[Review written by Matthew Lowe]
At a luxurious hotel/health retreat in the Swiss Alps, Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel traverse the green outdoors immersed in philosophical dialects about the quantity and quality of their aged urinations. An emissary from the British monarchy interrupts to request Caine’s attendance (he is a legendary composer) at a recital for the Queen and Prince Phillip. Keitel – a legendary film director – hallucinates of a meadow populated by the totality of his female casting while exchanging draft ideas with an incubus of young screenwriters and battling the mean-spirited will of his leading lady, Jane Fonda. Meanwhile, Caine’s daughter, played by Rachel Weisz, is dumped for Paloma Faith, playing herself; Mark Kozelek sings to the hotel guests on a rotating platform; and Miss Universe (Mãdãlina Ghenea) removes her towel and bends downwards in the pool shallows to grant the aged Caine and Keitel a last sympathetic glimpse of youthful vulva.
If all this sounds bizarre, it is, but what actually makes Paolo Sorrentino’s (The Great Beauty) Youth bizarre is that it isn’t supposed to be. Youth is a somewhat serious meditation on ageing, memory, youth and death, of reconciling oneself with the expansive past that inevitably plagues or -alternately- eludes the elderly.
Yet it is full of peculiar digressions, and as a whole, never resembles reality so much as a strange purgatorial limbo for wealthy artisans. Its premise -a hotel ensconced with a myriad of moping pseudo pop-culture personalities- has no bearing at all on a rationale that simply does not exist, but which simultaneously degrades the seriousness of its intent. If, say, Fellini covered similar conceptual ground in 8½, his fantasies were poignant because they were relative to reality, whereas the oddly fantastical nature of Youth is only relative to itself, and thus feels more alien than it should.
This is not to say that there are no genuine moments of beauty within the film, or that it is never touching. It often is, but unfortunately it is also turgid, in terms of both pace and content, less a celebration of life than a premature period of mourning for the soon to depart. The problem is that this quality feels incidental rather than a squarely deliberate accentuation of reverie, an artefact of the uneven tone that plagues the film throughout.
Regardless of the intent, however, the question is whether anyone needs to spend two hours watching Michael Caine’s wrinkly flesh kneaded by a twenty-something masseuse in between the endless vocal reminders of what a lousy person his character was – a guy who neglected his family everlastingly in the pursuit of art.
The point is, even as a mournful reverie, Youth is not exactly as moving as it should be because Caine’s curmudgeonly geezer is such an unlikeable piece of work. And if it is moving, the direction is downbeat and the effect is of a particularly lush wake. This is not the most uplifting of experiences, especially since its oddness makes its direness arbitrary in collusion.
All in all, Youth is an interesting film, but for most of the wrong reasons. Elegiacally poignant in spite of those reasons and not because of them, Youth is an acquired taste that confuses chocolate with citrus.