‘Candy-wrapper music’ hits sweet spot in Cannes ‘Youth’ movie

21 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Youth’: Cannes Review.

Paolo Sorrentino’s new movie set in a Swiss sanatorium is a diverting, minor work, tweaked up with funny ideas and images and visually as stylish as ever. Michael Caine, looking natty in a blue jacket, open-neck shirt and trademark oversized specs, is talking to the Cannes press about the Queen, and the day in 2000 when he became Sir Michael Caine for his contributions to British cinema. “She doesn’t say much but when she knighted me she said, ‘I have a feeling you have been doing what you have been doing for a very long time.’ I almost said: ‘And so have you.’ But then I thought: ‘Keep your mouth shut, Michael, you’re about to lose your knighthood … or get beheaded.” Caine is 82.The 82-year-old actor’s semi-naked body is frequently seen in close-up in Paolo Sorrentino’s bittersweet age drama which has just premiered at the Canne Film Festival. “The only alternative to playing elderly people is playing dead people. There are brilliant flourishes here that could only have come from Sorrentino: superb swooping camera moves, grotesque faces and angular perspectives, and it always watchable.

A film about old artists by a much younger man, Paolo Sorrentino’s second English-language feature is an immeasurable improvement on his first, This Must Be the Place, standing much closer to the level of his 2013 triumph, The Great Beauty, as it takes on potentially heavy material in a disarmingly whimsical, intelligent and keen-witted manner. But it’s beset with Sorrentino’s occasional fanboy weakness for pop-star cameos — Paloma Faith appears here, playing herself and not earning her keep. Caine, in the title role as a compulsive womanizer, appeared in a photo at the time surrounded by models, backsides to the camera, with the film’s title written on their buttocks. I thought that’s a better idea.” Harvey Keitel, 76, turns in a solid performance as a once-great director whose best work is behind him, while Jane Fonda, 77, plays his one-time muse and steals her scenes in a performance as cantankerous older actress.

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, both at the top of their games, wonderfully carry this spirited look at two aging artist friends with distinctly different ideas about how to wind up their creative careers. Youth has a wan eloquence and elegance, though freighted with sentimentality and a strangely unearned and uninteresting macho-geriatric regret for lost time, lost film projects, lost love and all those beautiful women that you never got to sleep with. The title has literary resonances with Conrad and Tolstoy, but the youth evoked is mostly that of young women and young women’s bodies, whose allure never fades for men as they get older. Given that the central characters are a retired 80-year-old composer-conductor and a veteran film director anxious to launch yet another picture, one might reasonably expect to encounter these old gents in autumnal, summing-up mode.

It is all incarnated in Michael Caine, whose face here is an inscrutable mask of worldly disillusion, breaking occasionally into a droll smile: he plays retired British composer Fred Ballinger, currently fending off requests from the Palace to conduct a special Royal Command performance of his early masterpiece Simple Songs. (Fred is supposed to have been an intimate of Stravinsky’s — but this music sounds more like Britten pastiche.) He is undergoing a health check-up at this luxurious state-of-the-art sanatorium, although as he says: “At my age, getting in shape is a waste of time.” Fred is there with his best buddy Mick (Harvey Keitel) an ageing movie director, here with his production team, brainstorming a new film set to star his old diva friend, played by Jane Fonda. Michael Caine stars in the film with Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel and Rachel Weisz (Lionel Cironneau/AP) “There’s something very vulnerable about an old woman who puts on the mask of make-up and everything, and when that’s stripped away she becomes very vulnerable and it’s fun to play,” she said. “For me this movie called Youth says something that I agree with very much – that age is much a question of attitude. The role is a beautiful showcase for Caine’s wryly sensitive disposition, and a welcome reminder that he can do much more than serve as a trusted advisor to the stars of Batman and Interstellar. If you have passion in your life… you remain young and vital in your mind — which is your spirit,” said the age-defying Barbarella star, who with two Oscars and a six-decade career to her name, has nothing left to prove. But Sorrentino does nothing so obvious, establishing an oddly paradoxical tone of relaxed rigor that embraces his characters’ unpretentious reflections on their advanced years and artistic legacies while filling the screen around them with fanciful and bizarre characters reminiscent of Sorrentino’s stylistic forebear Fellini but with none of the latter’s grotesquerie.

There is also an LA movie actor Boyle (Paul Dano), another sufferer from that popular condition: self-congratulatory cynicism, who is preparing for a certain historical role, and astonishes everyone at the spa by appearing one morning in full costume and makeup. He leads an ensemble cast of the other characters in the spa-hotel, who include Fred’s daughter assistant (Rachel Weisz), a dissatisfied hipster movie star (Paul Dano), a Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) who skinny-dips in the hot tub and an obese former South American soccer star.

First and foremost among the odd assortment of wealthy guests at a large hotel spa in the Swiss Alps is Fred Ballinger (Caine), a long-eminent musician being entreated by an emissary of the queen (a very fine Alex MacQueen) to return to London to conduct one concert of his most celebrated composition, “Simple Songs,” in exchange for a knighthood. There has already been much comment online to the effect that Caine is playing the kind of role that might otherwise have gone to Sorrentino’s longtime collaborator Toni Servillo, and it’s true that Caine’s air of sticken ennui does remind you of Servillo. The two men briefly compare notes on physical maladies, such as peeing and memory problems, and the famously womanizing Brit tries to get the equally experienced Yank to say whether he ever scored with the one woman who frustratingly eluded Fred. When the action cuts to memories and fantasies of Venice, where Fred conducted an orchestra, the film suddenly comes alive with power and movement: there is a stunning tableau of St Mark’s Square underwater. But mostly they simply enjoy just batting things around; as Fred later tells his daughter, “We only ever told each other the good things.” As ravishing images cascade onto the screen in what becomes a sustained torrent of great beauty, assorted other characters swim into view.

Even a very quick scene with Jane Fonda losing her temper on a plane frees things up a bit: but mostly we are drifting around the handsome facilities and grounds of this sumptuous but weirdly soulless open prison with its massages and its heated pools. Although Fred insists he’s retired for good, a hint that he doesn’t have conducting entirely out of his system surfaces in a funny sequence in which, on a stroll in the mountains, he “conducts” the moos and bell clangings of a bunch of cows.

It is an idea which is more terrifying than piquant: more disturbing, arguably, than anything Mastroianni’s director faced in 8 ½ — though he himself had youth more or less on his side. Sorrentino has Caine wearing his longish hair combed straight back in the style of Toni Servillo, but it’s actually more disconcerting that the actor has been asked to sport virtually the same hat and, sometimes, sweater habitually worn by Woody Allen.

Twelve year olds come up to me in the street and ask for my autograph, but they don’t know my real name.” When he describes his feelings about the movie’s R-rated European poster, you can still hear the Cockney twang of a regretful Alfie, half a century later: “Us two old guys in swimming pool looking at a beautiful girl with no clothes. A lovely scene has Fred listening to a young boy practicing one of the man’s compositions on the violin; a lewd music video features the new rock star girlfriend of Mick’s son, who has jilted Lena in the process; a second visit by the queen’s representative forces Fred to explain that he has only ever conducted “Simple Songs” with his wife singing them and he’ll never do otherwise, which provokes a moving reaction from Lena, and a scene in which Mick and his writers finally hatch the script ending for which they’ve been searching is beautifully and simply rendered in a single take. But then comes the humdinger, an unexpected visit from the great veteran star Mick is counting on to play the lead and assure the financing of his new film. It’s never convincing when anyone less than a famous actor is asked to play one, so it’s supremely fortunate that Sorrentino was able to enlist Jane Fonda, who struts in deliberately over-made-up and foul-mouthed in Joan Crawford/Ava Gardner mode and brutally tells it like it is to a man who has directed her many times. Most dramatists in film and the theater cannot tackle old age as a subject without piling on philosophical homilies about wisdom, loss, regret, acceptance, what’s most important in life, et al., so Sorrentino’s avoidance of these conventional postures proves enormously refreshing.

Fred Ballinger would seem to represent an exception among musicians, in that composers and conductors in the real world rarely retire; they keep on until they can’t anymore (and sometimes even then, as with Delius). The script pointedly offers reasons to believe his personal life has been tumultuous (including a period of homosexual exploration) and there have to be regrets, but it appears he’s successfully digested, submerged or, as he insists to Mick, forgotten much of it. As for Keitel, he has clearly been rejuvenated by the best part he’s had in a long time; he’s alive to the occasion at hand and to the opportunities of every scene. It remains unclear how and when men from such different creative spheres ever found the time to become such close friends, but the rapport and mutual understanding are absolute.

Weisz hits unexpectedly touching, and sometimes amusing, notes of distress as Fred’s emotionally unresolved daughter, while Dano is vastly entertaining as the actor trying to discover how to play his next character. Of course there is no brew that is everyone’s drink, but in its realm of accessible international art films, Youth will be, for some, entirely intoxicating in the way it forges its immense visual richness, musical intensity, actorly precision and unpretentious approach to thematic concerns.

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