An aesthetically and intellectually regressive whine masquerading as capital-I important satire
Like 2013’s The Great Beauty, Youth uses its protagonist as a mouthpiece through which director Paolo Sorrentino can bemoan the degraded state of contemporary culture. In this case, it’s Michael Caine’s bedraggled composer Fred Ballinger, who has retreated to a Swiss alpine spa with his best friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) and his semi-estranged daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz). The Great Beauty is a considerably more fully realised and tonally unified project, though both films make the mistake of stubbornly siding with the culturally savvy, straight rich males at its entre while transforming all its side characters into grotesque caricatures. Here’s a fun idea for a Youth drinking game: take a shot every time a character makes a reference to Fred’s otherworldly brilliance, and Sorrentino explicitly conflates his character’s genius with what he thinks to be his own.
Naturally, Sorrentino pompously foregrounds his capital-A artistry from the very first frame. As far as contemporary festival fare goes, two of the most grating, over-played auteurist gestures are excessively long takes that foreground their duration and low-brow pop songs employed semi-ironically. Youth opens with a shot that combines both – an extended, just-off-center close-up of a lounge singer on a rotating stage crooning ‘You’ve Got the Love’, while golden spotlights bathe one half of her face in silhouette. Throughout the two hours that follow, we’re treated to a barrage of slow-mo dollies, tableaux set to classical music and airless symmetrical wide shots runny with reflected light. In other words, Sorrentino’s inexplicably lauded visual flair resembles a trendy European beer commercial more than cinema, characterized by hollow ornamentation delivered at a register of high camp. Each composition expresses little other than the particular artistic tastes of the man behind the camera.
Sorrentino’s shallow idea of directorial virtuosity is just one of many dumb ideas that drive Youth, the most misguided of which is probably the idea that “serious art” and “popular art” can be divided into two diametrically opposed categories, a notion embodied by the character of Jimmy Tree, a youngish actor who resents the fact that he’s chiefly recognised for a big-budget blockbuster franchise he starred in even though he’s “worked with a lot of the great European and American directors” (actual dialogue). He and Fred quickly form a bond through their mutual hatred of mainstream success, who similarly feels misunderstood by a public who value him primarily for his cycle of lightweight “simple songs”. Sorrentino positions Youth as the umpteenth cinematic re-imagining of Fellini’s 8 ½, just as he invited audience to consider The Great Beauty the umpteenth re-imagining of La Dolce Vita. I personally view these two to be amongst the filmmaker’s least interesting works (now, if Sorrentino were to “update” Satyricon or Juliet and the Spirits he may end up with something interesting), but Fellini at least has the guts to mercilessly excoriate his chauvinistic protagonists, suggesting that their nostalgia for “the good ol’ days” is unconsciously tied to a desire to return to a time when people like themselves held an unchecked level of cultural power and privilege, and hence fearlessly implicate himself in his characters’ myopic worldview.
Youth is full to the brim with hateful and misguided scenes, such as the interstitial shots of an overweight former football star swimming and hyper-ventilating as interstitial comic relief, and the stream of repeated shots of naked women whose bodies function as symbols of either Fred’s longing for youth or his own deteriorated physical state. But the moment that stands out as the most galling is the one in which Jimmy Tree is later validated in a scene where a young boy tells him how touched he was by one of the “serious movies” Tree had starred in a while ago. When he first approaches, Tree assumes that the boy will be just another fan of his blockbuster work, and when he reveals otherwise Tree is almost moved to tears. A smarter, less self-satisfied film might have framed the moment as a parody of Tree’s narrow minded snobbery, or at least a way of de-bunking it, but Sorrentino, who’s persona as a smart satirist is undercut by the aesthetically and politically reactionary notions that his career is based on, positions the boy as the one saving grace within a world of shallow dopes, whores and dunderheads.
Aside from some banal musings on the passing of time, this is pretty much as thematically deep as Youth goes: a lengthy whine from the culturally entitled about the brain-dead philistines who fail to recognise their genius in favour of instant gratification and mindless consumption. Throughout, Sorrentino makes a stream of easy, thoughtless digs at the Transformers series (it’s unfortunate timing that Youth opened on the same day as Michael Bay’s latest film, 13 Hours, which is by any measure an infinitely more conceptually ambitious and formally accomplished work), along with pop videos, reality TV, serial dramas, gossip columns, beauty pageants, and pretty much everything else common wisdom deems to be “low culture”.
What exactly it is Sorrentino deems worthy of serious attention is hard to pin down, because the rest of the film is dedicated to ham-fisted melodrama: Fred’s daughter Lena is left catatonic after her husband Julian, who also happens to be Mick’s son, leaves her for a rising pop star (Paloma Faith playing herself, and somehow managing to sound unconvincing even when delivering the line “I’m Paloma Faith”). Meanwhile Fred is hounded by a royal emissary who’s determined to get him to perform at Prince Philip’s birthday party and speaks in what may be the most tin-eared British dialogue I’ve ever heard (“Maestro, your majesty the queen would be honoured to confer a knighthood upon you this coming June” – this line is delivered completely straight). The formulaic writing isn’t helped by the fact that Sorrentino can’t modulate a performance, maintain a stable tone, or craft a dynamic composition to save his life.
Admittedly, Sorrentino is savvy enough an opportunist to include a half-assed counter argument. In one of the film’s final scenes, Fred’s ex-wife Brenda Morel yells “Life goes on without that cinema bullshit”. It’s revealed that Fred’s been neglecting both his daughter and his wife in his pursuit of artistic perfection. But there’s never any doubt about which side he sympathizes with, and he never substantially threatens to complicate our identification with the only two characters who in some way resemble actual people and not shrill, one-note caricatures, which makes the small jabs at the insularity of Youth’s central characters feel terminally disingenuous.
Fans of Youth have generally lauded it as something like a testament to the power and endurance of great art, a power that manages to endure beyond the physical decay of the artist themselves and the cultural decay of a society increasingly characterised by vapidity. These arguments aren’t without reason, but I think they mistake of evaluating the basic idea behind the film rather than the deeply muddled and self-contradictory final product. I must concede, however, that Youth does shed a light on a pressing societal issue, albeit inadvertently: maybe the most heinous causes of Western cultural decline aren’t Michael Bay and TLC but ultra-conservative, self-mythologizing arthouse mediocrities like Sorrentino.
Youth (2015), directed by Paolo Sorrentino, is distributed in the UK by Studiocanal. Certificate 15.