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Review: Youth – “A feast for the cinematic senses”

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Art’s role in life, life’s role in art, age’s forced reflection on the two and its own role in both – this is what Youth concerns itself with, the latest film by Italian maestro of film, Paolo Sorrentino in his second English-language film. It’s also about sex, penile dysfunction and, of course, the turbulence of love.

As one may surmise from such themes, this is a tender, sentimental film, sensuous and stylish, and, as you may not know, certainly a wonderful work of art. Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a retired composer famed for his ‘Simple Songs’, seemingly wallowing in the sybaritic pleasure of a luxury hotel in the Swiss Alps. Rather, Ballinger has gained an existential crisis and lost his raison d’etre. Adamant to wither away and be forgotten, on top of a hostile, dysfunctional relationship with his daughter (Rachel Wiesz), he rejects the Queen’s insistent requests to perform for her and Prince Phillip due to “personal reason.” Michael Caine is in this film – this much is certain – yet Ballinger the character overshadows any star performer and it is he who we see. It is a testament to Caine’s nuanced acting style that, despite never re-inventing his appearance dramatically or transforming into a role as a method actor, he manages to retain a unique specificity to each character; Jack Carter this is not. It is, however, Caine’s best performance since that role in Get Carter (1971). Even in his octogenarian stage of life, the seasoned South Londoner shows us that he can deliver outstanding, new award-worthy performances.

As for plot? It remains somewhat incidental here. It is the gradually absorbing nature of the scenario, the wittiness of the script, and the development of character that is sure to grip both intellectually and emotionally. The entirety of the film more or less takes place in the confines of the hotel spa, where Ballinger and a number of other quirky celebrities and creative types are vacationing. Paul Dano plays an actor who has worked with “all the great European and American directors,” but is only remembered for his role as the robot character, “Mr. Chu”, a role he considers kitsch and regretful. Other resident’s include the corpulent, Maradonna-esque former footballer who must come to terms with his physical state in the face of his past glories; the pulchritudinous Miss Universe, played by Mădălina Diana Ghenea, who embodies both youth and beauty; and Mick Boyle, a has-been movie director and Ballinger’s best friend, played by the guy from the Direct Line Insurance T.V advertisements, otherwise known as Harvey Keitel. Unlike Ballinger, he is determined to go out with a bang by writing his “testament” film with a bunch of young writers. Through the meanderings, tête-à-têtes and eccentric observations of this eclectic array of professionals, wealthy folks and artists, Youth examines the nature of occupational art and mortality.

The tone strikes between elegiac, melancholic, wistful, hopeful, funny, surreal and mawkish, certainly very Fellini-inspired in content and exuberant execution. The visual style is debonair and elegant – a feast for the cinematic senses – with heavily composed frames, a strong European aesthetic sensibility and a great soundtrack which features both classical music and contemporary pop, including tracks by Florence + The Machine, Mark Kozelek and the Oscar-nominated ‘Simple Songs #3’ – a heavenly sound. This is a strange film that observes the hidden beauties in life, with an ending scene that will have you in beatific awe. You can hardly begin to articulate the ‘point’ out of the discordant mélange of plots, sub-plots and back-stories, and yet you also feel like you have comprehended something as profound as it is elusive. Like with great art, comprehension is very different to articulation, and Youth stays with you until you can find the right words. I haven’t found them yet.

5-out-of-5

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