Do artists in their twilight years have a moral obligation to continue to make art? Or are they entitled to wind down the time they’ve got left by internalizing their gifts? Youth, written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, grapples with this question in a visually gratifying film whose transcendent moments seem to mimic the creative side trips that artists take to their fantasy realms.
Set in the present, at a luxurious spa-resort in the Swiss Alps, Youth focuses on two older men who are long-time friends related by marriage.
Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a noted British composer and conductor, now retired. He has courteously but shockingly just turned down – for personal reasons – the Queen’s request that he conduct an orchestral performance of “Simple Songs,” his most famous work, in exchange for being knighted.
Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), who also serves as her father’s professional assistant, has just been dumped by her husband (Ed Stoppard), the son of Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), for Paloma Faith (playing herself).
Mick is a movie helmer who, over a generous career, has built a reputation as a woman’s director. At the spa, he has gathered a group of young collaborators to co-create a script, called “Life’s Last Day,” which he proclaims will be his masterpiece.
So, in the midst of the dissolution of Lena’s marriage that’s out of these old men’s control, both Fred – who’s happy that his working days are behind him – and Mick – who’s still pursuing his craft – are left to contemplate what in their own lives can be logistically eliminated or held on to, even as their memories have clouded over a great deal of their past.
Playing a sort of one-man Greek chorus, surveying the psychological terrain, is Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), a smart, reflective, Novalis-reading young actor, who’s spending time at the spa to contemplate how to play a new role he’s taken on.
What becomes most pressing to the viewer is learning why Fred has declined the Queen’s invitation, and whether Mick will get a solid ending from what seems like a bumbling group of millennial writers. And even if those answers are revealed, do they matter?
Youth’s archetypal theme is that of the Senex, the Saturnine Old Man, whose only job, it seems, is to usher in, well, archetypal youth. On the one hand, Fred is in a position to regain a childlike spark by taking on the royal conducting project. On the other, Mick seems perilously close to admitting that his best work – which includes having directed veteran actress Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda), who visits the spa to tell him she’s passing on starring in his new movie – is indeed behind him. As Brenda, who has instead opted for a role on a television series, venomously spits out, “Your career is over, no one is interested in your testament.” Old age, it seems, does not prevent proverbial takedowns and face-slapping.
The spa behaves as a container for a cast of odd-ball characters, including an ailing, rotund former soccer player who travels with an assistant and a portable oxygen tank; Fred’s masseuse; an elegant older couple who never speak to each other; a mountaineer-instructor whose climbs inspire courage; and a Buddhist monk who says he levitates (but no one believes him). It’s as though, through a narrow aperture on a mountainside, we’re watching life parade in front of us, abetted by glorious visuals and David Lang’s music – a panorama that also ushers in the variables of memory, sensuality, communication, hope and transcendence. However, the more important question here is how people, whose journeys on earth are nearly over, should regard their past accomplishments.
Fred, a serious guy with pure notions about Venusian art and performance, rues the day he allowed a bit of “levity” to enter into his canon via “Simple Songs,” which unintentionally became a globally revered creation. Jimmy is terrified he’ll forever be associated with a role in which he played a robot, and now believes desire, whether pure or immoral, is what makes us alive. Mick, who doesn’t “do routine,” is convinced that emotion is the only thing that matters in artistic output, while Fred believes in rigor.
In the end, Fred speaks for all of us when he comments, “I’ve grown old without knowing how I got here.” Are life’s true triumphs and acmes the results of lighthearted mistakes and veering off a carefully articulated path? Perhaps not knowing is the point.
Archetype: Senex. Artist.
Astrology Archetype: ♄ (Saturn)