Something must have been lost in translation – how else can Youth be so bad when La Grande Bellezza was so good? Can the artificial beauty of the latter have lapsed so suddenly into prettified artifice? Why has the odd universality (well, universal if we restrict ourselves to rich, ageing middle-class white men) evinced by La Grande Bellezza’s Roman specificity descended into sophomoric bromides – into emotional appeals as potent as the flaccid cocks of the film’s protagonists?
Perhaps the real reason is that it was written and directed by a man not yet out of his mid-40s. It is a rare director who makes a wise film about ageing without being old himself, and Paolo Sorrentino is not that director. Still in awe of Fellini, Sorrentino lacks the maestro’s wit, humour and imagination; a few snappy lines (“Nothing like a tunnel to make you feel like you’re in a tunnel,” says Harvey Keitel’s character, on a break-up that happened in a tunnel) float about like flotsam in a sea of tin-eared writing, while numerous scenes are glazed over with the superficial slo-mo stylings of Wong Kar Wai in his more garishly tasteless moments. Still, one can hope these are simply the longueurs attendant on international success – I haven’t yet seen Le Conseguenze dell’amore, his 2004 breakthrough, but I would still very much like to.
Here’s the synopsis of Youth (stop me if you’ve heard this one before): Michael Caine’s renowned conductor-composer is in terminal relaxation mode in a Swiss mountainside resort, also inhabited by Paul Dano’s I-did-a-hit-movie-and-lost-my-integrity actor and Harvey Keitel’s writer-director trying to finish scripting his latest movie. The British queen’s emissary is trying to coax a recalcitrant Caine out of retirement; Caine is reluctant because the albatross ‘round his neck – his ‘Simple Songs’ compositions – were written for his estranged wife, and no other soprano could ever be allowed to sing them.
Surreal comic interludes are provided by an obese footballer (played by Roly Serrano) and a naked Miss Universe (Mădălina Diana Ghenea), on whose body the camera shamelessly lingers without really saying anything besides gently teasing its two elderly protagonists and – you guessed it – its ageing target audience. Harvey and Michael are old pals; Harvey’s son has dumped Michael’s daughter for Paloma Faith (played by Paloma Faith) for a reason as superficial – “She’s really good in bed” – as the film itself.
If the film’s aesthetic hadn’t overpowered every semblance of meaning with its self-satisfied sheen, there would have been some genuine poignancy to be found. The fate of Caine’s character’s wife, as a late reveal, might have had real impact if we’d cared more about Caine’s character; and Dano’s character, while hardly original, might have been fleshed out a little more such that his brief scene as a dolled-up Adolf Hitler actually meant something. The repeated sight of ageing flesh is one of the film’s few functional recurring conceits. As it is, its ironically picture-perfect cinematography brings to mind Yorgos Lanthimos’ recent movie The Lobster, a superficial film that at least had the decency to be funny.
Though it’s fitting that the enervation induced by life’s later stages be reflected through languid frames, this film borders on the comatose. Not even a vaunted cameo by Jane Fonda as a Hollywood diva betraying cinema for television – and there’s little doubt that Keitel’s feeble protestations that TV is shit and film is art reflect Sorrentino’s own hobbled worldview – can save this turgid squib from disappearing into its own moisturised wrinkles.