Youth full movie review - Swiss hotel/spa setting for examinations of lives
The heart of Paolo Sorrentino's Youth lies in the lead composer Fred Ballinger's (Michael Caine) most famous work, Simple Songs. The queen will knight him if he conducts that number in a concert for her Prince Phillip.
Ballinger refuses because he wrote it for his famous soprano wife Melanie to perform and she's gone. Not dead, we eventually learn, but frozen into a silent scream.
Ballinger is embarrassed by his fame for that simple composition, instead of all his weightier works. Sinilarly, serious actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) is regretfully best known for his heavily costumed role as a robot in some special effects trivia. By disappearing into the robot his disappeared his serious work.
The film is woven out of such paradoxes. That is, it's a stab at capturing our complex reality of life. Like Ballinger's signature piece, the film is a simple story ? a mixed bag of folks at holiday and rehab at a luxurious hotel/spa in Wiesel (i.e., "pointed") in the Swiss Alps. But everything simple is complex.
Ballinger feels that he can only relate to music and admits to having neglected his wife and daughter Lena. "You were right. Music is all I understand." But he remembers his tremors when he fell into love at first sight of Melanie. His current detachment expresses his pain rather than the apparent lack of feeling.
His buddy film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is scripting his testament film but with his screenwriters is bogged down on the ending. In his Eureka moment he will allot the deathbed speech to the dying man's wife, not him. But the film dies when that actress Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda) pulls out of the project, their 12th together over 53 years. She first explains she needs the money from a TV series she's been offered so needs to prefer. But she goes on to declare his career dead, his last films crap, in a cruel candour all offered ? of course ? in the name of friendship. Love and hate bubble together there.
In a chillingly expressive shot, on the left side of the otherwise black screen Fonda's old, veined hand talon-like caresses the sized Kettle's cheek. That's Jane Fonda's hand!?! The film is titled Youth but, paradoxically again, it's about the old, the sere not the juicy. But here youth and age are the same telescope. Through one end it's youth looking at the future in closeup. Through the other it's the past, galloping further and further away.
With Pamela's withdrawal, Boyle knows his project is dead but determines to start another. In his last scene with Ballinger he says "You say that emotions are overrated. But that's bullshit. Emotions are all we've got." On that he strides out to the balcony and jumps to his death. Shattered in guilt, Pamela runs amok in the airplane and has to be bloodily subdued. With his gesture Boyle refuted Pamela's disrespect: "C'mon, life goes on even without that cinema bullshit." Another "simple song" here ? bitterly comic but sombre.
Sorrentino gives the film's last shot to the dead but beaming Boyle. That is, he gives the last silent word to Boyle's faith in emotion. When Ballinger conducts his simple masterpiece for the queen he tears up over its emotional force. Against Melanie's silent scream Ballinger proffers his musical articulation of his ardor. It speaks for as well as to everyone. As in the film's last "simple song," over the end titles, he's in full content and out of control.
So the composition that seems simple but beautiful turns out resonant and profound, especially in full orchestration. That's the funny thing about life: the simple is so complex. Conversely, as the young girl compliments Tree about one off his serious films, he taught her that the big things in life are essentially simple. Everybody doesn't have a clue what they're about ? so it doesn't matter. As Ballinger early told Boyle, "Levity is also perverse." Not here. Here the light is how we handle the heavy.
Hence too the tension between the intellect and the senses. The young masseuse speaks of the understanding that only touch can give. Ballinger is proud he never became an intellectual. The screenwriter scenes are a parody of literary creation. On the other hand, the sensually rich Miss Universe reveals an astonishing intelligence, dissolving that antithesis. When Boyle hires the plain looking young hooker just to walk with him, he seems to be buying an emotion not a sensation. When we see the girl's mother seeing her off to her "job," Sorrentino seems to encapsulate the tradition of modern Italian cinema (as embodied by Fellini). The girl carries the neorealist exploration of poverty into the contemporary spa's opulence.
Another moment of historical resonance involves Tree, who is at the spa studying the people for clues to his next role. We finally learn his character when he appears in costume, freezing all the white-clad dinners ? as Hitler. Tree pulls out off his project because "I have to choose what is really worth telling: horror or desire? And I choose desire. You, each one of you, you open my eyes, you made me see that I should not wasting my time on the senseless fear?." Mutatis mutandis, that could be Pamela's reason too. As desire trumps horror both Boyle and Ballinger nurse charged memories of a childhood attraction to the same girl, unconsummated so ever fresh in their mind.