Trying to find fitting words to describe a film like Youth is like trying to find the perfect line of dialogue to fill a person’s final words. It’s hard, it most likely won’t be right, but you’ll try anyhow – just like the screenwriters who assist Harvey Keitel’s Frank at writing a script about life. Sometimes saying nothing at all fits just as well as a monologue.
Paolo Sorrentino’s film follows aging composer Michael Caine as he rests and awaits death in a Swiss Alp hotel. Throughout his stay there he is joined by lifelong friend, Frank – Harvey Keitel, his daughter played by Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano as a successful actor. Just like life itself there is no major plot, just a series of moments of people existing with memories of moments past floating into frame.
Naturally, this is an exceptionally European film – the essay of life and love in Youth is done in a way that only the Europeans can do. Scenes where a completely naked Miss Universe walks into a pool with two old men could easily be titillating, but here it’s filmed with such grand adoration of pure beauty that it is more about admiring the beauty of life rather than oogling at it like teenage boys. Vignettes of life occurring fill the film – sometimes like a fever dream, sometimes like memories stolen from childhood.
I mention the European aspect as I’m not sure that a film like this (or The Lobster, which could make for a good pairing with Youth) could be made anywhere else. There are elements here – like some of the music or performance art pieces – that under anyone else’s hands could be trite or corny, but with a European sensibility they are delivered with sincerity and respect.
To steal the title from a great film education video series (seriously, watch it) – every frame here is a painting. Whether it be of a hillside covered in women from a characters past or Hitler sitting in a dining hall with a disgusted group of on looking patrons, the wondrous imagery here would simply be enough to warrant a viewing of this grand film. Accompany that with some truly beautiful music and fine performances from all involved, and Youth shows itself as a deep and involving film that can also be enjoyed on a surface level. Most surprisingly, this is a funny and coy film.
I sat watching Youth being reminded of moments in my life – of the time as a toddler when I fell down some steps and broke a mug, of meeting my wife for the first time, of my teenage crush in high school. Where I’ve previously criticised films for relying too much on the audiences own personal experiences to build emotions, Youth is unique in being able to create solid emotional responses with its performances, whilst at the same time it (for me at least) is elevated even more from my own life experiences.
I’m sure that on revisiting it, I will have even more things to contemplate. From the themes the film explores – what is youth anyhow? What does it mean to grow old? What is death, what is a last word? All of these things sound very existential, and the film can be read that way, but fortunately for those who aren’t interested in that and are just looking for an involving film about friendship, love, family and life, well, that’s there too.
It’s not all perfect though as there are some odd, slightly out of place moments – a nightmare fuelled by a pop song and a terribly out of place green screen are most notable. But, overall, the abstract elements, exceptionally human performances, beautifully realised visuals and memorable dialogue make this a must see film. And really, what performances they are.
Michael Caine is, as expected, great. Unlike other actors of his same age, he’s been consistently great and here is no exception. He’s faithfully matched by the luminescent Harvey Keitel – which is a strange way of describing him, but he simply does light up the screen here in what is another great role for Keitel. In fact, when you look back at the characters he’s played throughout his career, this is certainly one of his lighter roles, even though his character does have a lifetime of life behind him. I don’t want to say darkness or pain, but he is a character who has lived and it’s Keitel’s performance that helps that feeling.
Alongside Caine and Keitel are Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano and Jane Fonda. Weisz has again delivered another stellar performance this year (alongside The Lobster) and she’s given many opportunities to shine. One particular monologue she delivers whilst covered in mud in a day spa is some of the finest work she’s ever done. Paul Dano emulates Shia la Beouf here and once again proves why he’s one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors (I’m still shocked that he wasn’t Oscar nominated for There Will Be Blood, just as I’ll be shocked he won’t be nominated for Love & Mercy, but that’s a discussion for a different time). Rounding out the cast is Jane Fonda who plays an aging star. It’s actresses like Jane Fonda who can command the screen in such a small role – and in such emotional moments as well – that make you step back in awe and remember how great an actress Fonda is.
When the credits role and the final song is sung, Youth is a film which will make you reflect on your own life and your own future. If that sounds “deep”, well, the film never makes it oppressively so with moments of welcome levity. Maybe it might be too contemplative for some, but regardless, I do strongly recommend spending time with this film. I certainly can’t wait to watch it again.
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