the more fertile and uninhibited your imagination becomes. Morel knew this and told Mick to bury his imagination. It was out of joint with our times.
The uninhibited imagination of the old is beautifully captured when Ballenger has a surreal moment. He imagines that the cows swinging their cowbells on the alpine pasture are his orchestra, and conducts them. The Sound of Music crossed over with St. Anthony preaching to the fish, in that scene. Most critics are with the fish.
In our youth-orientated culture, the cinema-going young define a good film. That is the reason why Mick’s films are deemed rubbish. When you are young, the bizarre artistic ramblings of the aged are an embarrassment, because young people miss the point of being old. And so they should!
The spa hotel put me in mind of Thomas Mann’s Zauberberg. The boredom of dying is laid out in the display cabinet, but only the dying are interested. The pretty masseuse is a metaphor for that truth. For her, the dying is a job to be done, to earn a living. Real life is about raving on a Friday night and getting laid on Saturday. Fred and Mick can do neither.
Perhaps Sorrentino is poking fun at old age. There is nothing wrong with that. He loves aging protagonists, and in Youth, he gives age and youth the last word. Ballenger is touchingly reunited with his estranged wife. Their love no longer needs direction. In the absence of the need to procreate, build a nest and plan for the future, it doesn’t have to be more than – love, pure and simple. So, in the final scenes, Sorrentino gives the youthful Sumi Jo the last cameo, singing Fred Ballenger’s songs. Stream it tonight to hear Sumi Jo and find out why Ballenger relents for the Queen. Discover how his daughter quickly finds new love at the end of a rope.
Probably a great film if you don’t miss the point!