ARROWS OF DESIRE
Michael Caine excels in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth.
A quick glimpse at the protagonist of Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film, Youth – an older gentleman with neatly slicked back hair, dapper tailoring and thick-rimmed glasses – and you’d be forgiven for assuming the Italian filmmaker’s habitual muse, the great Neapolitan actor Toni Servillo (star of four Sorrentino features, including The Consequences of Time (2004) and Oscar-winning The Great Beauty (2013)), is once again his leading man.
In fact, it’s the very English Michael Caine who takes centre stage and the shift is instructive for the project overall: it’s a Sorrentino film for sure (his second in the English-language following 2011’s This Must Be The Place), complete with the director’s flamboyant visual coups and musically-inspired set-pieces; but there’s a different accent at play here, a tenderness, even an understated optimism, threaded through all that great, jaded beauty.
Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a world-famous, retired, eighty-year-old British composer, holed up in luxury Swiss mountain spa, bickering and bantering with his best friend, American film director Mick (Harvey Keitel), and assistant, daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz). An emissary from the Queen arrives, offering a knighthood and Her Majesty’s request that Ballinger conduct his signature composition, ‘Simple Songs’ – an offer Ballinger adamantly refuses for enigmatic “personal reasons”.
With Mick as desperate to complete his last screenplay and “testament” as Fred is to avoid professional obligations, Sorrentino returns again to themes that haunt his work: love and loss, memory and art, and the toll of time’s inexorable waltz. Family tensions rise up when Lena’s husband, Mick’s son, leaves her for pop star Paloma Faith (playing herself in a game cameo); as do recriminations for past sins, particularly Fred’s longstanding family neglect. “Music is all I understand,” he confesses. “Because you don’t need words and experience to understand it. It just is.”
Caine is on top form here – his Ballinger a gentler, less guarded presence than Servillo’s Sorrentino roles – in his most substantial role in over a decade, and his unlikely double act with Keitel, earthy American passion vs. wry British reserve, an unexpected delight. But they’re matched by a wonderfully diverse cast, including Paul Dano as a cynical, Johnny Depp-like movie star, and a blistering last-act turn from a genuine Hollywood legend.
If Ballinger claims to understand only music, Sorrentino himself once again shows himself to be a virtuoso of both sound and vision. Aided by regular cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, he envisions the spa as part-futuristic spacecraft, part-Renaissance chiaroscuro canvas and conjures a flow of inventive images and soundtracks – from a flooded Venice fantasy to Caine’s impromptu Alpine cowbell concerto. Yet beneath its dazzling surfaces, Youth’s abiding, underlying refrain is our inescapable vulnerability – at any age – striving and surviving through the consequences of time.
Youth opens in the UK on January 29th, 2016
This feature originally appeared in the January-February 2016 edition of Curzon Film Magazine.