Youth movie Michael Caine conducting

Youth movie review

In a nutshell: Youth is lyrical and beautiful visually, but self-consciously arty and short on emotional power.

Youth features: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Alex Macqueen
Writer/Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Australian release date: 26 December 2015

Short take: (Karen)
An investigation, ad nauseam, of the inability of mature, intelligent, creative men to value or relate to the women in their professional and personal lives. Astonishingly (or not) even this film fails the Bechdel test. Contains an astonishing scene where the ageing auteur filmmaker (Harvey Keitel) hallucinates all his female leads standing like so many marionettes in a field, declaiming their lines. And he STILL doesn’t get it! Youth may have some important things to say. To men. Most women already know this shit.

Review: (rolanstein)
This is Michael Caine’s most substantial role for some time. He rises to the occasion as lead character Fred Ballinger, a retired, world-weary conductor and composer enduring his stay at a luxury European mountain resort with his daughter (Rachel Wiesz), and friend Mick, a veteran film director working with his young crew on the script of his supposed final masterpiece.

While both elderly men share the detachment of age from the emotionally volatile affairs of youth, Mick is still engaged actively in his career, whereas Fred is unexpressed artistically and in virtually every other way. He even turns away a royal emissary bearing a request from the Queen that he return to the stage for a one-off performance. His one small pleasure is in sitting back and observing the other guests with a cynical, if not jaundiced, eye. In this he is sometimes joined by 30-something disillusioned movie star Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), miffed that his fame derives from a starring role as a robot.

Go with this film and accept it on its own terms, and there’s a lot to like. The superb camerawork is a technical highlight, translating to lush visuals, which are infused with a poetic sensibility and offset by a perfectly complementary and often stirring soundtrack. The quality cast deliver, with Caine, Dano and Fonda (brief appearance, maximum impact) the standouts.

The dialogue is witty and thought-provoking, full of bon mots and potent observations dense with meaning – actually, too dense for a movie at times, more appropriate to a literary medium, where the reader has time to ponder.

This dialogue digestibility problem is a downside of the self-consciously “arthouse” style of the piece, and not the only one. The lyricism that runs through the film is not always driven by clear intent, or consistent with character psychology.

It might be reasonably assumed, for example, that Fred’s withdrawal from life emanates from his wife’s absence (which is alluded to from the outset; her fate is not made known until late in the film). However, one night in a distraught state his daughter rounds on him for his multiple affairs and immersion in his career at the expense of his family life. Does this mean he did not love his wife? The finale of the film (spoiler consciousness precludes elaboration) dispenses with this theory, but without making much psychological sense given what we have learnt about him. In effect, he is let off the hook for his self-absorption – his enduring love for his wife apparently makes the hurt he inflicted on her OK. He is an artist, after all, and therefore exempt from the moral standards of mere mortals. Pffft!

Worse, there are aspects of the film that are pretentious, or perhaps pseudo-poetic is closer to the mark. Two glaring examples spring to mind:
(i) A monk is shown to levitate feet above the ground, and while the scene is dramatic and visually arresting, its purpose is uncertain. Sure, earlier on Fred leans down and remarks caustically in the silent monk’s ear, “I know you can’t levitate.” He’s wrong then. To misappropriate Shakespeare, the message seems to be that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Fred’s cynical philosophy. My issue is that the scene feels forced and out of place, in the manner of a poetic idea that so impressed the writer that he couldn’t bear to leave it out, regardless of fit.
(ii) Fred sits alone on a tree stump gazing out upon a splendid mountain view on a gorgeous day, conducting. In so doing, he evokes music comprising the sounds of the surrounding natural environment (eg: bird and animal calls, cow bells etc) assembled into a rhythmic arrangement. An entrancing idea and beautiful scene, perhaps the most memorable of the film, but it doesn’t make sense! Fred has stopped conducting or composing music, remember. He is joyless and certainly not at one with himself, yet here he is blissfully immersed in nature and summoning music from the surrounds, more at one with the universe than the monk! If this mountainside scene had been some sort of epiphany that had awoken the comatose artist within him, its purpose would have been evident, but he remains unchanged. As with the levitating monk, this is poetry for poetry’s sake, empty of contextual meaning. Pseudo-poetry.

The upshot is that while there are many moments of superficial beauty throughout, there is a lack of substance to the story and characters, along with inconsistencies and contradictions that compromise both the logic and emotional power of the film. It is telling that the most moving scene, which comes at the very end, derives its power largely from the magnificent performance of Korean coloratura soprano Sumi Jo and the musical piece assigned to her, rather than the lead character’s arrival at a point of resolution or the conclusion of the story itself.

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4 thoughts on “Youth movie review”

  1. Thanks for teasing out some of the shortcomings of this film, while I was merely rolling my eyes in frustration!

    The big theme that the lead characters wrestle with is about art: what is it for? What does it do? And there’s an idea in there somewhere about perfection, and struggle. Dotted in amongst the sprawling non-story are aperçus that skitter away before you have a chance to grasp them – as you said.

    Part of the problem I’m sure was form and style – I kept expecting the film to end (especially when the monk levitated) but it kept on and on, and I was never sure whether it was meant to be a comedy or a drama. Now I don’t mind a mix, but this never felt comfortable; nor, really, do I mind being made to feel uncomfortable: so was it tone, really, that felt unsure?

    Lately I’ve been thinking about various art forms and media, and this film jangled my critical nerve. It felt like one man’s rambly, existential, angsty, artistic memoir realised in film at huge expense; a book of essays and anecdotes would have done the job better, and a heap more cheaply.

  2. Yeah Karen, identify with just about all you say. There was certainly a lack of focus, partly on account of the writer/director’s indulgences – he just wasn’t going to cut out any of the lines or images with which he evidently greatly impressed himself, regardless of fit. I think your final sentence is astute. Only the writer/director can know whether it’s on the money, but it sure feels right to me.


  3. May I just say that Michael Caine is one of the most over-rated actors around right now – and there’s a lot of competition. He can’t even deliver a line after fifty years in movies. Give him a Roger Moore Award for Inability To Learn His Craft Despite Aeons Of Futile Experience.

    There, that’s what I wanted to say.

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