Returning to the Swiss holiday destination he always visited with his wife, retired English composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) finds himself reflecting over his life, with his friend Mick (Harvey Keitel), Fred finds himself hassled by the Palace to perform his famous Simple Songs for the Queen, a request he consistently denies.
Paolo Sorrentino returns to Cannes with Youth, an often claustrophobic and introspective film about getting older and what we hold on to. Michael Caine is at the centre of a film and, when we are introduced to him, he is rebuffing the Queen’s emissary, who is requesting his services to celebrate Prince Philip’s birthday. Although we are later told that his music always came first, to the detriment of his family, Caine has a fatherly quality here – perhaps because Ballinger has retired – even going so far as to help a young kid play violn better. Caine plays Ballinger as a man struggling with both the loss of his outh and his inability to remember much of it, even though it is these experiences who made he is the person today. Harvey Keitel plays against Caine very well; Mick still holding onto the past and funnelling this energy into making his new film, while staying positive about getting older, but slowly revealing his self worth to be hugely tied in with his ego. Rachel Weisz returns to Cannes as Ballinger’s daughter Lena, a woman who relationship has just ended, sending her life into chaos, and who is trying to reconcile this with her new relationship with her father. Paul Dano plays Mick; a young actor who, rather arrogantly, believes that he and Ballinger have made similar mistakes in his career, although Dno is at the beginning of his, and Caine has made the decision to end his own.
Sorrentino’s screenplay is heavily dialogue focused, wth characters hashing out their fears and concerns in conversation. That said, there is a touch of typical Sorrentino elegance, with beautiful dream sequences interspersing the film. There are also several strange moments, such as a couple who never talk to one another being the subject of Caine and Keitel’s fascinations, Dano having a makeup test for a role as Hitler and turning up to dinner in full make up, and Weisz’s character apparently falling for a man whose sole purpose seems to be to teach her to climb.
As director, Sorrentino allows the film to focus on Caine and Keitel, and while their chemistry on screen is wonderful, this is also one of the problems with the film, as it gives Youth a feeling of claustrophobia, as though the characters are deliberately shut off from the world, and have no desire to be part of it. There are a couple of laughs here and there, and Caine’s eventual redemption is a thing of beauty, although it comes at the end of some almost insufferable pacing woes.
In all, Youth is a dialogue about the time in our lives that forms who we are, and the inability to remember it. Caine and Keitel are great together, Dano’s experiments with stillness are lovely and Jane Fonda has a wonderful cameo late in the film. There are some issues with pacing and self indulgence from time to time, but there is plenty going on in Youth to give audiences food for thought.