Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Youth


Sure, there's some fairly contrived dialogue scattered throughout Youth.  And yeah, I'm not going to pretend that it isn't inaccurate to say it packs an outsized number of themes and threads into a package that can't quite contain them.  Yes, absolutely, you can even make the argument that it gets a bit masturbatory about its own importance or descends - almost grotesquely - into something too sentimental.  You're right, too, that we could use a version of this with women playing a more active role.  But none of that matters. There are some films we are just individually predisposed to enjoying, just as there are songs we may fall victim to because of a twist in the melody or a specific quality in the singer's voice.  Youth is one such film for me, a beautiful, texturally rich descent into a world-weary pool of exhausted, slow moving European culture mongers.



If The Great Beauty began to establish director Paolo Sorrentino's interest in resurrecting the visual sensibilities of Federico Fellini, Youth doubles down. Set at an Alpine resort, the film recalls the spa of 8 1/2 in its early scenes: perfectly spaced tables, idle entertainment, well-dressed Europeans arranged in editorial tableaux around the grounds.  In the midst of it all, we watch as retired composer/conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) glares through black-framed glasses to turn down the Queen of England, and - minutes in - I am hooked. The portal has opened, I walk into the dream, I remain in reverie until the credits go dark and the theater employees wait patiently.  I move like a somnambulist to another seat in the closed theater bar, I wait for the dream to pass, I consider walking back into the next screening and doing it all again.  I am emotionally wrecked, but it has almost nothing to do with the plot, nothing to do with any of the preformed moves you might anticipate from a film about octogenarians.
This is what makes the power Youth has - for someone like me - difficult to explain.  While it meanders through a version of narrative with a great many stepping stones and themes, plot has little to do with the spell it casts.  It is a fantasy, images that progress in a dream logic, unspooling in front of Fred, his daughter (Rachel Weisz), and his best friend (Harvey Keitel) so that we feel their existential angst, their reflective pauses through the - often exquisite - framing.  Watching Youth is, appropriately, much like listening to a perfectly crafted pop song at exactly the right emotional moment.  If you are open to it, you will feel its strains, absorb the progression of images like a progression of chords.  It's the type of film I wanted to replay, start again, watch to absorb the symphonic quality of the images, the mastery of its photographic elements.

While Sorrentino is certainly not Fellini (that would be blasphemy), he has learned much from 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita.  He is, as someone once said of Fellini, a director who emphasizes images over ideas, something that can be frustrating if you're looking for a conventional narrative or tangible access to character motivations.  Youth doesn't quite do that. While he may be more accessible than Guido's artistic block, Fred is an emotionally crippled figure who lives largely in his head.  There are things we understand about him, things that sit at the surface or are often discussed by people he comes in contact with.  There are other things though, many things, which we will never understand beyond what we can feel in the melancholy of the images.  Youth is haunted at every turn, filled with ghosts of a cultural elite that doesn't quite exist anymore or pretensions on the verge of expiration.  While many I know may want to criticize this as another film where the artists are all old white dudes and a premium is placed on their intellect, I would argue Sorrentino finds in this a very clear failing.  Fred and Keitel's Mick are stuck, relics forced to question their place in a changing world even as they still have the eyes and ears to experience it in such a way that presents us with their supposed "worth."  It's a fitting depiction of a type of artistic decline, an acknowledgment of the limitations that come with changing times and changing abilities.  Most of all?  It's a goddamn visual wonder, a museum-worthy collection of moving images.

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