An infinity pool of beautiful hogwash, Paolo Sorrentino‘s follow-up to Best Foreign Film Oscar-winner “The Great Beauty” attracted jeers and cheers from the audience following its Cannes debut today. And also from me, internally, as a kind of running commentary throughout the experience of watching it. When everything operates at such a high pitch, when each successive scene feels like it’s a climax or a conclusion (seriously, any filmmaker who can’t find an ending to their film should root around inside “Youth” — it’s probably knocking about in there somewhere), early on you simply abandon the attempt to discern any sort of rhythm or flow or overarching meaning. But still, those vignettes and images and hallucinations parade past your eyes like models preening on a catwalk, so it’s all you can do to sit in hasty judgement on each successive wannabe — Bravo! Boo! Boo! and so on.
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Simplistic as the binary of yay or nay might feel as a response to a Cannes competition film, it seems appropriate for a movie that deals almost exclusively in simplistic oppositions: age against youth, beauty against ugliness, attractiveness against insignificance, intelligence against idiocy, with very little in between. There is no shading, there is no ambiguity, and while there are observations and stilted epithets aplenty, there is precious little wisdom.
The story follows a motley ensemble staying in an uber-luxurious modern resort in Switzerland, where retired composer, Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), and his assistant/daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), have come on holiday with Fred’s old friend, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). Boyle is a famous director who has an entourage of unlikely screenwriters in tow so he can finish the script for his next film, which is to be his “testament,” and is to star his frequent collaborator, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda). The other occupants of the hotel include: Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), a young actor, harried by the knowledge that he’s most famous for playing a robot, who is researching a part that is a pretty funny reveal later on; the newly crowned Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea); an obese Maradona-esque famous footballer; a visiting emissary sent by Her Maj the Queen to try and persuade Fred to conduct a special concert for her; Lena’s husband, Julian (Ed Stoppard), who has just left her; and Paloma Faith, playing herself and failing. Though to be fair, she gets a raw deal, trundled in to deliver a couple of lines only to be shunted off, called “the most insignificant woman in the world,” referred to as ugly and forced, presumably at gunpoint, to appear in an awful music video/dream sequence.
The director teams again with ‘Great Beauty’ DP Luca Bigazzi, and “Youth” mostly looks great, occasionally even breathtaking, with the hotel providing the kind of lush surroundings and clean lines that Sorrentino loves to compose, with special mention for the early dream sequence set in a flooded St Mark’s Square at night. There are some winning performances, too: Weisz plays Lena mostly as a kind of grown-up, charming but spoilt child, except for one startling monologue of extended recrimination directed against her neglectful Dad. And Jane Fonda is unexpectedly interesting, caked unflatteringly in full-on Norma Desmond make up, but getting to deliver one of the film’s best exchanges, full of acid and meta-commentary on the movies and TV.
Meanwhile, Caine and Keitel are fun, and we could wish the film had featured more of these two actors chatting and bumbling around — imagine Statler and Waldorf turned intensely self-pitying and competitively obsessed with each other’s ability to urinate. Dano is strong, too, somehow perfectly in tune with a film whose tone is all over the bloody map. Ghenea is mostly there to be stunningly beautiful, and stunningly naked in the pool scene, but she is well cast for that, and Sorrentino’s camera, like the two old fellas in the pool with her, is admiring but never anything as ugly as lascivious.
Most redeemingly, flashes of humor pierce the otherwise unwavering self-indulgence: a motorised-chair collision happening incidentally in a passageway; Maradona playing impossible soccer with a tennis ball; Fred in a field conducting the cows so that their moos and bells create music; a mountain climber describing finding a bedside table at the summit of K2; and in a wildly surreal tableaux that suggests an entire film we’d prefer to have been watching — Hitler at teatime in a grand, white dining room.
But the low points cut deeper. At one point, Fred pontificates that the great thing about music is “You don’t need words to understand it. It just is.” Sadly, despite frequent references to the inadequacy of language, the film is surprisingly wordy, and a lot of it is written in that awkward English-as-a-second-language argot, with idioms so carefully placed they feel unnatural, and characters often beginning their answers by repeating the question. It is not Sorrentino’s first time working in English (that was “This Must Be The Place” which might have sent a cautionary thrill of fear down the spine of any lover of the tongue), but the script is unmistakably not the work of a native speaker, which is especially odd when the words come out of the mouths of actors who are. The film is overtly about music, too, but some of the soundtrack choices fall far short of the kind of swell of emotion you’d hope for when a song strikes up loud over a lovely image, while Fred’s composition “Simple Songs,” when we finally hear it, is oddly deflating.
Perhaps that’s because the very thing his composition and the film lacks is simplicity, which is ironic as its thinking is so simplistic. Everything is ramped-up, hyper, effortful and constructed. Very rarely are things just allowed to be, a silence allowed to reign, or a real human moment allowed to bloom. It’s a film so arch it’s nearly triumphal, but so hollow it crumbles to dust at the slightest tap. “We are all just extras” says Keitel’s Boyle at one point, and it’s truer than Sorrentino could have known when he wrote the line: nothing here is essential. [C+]