Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel at a lavish Swiss retreat for the ultra-rich reflecting on their old age. Sound interesting? Well, actually it is. It is also engaging, beautifully shot, and superbly acted by a wonderful cast that also includes Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano (a man just a few roles away from an Oscar, remember who told you it was coming).
Youth moves at a very unique pace, a pace that is meant to mimic how one might feel during their stay at the hotel our characters are at. Despite the luxurious setting, the day to day life at the hotel seems rather mundane and routine, hardly an endorsement of participating in such a thing. The guests at the hotel are each frustrated with something, and are not at all in awe of their surroundings, really they aren’t even all that happy, despite having the wealth to stay at such a prestigious place. Legendary director Mick Boyle (Keitel) and his crew of writers are working on the screenplay for what is meant to be Boyle’s crowning achievement, his true contribution to the medium of film. He and the crew have their moments of inspiration, but for the most part struggle greatly with the ending to their story, specifically what a dying man’s final words will be to his wife. Fred Ballinger (Caine), a celebrated classical composer, is approached to conduct his most famous composition in front of the Queen of England and vehemently refuses to do so declaring such a performance “not possible.” We find out later that he has a strong and rather touching reason to refuse the offer. Dano’s character, Jimmy Tree, a famous actor known mostly for portraying an action robot in a role he greatly regrets, is struggling trying to prepare himself for a more complex role (when it is finally revealed who he is meant to portray, it all makes sense), and is deeply troubled by how he will be remembered – as a the guy who played that robot. An obese former soccer star, a young boy learning the violin, and a mountaineering instructor also stay at the hotel, all with their own interesting quirks and contributions to the story. The characters in this film are superbly different from one another, while each sharing a silent angst towards their respective situations.
Writer/director Paolo Sorrentino capitalizes on a motif that seems to be working quite well these days, the bringing together of unique personalities under one roof. Considering some recently successful films (The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), The Lobster (2015), Anomalisa (2015)) that incorporate a hotel setting to this end, it is interesting that consider why this is such a popular idea these days. I don’t have any answers for you as to why this is happening now, maybe you have some for me? It is true that many a great film (The Shining, Lost in Translation) have been set in hotels, as hotels hold massive symbolic significance by being places of transition or isolation, but why the current trend? Why, I ask you, why?
Getting back to the film, when it comes to Youth‘s cinematography, I had a much different approach to it than I do to most films I watch for the first time. An article in a recent edition of American Cinematographer magazine chronicles the unique lighting challenges this film presented Luca Bigazzi and how he handled them, based on the variety of different exteriors and the fact that all locations are practical, rather than built sets. It’s funny to think that such a beautifully presented film ever had its cinematographer and lighting department struggling in any way, but really, because of the complexity of some of the shots and the choice of location it makes sense. However, the shots are near-perfect. This film’s most compelling aspect is in fact, the beauty of every frame. My personal favourites involve exteriors, especially when Caine and Keitel are on one of their walks, or one particular scene in which Caine conducts an orchestra of cow bells and creaking trees. If possible, watch this film on a large high-quality screen to ensure that you can enjoy the beautiful cinematography in all its glory.
Like many emotionally driven films reflecting on particular stages of life (see Amour (2012) and The Kings of Summer (2013) for two other, rather different examples of this), Youth has a wonderful script. The story moves along slowly and only leaves the luxurious accommodations of the hotel near the end of the film, yet at no point will it lose your attention. Each character is captivating and deeply flawed in his or her own way, and we are privy to the inner desires and motivations of each, making for very engrossing storytelling. You may even feel after watching Youth that you too have spent time at the Swiss retreat with these intriguing personalities. I guess that’s what you call good filmmaking.
You’ve Touched Me in a Good Way