Paolo Sorrentino just hit it out of the park here at Cannes, delivering what has to be the most compelling screening of everything I’ve seen here thus far with the possible exception of Carol. When it finally came to an end, the audience sat in stunned silence until at last the screen went totally dark. After that, an even number of “bravos!” and “boos” filled the house as audience members slowly left the theater. Why did the film divide the house so sharply? Probably because the film is both daring and traditional, realistic and absurd.
Youth is a melancholy look at aging and love. It tells its story with epic sweep, even though it takes place in a singular location — a spa in the hills of Switzerland. The canvas is the internal world of the actors who move through emotional ups and downs while the camera catches them at their best and worst moments. A tall, leggy, busty woman fills the frame as she struts down a slope towards the horizon. Images like that are juxtaposed with an old woman sitting in a spa, or an overweight man hitting a tennis ball high in the air with just his foot. Youth exists somewhere between the surreal Italian film school of Federico Fellini and the romantic one of Bertolucci.
Michael Caine plays a composer who is best friends with a legendary film director played by Harvey Keitel. They ruminate on life, love, sex, aging and youth as they move among the various characters who join them at the hotel. In Caine’s case it’s his daughter, Rachel Weisz, and in Keitel’s case its the film writers he has along to help finish his latest movie.
The relationship between Weisz and Caine is so surprising, so moving, both in terms of how deep these actors go with each other and in the things the characters learn about themselves during the film. She has two jobs, she says: being his daughter and being his assistant. All the while she’s heartbroken that her mother is not with them. Caine’s character spends the whole movie obsessed with sounds, inventing his own music by twisting a piece of plastic wrap, or listening to cowbells and birds. Somewhere behind him a young actor played by Paul Dano studies him as he listens.
Somewhere on the hotel grounds a monk meditates. Somewhere else the hotel’s young masseuse is dancing to a video about dancing. Somewhere else a husband and wife are not speaking to each other in the same way every night. These moments are dispassionately observed by Sorrentino, silently commented upon, like eye-witness testimony told in great detail so we are can be allowed draw our own conclusions.
Every shot is a thing of beauty. I spend most of time here in Cannes finding beautiful/ugly/interesting things to photograph. For most of this film I had the impulse to hoist my camera and take a snapshot of it. It is just one dizzying image after another.
Films like this hardly get made anymore. Probably no American director could get a movie like this made, no matter how big the name. American actors certainly don’t get many chances like this to deliver fully realized performances. Birdman’s indictment of Hollywood is nothing compared to what gets said about it in Youth, the good, the bad and the ugly, but mostly the ugly.
Films used to have somewhere in mind to go beyond opening weekend box office numbers or the chase for awards. They had somewhere to go because smart people made them and smart people wanted to see them get made. We can mostly declare the death of this kind of cinema in the American studio system as of 2015. It will be left to filmmakers in other countries where artistic freedom is less restricted.
Both Caine and Keitel give career-best performances. One or the other is headed for the Best Actor race. Jane Fonda has a powerhouse few minutes on screen that could earn her an Oscar nomination as well, but with Fox Searchlight in the driver’s seat expect this film — catnip for Academy voters — to be represented in all of the major categories and perhaps to become a frontrunner to win.
This is a film of big ideas of the human experience, certainly among the most profound. Why are people so afraid of human touch? is one of the questions it examines. Is love meant to last? is another. It’s about show business, creativity, inspiration, but mostly about the eternal conflict between aging and youth. We have such power of attraction when we’re young but we often don’t learn how to properly wield that power till we’re old. The film is emphatic about its realization that we’re alive until we aren’t. It doesn’t matter whether that existence is important or insignificant, this universal truth remains.