Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino returned to the Cannes Film Festival yesterday to premiere “Youth,” the follow-up to the biggest crossover hit of his career, “The Great Beauty,” which premiered at the festival in 2013 and went on to win 2014’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. “Youth” marks Sorrentino’s second English language feature following 2011’s “This Must Be the Place,” which also first screened at Cannes.
The comedy stars Michael Caine as an elderly famed composer on an extended stay at a an elegant hotel at the foot of the Alps, along with his filmmaker friend (Harvey Keitel). Indiewire’s Eric Kohn called “Youth” Sorrentino’s “most broadly appealing comedy-drama” in his review.
We sat down with Sorrentino in Cannes to discuss his latest, the negative critical reception to “This Must Be the Place,” and his upcoming HBO miniseries “The Young Pope,” starring Jude Law.
No, no, no. Because the movie that you bring here is always new, so it’s always like my first time. Every time is very exciting.
How did it play with the audience at last night’s premiere?
I think it was good. It got a long, long applause for 15 minutes. It felt very warm.
One of the risks of playing at Cannes is that critics aren’t afraid to voice their opinion immediately after. At yesterday’s press screening, I heard both boos and applause during the end credits. The film really divided critics. Does that get to you as a filmmaker, or do you love to ruffle feathers?
Deep inside it amuses me a lot.
Why is that?
Because the perverted wish that many people have, and that I have, is to create problems, not to appease people.
Watching “Youth,” it didn’t occur to me that you were wanting to “create problems.” To me, it stands out as your most broadly appealing film to date. Did yesterday’s reaction therefore surprise you?
Actually I was really surprised. Before the first screening, my fear was that people would not shout, would not clap, that it critics would think it was nothing much compared to “The Great Beauty.” That was my only fear: that it would create an indifference. This division is something that really pleases me in a way [laughs]. I didn’t think it would happen with this movie. I expected it with “The Great Beauty.”
Why with “The Great Beauty”? I’m just curious.
Because in “The Great Beauty,” I knew there were some things that could irritate the audience. I was showing rich, spoiled people going nowhere. The lead character was not a sympathetic one. He got annoyed at everything. Whereas this movie shows more serene and lovable characters. I thought that kind of humanity would please all the critics. I thought the negative backlash could be that critics thought this movie was too simple, if you compare it to my previous work.
Everyone in “Youth” is still very, very rich. What is it about the one percent that interests you as a filmmaker?
I’m not really fascinated by wealth. Actually, I’m more fascinated by artists. The wealthy people you see in the movie are all artists.
You are clearly fascinated with mortality though. You explore death both in “The Great Beauty” and “Youth” to a large degree. You’re not even 50!
There are some psychoanalytical reasons that I don’t fully get right now, most likely. But it’s true. I’m fascinated by elderly people. I hope that when I get old I’m more fascinated by youth.
How long ago did you start brainstorming “Youth”? What inspired the story?
I had this story in mind for a long time. I wanted to tell the story of a conductor. I’m fascinated by musical conductors. I read this story about this great Italian conductor who refused to go and play in front of the queen. It really struck me. I come from a small town, so for me, to think that anybody could place himself on the same level of a queen is really unbelievable. That was really the starting point.
Your English language debut, “This Must Be the Place,” wasn’t a hit with the critics. Were you at all apprehensive about working in the English language again following that experience?
In a way, this was a way for me to get back into that. I feel “This Must Be the Place” was unfairly criticized. It felt unjust the way critics responded to it. It’s a movie that I personally really like. I don’t think it had the success it deserved.
I have to know, do you storyboard your films? Your compositions are so complex and surprising.
Before I used to do that. It was really something important for me. Now that I have more experience, what I do is think about it mentally and then I decide on the spot what to do.
I’m excited for your upcoming HBO miniseries, starring Jude Law. What made you want to take the leap to TV?
First of all, the theme of the Vatican Church is so huge that one film wouldn’t be enough. I needed a broader canvas to develop it. Usually when I write, I write a lot and I sacrifice a lot. For this, I have an opportunity to write what I want.
And with HBO you have the money to do what you want.
I hope so [laughs].