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December 11, 2015

There are a pair of scenes, just after the midpoint of Youth, that land on Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) like a one-two combination. Jimmy’s an actor, and he thinks of himself as a serious one who made the mistake of once indulging in “levity”: a genre picture where he played a robot called “Mr. Q”. Everyone tells him how they loved Mr. Q, and none of these shallow admirers remember the rest of his work.

Except then he meets these two women. The first is Miss Universe, who happens to be staying the same Swiss resort hotel where almost all of Youth happens. She never misses a robot movie, but Mr. Q was her favorite. When she says she wants to be an actress, Jimmy asks her if she studies, or just watches reality television. “I appreciate irony,” she says, “but when it is drenched in poison it is drained of its force, and reveals something else.” She isn’t the vapid beauty queen he’d assumed.

And then a teenager in a gift shop recognizes Jimmy and says she loved one of his movies. But this time it’s not Mr. Q, but in a role he thought nobody saw as a father who never knew his son. When meeting his now-fourteen-year-old son in a highway diner, and when asked “why weren’t you a father to me?”, Jimmy’s character said, “I didn’t think I was up to it.” The girl explains that this bit of dialogue made her realize something very important: “that no one in the whole world thinks they’re up to it, so there’s no need to worry.”

These two blows land in quick succession, shaking Jimmy out of his comfortable assumptions about himself and his career. He complains about the role that brought him fame and fortune, claiming it cost him something of his acting bona fides. But at the same time he clings to it for safety. Having played Mr. Q means he can blame anything else on his supposedly-tainted public image. And at the same time it drives him to play roles he really doesn’t want to, attempting to make a show of his struggle against the legacy of Mr. Q.

Paolo Sorrentino has stocked this resort hotel with all manner of colorful characters, but the ones we pay the most attention to all hold on to something, as Jimmy does. And first among them are Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). Mick is a director, often surrounded by a cloud of screenwriters working on his “testament” — tentatively and momentously titled Life’s Last Day — which will cap off his long-time collaboration with the actress he made a star, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda). Fred is a retired conductor and composer, most famously for a cycle of “Simple Songs”, but he has grown apathetic since the loss of his wife and his own retirement.

The two are old friends, who have vacationed in the same hotel year after year. Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), is even married to Mick’s son, at least until he leaves her for Paloma Faith. They dine together most evenings, with a running bet on whether the coldly taciturn married couple a few tables over will speak tonight.

But, in a way, the two couldn’t be more different. Mick’s body seems to be falling apart, buying out the local pharmacy to fulfill his upkeep needs, but Keitel plays him vigorously. Fred, on the other hand, seems to have nothing wrong with him, but Caine plays him with a slow, sad-eyed languor, as if merely hanging around the world until someone will eventually ask him to leave. “At my age,” he tells his daughter, “getting in shape is merely a waste of time.” Mick clings to a career that is slowly leaving him behind, while Fred clings to the death of a career that seems to want him back.

There is a kinship between Youth and Sorrentino’s previous film, La grande bellezza. Caine’s Fred Ballinger could be the British cousin of Toni Servillo’s Jep Gambardella. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see Cheyenne from This Must Be the Place show up for an unplugged set on the hotel’s rotating garden stage, for that matter. Through all of them, Sorrentino has been struggling with the deepest existential problem: how to find meaning in this life, and how to live it authentically.

Sure, existentialist musings are nothing new from auteurs, but few of them manage to create even one film so utterly beautiful. Sorrentino has come up with three in a row, and even more before he emerged from making purely Italian films. He must share credit with his regular cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi, and his editor, Cristiano Travaglioli, for producing one jaw-dropping image after another. The alpine countryside is framed every bit as meticulously as you’d expect in a Wes Anderson production, but where Anderson and cinematographer Robert Yeoman favor rigid, fixed symmetries, Sorrentino and Bigazzi’s augment their geometry with enormous, almost inhumanly graceful sweeping motion.

And while Bigazzi’s camera moves in such precise curves, Sorrentino’s direction carries the same precision down into the performances he elicits from an already phenomenal cast. The words of the script are powerful and resonant, but so are the silent expressions he carefully walks us between. Worlds of emotion pour out of the smallest unspoken interaction, and these are possibly more important even than the lines themselves.

That seems to come up a lot in Youth, the way that our words often get in the way of our lives. We use them as shields, telling ourselves how we want to think of ourselves; building up cocoons of words rather than to confront what actually matters. We tell ourselves these stories over and over, repeating them like mantras, until we believe that they’re real. We become so certain of what is and isn’t possible that we lose sight of what’s waiting for us, just outside these shells.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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