He won the 2013 foreign-language Oscar for “The Great Beauty,” one of the best movies of the past decade, and follows this up with his second English-language film, ‘Youth,” an equally stunning film visually that evokes memories of Fellini’s “8 1/2” and “Juliet of the Spirits.”
The movie is set in an Alpine spa that spreads itself out splendidly amid gardens, pools and vistas from which to contemplate majestic, soaring mountains.
The actual location is Berghotel Schatzalp, a historic hotel high up in the Swiss Alps near Davos, said to have inspired Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain.” You can well believe it.
The place feels less like a tourist hotel than a sanatorium with its baths, massages and mostly elderly clientele. From the opening shot, a stunning, surreal revolving view of the Retrosettes Sister Band performing a cover of “You Got the Love,” created by Sorrentino and longtime cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi, you realize the director has placed you in a dreamlike world.
The conversations in the foreground between major characters proceed in a fairly realistic mode but in the background are oddities, peculiar characters, strange rituals and figments of the imagination.
Its two protagonists are Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a renowned British composer/conductor firmly retired from the classical music scene, and his longtime friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), an American film director surrounded by a staff of four young writers to help him finish the screenplay for a final film he believes will be his magnum opus.
Fred is accompanied by his sad and disappointed daughter, who is also his assistant, Lena (Rachel Weisz). Which makes things mighty awkward when Lena’s husband (Ed Stoppard), who happens to be Mick’s son, leaves her to run off with a pop star (played by real-life British pop star Paloma Faith).
These two appear in the hotel setting too but it’s unclear how they got there or if indeed they’re really there. It doesn’t much matter for the point is her husband’s desertion triggers memories not only of her now-failed marriage but her parents’ own difficult marriage.
Memories are crucial here. The two old pals are having a hard time searching their memory banks for clues about themselves, their parents and how they got to this point. They even quarrel over a woman from the distant, distant past, whom Fred fell madly in love with but she may have slept with Mick instead. But Mick, literally, can’t remember.
A high-profile American actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) bonds with Fred. He understands, or at least he thinks he does, the composer’s frustration with “fans,” who never fail to remind him of his first major hit yet ignore all subsequent work. Jimmy too had an early hit as a character named Mr. Q, a robot no less, that seems to define his legacy as an actor.
On the periphery drift characters with Joseph Heller-like zaniness: An older couple dines alone and never speaks. An ex-footballer carries around with him the belly of a woman nine-months pregnant.
A young massage therapist in braces dances in her own room. A Miss Universe arrives for a stay at the spa, thinking nothing of walking into a pool absolutely naked, showing off the wonders of her womanhood, physical training and plastic surgery.
An emissary of Queen Elizabeth (Alex MacQueen) arrives, twice in fact, to importune Fred to return to London to conduct a royal concert of that early composition, “Simple Songs.” He refuses each time. More frustrating, for the emissary, is that Fred refuses to say why.
While everyone seems to have trouble remembering the past, and their youth, you sense that Fred is working very hard to forget his. His daughter does bring it up to him, his troubles with his wife, who for some reason is still back in Italy, and his “sexual experimentations,” about which nothing is said afterwards.
The film establishes no reason for the aging composer and tough director to be such bosom buddies. They just are, taking their holidays in this same hotel year after year or so you’re told.
A late intrusion into the unsettling calm of hotel life comes with the invasion of Mick’s muse, a legendary film diva played with coarse elegance and overstated costumes, wig and makeup by Jane Fonda.
This fails to have a the impact the filmmaker appears to be seeking, perhaps because at this point Fonda brings her own baggage to any film role so you don’t quite buy her as a Gloria Swanson/“Sunset Boulevard” drag queen.
It’s acting. In fact, it’s overacting.
“Youth” is a much harder film to connect with than “The Great Beauty.” There is a lovely interweave of comedy and caprice and of contemplative ironies, as with the earlier work, but the film plays it coy.
“Youth” makes few concessions to audience comprehension since it’s not about any one thing but quite a few things, a theme shot through a prism refracting into subplots of different colors and emotions. It’s about choices made when young and repercussions in old age; it’s about how one handles age or doesn’t; it’s about passion or the lack thereof.
Mick has passion for film, no doubt the same passion that animates all of Paolo Sorrentino’s projects. Fred claims he’s been diagnosed as ”apathetic,” which probably didn’t need clinical confirmation.
Jimmy Tree is searching for the inspiration for his next role in a movie about to shoot. You sense it’s not coming.
The soundtrack, reflective of a story about a musician, roams from Stravinsky to David Byrne to an over-the-top music video by Paloma Faith that confirms Lena’s worst nightmare.
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang contributes his first film score (he did a composition for “The Great Beauty”) with a refined, contemporary classicism of exquisite loveliness.
There is also a shock ending that I, for one, don’t buy. It feels out of character for one person or else the character wasn’t made clear in the first place.
All of which means another visit to the Swiss spa may be necessary to absorb more of the atmosphere, visual richness and juxtapositions of those breathtaking images.
Opens: December 4, 2015 (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Production companies: Indigo Film, Medusa Film, Barbara Films, Pathé, France 2 Cinema, Number 9 Films, C-Films
Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Mark Kozelek, Robert Seethaler, Alex MacQueen, Luna Mijovic, Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Alex Beckett, Nate Dern, Mark Gessner
Director-screenwriter: Paolo Sorrentino
Producers: Nicola Giliano, Francesca Cima, Carlotta Calori
Executive producer: Viola Prestieri
Director of photography: Luca Bigazzi
Production designer: Ludovica Ferrario
Music: David Lang
Costume designer: Carlo Poggioli
Editor: Cristiano Travaglioli
R rating, 119 minutes