Wrinkled greats Caine, Keitel, Fonda shine in “Youth”

21 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Youth’: Cannes Review.

It’s all go at an exclusive Swiss resort where an ageing composer-conductor (Michael Caine) debates whether or not to accept an offer to play for Queen Elizabeth II.This may run contrary to popular opinion, and certainly it does to the plot of Caine’s lyrical new movie Youth, which premiered Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival. “I was at a party with her once,” the 82-year-old British acting legend and two-time Oscar winner told a press conference, following an early-morning screening of Paolo Sorrentino’s Palme d’Or competition film. “And I said, ‘None that I could tell you!’ And she said, ‘While you’re thinking of one, I’ll tell you one.’ And the most annoying thing is, I can’t remember what the joke was!In “The Great Beauty,” there’s a flashback in which a young Jep Gambardella recalls the promise of love — its loss, with the betrayal of youthful ideals, leads to Jep’s crushing self-contempt.CANNES, France (AP) — Paolo Sorrentino’s bittersweet age drama, “Youth,” features a tour de force performance by Michael Caine as a retired conductor reflecting on the passing of time and memories of his wife, a former singer.

His best friend (Harvey Keitel), a film-maker, works with a young team of screenwriters and awaits the arrival of his longtime lead actress (Jane Fonda). But anyway, she has got a great sense of humour.” Hard to tell if Caine was winking up there, on a brightly lit stage alongside his Youth co-stars Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano, but the Queen’s sense of humour is very relevant to Sorrentino’s new film, a late-breaking delight at Cannes 2015 from the Italian writer/director. It’s a tender moment in a film of deep cynicism, and now Paolo Sorrentino, with “Youth,” delivers his most tender film to date, an emotionally rich contemplation of life’s wisdom gained, lost and remembered — with cynicism harping from the sidelines, but as a wearied chord rather than a major motif.

Caine’s character, Fred, bitterly refuses a request by Queen Elizabeth to conduct his most famous work at a royal gala — because it used to be performed by his wife. 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. Youth can’t be ruled out as a Palme contender, despite a mix of cheers and boos heard during the credits in the Grand Théâtre Lumière, since the prize jury includes such lovers of the absurd as the Coen Bros. and Guillermo del Toro. Set in a Swiss spa with two old friends — one a retired composer-conductor, the other an active helmer— “Youth” is less flashy than Sorrentino’s recent pics but no less beautiful. 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.

Over the past year, numerous high-profile women in film have publicly addressed the gender gap in cinema, urging it to be narrowed and to provide more women with opportunities both on and behind the camera. Everything the director’s fans expect is here: stunning compositions (with Luca Bigazzi again behind the lensing), a second-to-none understanding of music’s emotional range, delightfully unexpected interludes, and a towering performance, this time divided in two (or two-and-a-half, since Jane Fonda’s brief turn is indelible).

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. And Jane admitted that it is only as she has gotten older, she has learned to be comfortable with herself and not rely on what people think of her appearance. ‘I did have plastic surgery. An emissary for the Queen informs him that Her Majesty would be delighted to have him come out of retirement to conduct a special performance of his Simple Songs, a suite of tunes Fred has grown to abhor. “Her Majesty the Queen has never been delighted with anything,” Fred harrumphs, as he turns down the royal request — which is actually more of an order. The reason for his contrary mood unfolds, along with a sweep of images both comic and surreal (cinematographer Luca Bigazzi excels) and visitations from very strange people, including a naked Miss Universe, a flamboyant pop star, a levitating monk and a certain notorious figure from the Second World War. Structurally, Sorrentino continues to craft his films like a composer (making Caine’s character especially apposite): There are the grand themes, including aging, memory, love and thirst for further fulfillment, and the minor entr’actes, ranging from spectatorship to the visual pleasure of contrasts, to a near-mystic sense of wonder at beauty in all its forms.

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. 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. The cast includes Keitel as a filmmaker and 60-year friend of Fred’s, Fonda as a vengeful Hollywood star, Dano as a Hollywood superstar escaping his fame (think Johnny Depp) and Weisz as Fred’s emotionally fraught daughter.

And what better locale than the hermetic elements of a spa resort — a setting that unmistakably calls to mind Thomas Mann, Anton Chekhov, “Last Year at Marienbad” and “8 ½,” among many others. She has exaggerated makeup and a near-drag-queen wig, which at one point, humiliatingly falls off in a hysterical diva scene on a plane. “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. 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. That leads to a lot of trouble.’ Meanwhile, before heading to Cannes Fonda paid a visit to The Ellen Degeneres Show where she revealed she enjoyed her first on-screen kiss in 15 years with Craig T.

The poster makes me cry.” Youth delighted Caine sufficiently to make his first appearance at Cannes in nearly 50 years — he was last here for Alfie in 1966, which won a Special Jury Prize — and it also inspired philosophical life thoughts from his co-stars. In the show, the Hollywood legends play frenemies whose husbands (played by Martin Sheen who worked with Tomlin on The West Wing and Sam Waterston who starred in The Newsroom with Fonda) announce they’re in love with each other and plan to get married.

Besides being buddies from way back, the two men are also in-laws, since Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), is married to Mick’s son, Julian (Ed Stoppard). That changes when Julian announces he’s leaving Lena for Paloma Faith (playing a parody of herself and featured in a very funny musicvid caricature/nightmare of “Can’t Rely on You”). 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. And too often, we’re watching scenes that cry out for longer treatment: a stand-off between Fonda and Keitel does not give either actor much room to actually act. Viewers will sense there’s more to the man than that, and Sorrentino rewards the audience when Fred speaks of children not knowing their parents’ ideals — it’s a deeply affecting moment, encapsulating much of what “Youth” says about ideals harbored and lost, and the reservoirs of sentiment so often guarded deep inside all of us.

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. Also at the spa is intellectual actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), famed for playing a robot in the smash hit “Mister Q” and unable to escape from its long shadow (think “Birdman,” but far less neurotic). 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. Yet he doesn’t always understand what he imagines he sees, especially when he equates his frustrated inability to shed the “Mister Q” image with Fred’s refusal to perform “Simple Songs.” “We allowed ourselves to give in, just once to a little levity,” Jimmy tells Fred, mixing up “simple” with simplistic and thereby missing the whole point about the music (as well as the value in levity).

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. Unwilling to let any of it ebb is Hollywood star Brenda Morel (Fonda), who’s come to tell Mick she won’t star in his movie and gives him a cold shower of invective about his arty pretensions. 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. Brenda is something of a monster — one finds them peppered throughout Sorrentino’s films — and Fonda grabs hold of the role with all her consummate presence, a tough-as-nails aging woman quick to deride others but not capable of holding up a mirror to herself.

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. They’re used almost like minor musical passages to maintain tone, but they’re also possible expressions of the philosophy of fragments propagated by the German Romantic philosopher Novalis, who’s referenced in a conversation between Jimmy and Fred: Fragments can often convey ideas more powerfully and subtly than grand statements. Caine’s very English reserve, vocally expressed via his line delivery in phrases, forms a terrific contrast to Keitel’s more flowing Americanisms, yet both men use their natural characteristics to convey a lifetime of success as well as delusions, love as well as pain.

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). Bigazzi’s evocative lensing is once again a marvel to behold, compositionally striking yet never emptily so, deeply cognizant of Old and Modern Master references (and not just the appropriate Susannah and the Elders scene). 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.-Switzerland) A Fox Searchlight (in U.S.)/Pathe (in France) release of an Indigo Film, Barbary Films, Pathe, France 2 Cinema, Number 9 Films, C-Films, RSI-Radiotelevisione Svizzera/SRG SSR, Teleclub production, in collaboration with Medusa Film, Mediaset Premium, in association with Barilla G. et R. 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.

Fratelli, BNL Group BNP Paribas, Film4, with the participation of Canal Plus, Cine Plus, France Televisions. (International sales: Pathe Intl., Paris.) Produced by Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima, Carlotta Calori. 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. Coproducers, Fabio Conversi, Jerome Seydoux, Muriel Sauzay, Romain Le Grand, Vivien Aslanian, Stephen Woolley, Elizabeth Karlsen, David Kosse, Anne Walser. 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.

Camera (color, widescreen), Luca Bigazzi; editor, Cristiano Travaglioli; music, David Lang; production designer, Ludovica Ferrario; art director, Marion Schramm; costume designer, Carlo Poggioli; sound (Dolby Atmos), Emanuele Cecere; sound editor, Silvia Moraes; associate producer, Guendalina Ponti; line producer, Paul Sarony; assistant director, Davide Bertoni.

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