- 'YOUTH': Paul Dano (from left), Harvey Keitel and Michael Caine star.
"Youth," the opaque new film from Paolo Sorrentino, brings to mind at least three things, in order of gravity: artists, bodies and the way we deal with the passage of time. Artists: The main characters, and most of the supporting ones, are composers or filmmakers. Sorrentino is apparently comfortable in that milieu. Bodies: Skip this one if you disapprove of nudity, be it young or old, male or female. It's all here. Passage of time: That's not stated so simply. Put it this way. At bottom, "Youth" is about escaping the past to embrace a vigorous present, whether we're physically young, old or in between.
It all goes down at a Swiss resort, where our protagonists are said to be vacationing but where no one seems to be having much fun. Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a retired British composer, receives a visit from an emissary of the Queen, who wishes him to give a command performance conducting his most famous work. He declines, for personal reasons. Those reasons include his preference to hang out with old friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a film director trying for a late-life masterpiece, and new pal Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), an ambitious young actor who, much to his chagrin, is best known for appearing in a robot picture. Some narrative tension emerges in the form of Ballinger's daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), whose husband has abandoned her and who gives Ballinger hell for his own marital misdeeds. This little drama aside, though, "Youth" rejects conventional backstory. Indeed, it rejects narrative altogether.
Sorrentino conveys his meaning more subtly. He does so through setting. The resort is a character itself, enlivened by shots of shvitzes, pools and silent humans adept at massages and other tactile pleasures. Real life, we sense, doesn't happen at this place. He does so through his actors. A tone of voice or a facial expression — particularly Caine's and Dano's — can convey as much as the dialogue. And he does so through formal daring, scenes that invite us into the weird spots in the characters' minds. Take the director Boyle. At one point, he's dressed down by an old actress friend (Jane Fonda), whom he hopes to cast. The scene is strident — probably the most traditionally "dramatic" in the film — but the whole thing doesn't quite work. Much more effective is an episode a bit later, when Boyle has a vision of every actress he's ever worked with, dressed in costume and delivering her old dialogue. Now we really see what preoccupies him.
"Youth" is filled with surprising moments like this. Part of the film's pleasure is its unpredictability — what bizarre shot will come next? A number of such shots involve an obese man, who, we gather from the visual cues, is some sort of pop celebrity. He's attended by a woman with an oxygen tank. His distinguishing feature is a tattoo of Karl Marx that runs the length of his back. He seems to be pointless, but there's weight in the few words he eventually utters. He is thinking, he tells us, not of this resort, but of the future. No less strange is Tree's decision to rehearse the role of a particularly odious villain — I won't spoil which one — in front of the entire hotel restaurant. This seems like an exercise in shock until, rehearsal complete, Tree brings it home with what is probably the most important line of dialogue in the film: "I have to choose what is really worth telling: horror or desire? And I choose desire." In his own way, Ballinger will take this approach to heart.
Ultimately, "Youth" is a complex, visually appealing and satisfying puzzle. If forced to conjure an analogue in recent mainstream cinema I'd cite "Birdman," which, while different from "Youth" in many, many ways, similarly rejects conventional plot for formal experimentation and the occasional bout of magical realism. What's especially refreshing about "Youth" is that it doesn't lean on any sort of popularly recognizable point of reference. There's no easily identifiable context, whether a product of Hollywood ("Star Wars," "Creed") or history ("Spotlight," "The Big Short"). That's not a dig at those works. But there's something to be said for a film that confronts you with strange structure and perplexing characters. Sometimes it's a little uncomfortable. But do we always have to be comfortable at the movies?