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From Cannes: "Youth" Not Quite Up to Scratch

Dir. Paolo Sorrentino (Fox Searchlight Pictures)—4 Stars

Two years after “The Great Beauty,” a grandiose love letter to Rome, director Paolo Sorrentino has returns with a film extremely similar in regard both to the style and to the story. However, there is a subtle but important difference between “Youth” and Sorrentino’s acclaimed previous piece: “Youth” deals with a group of people much older than those in “The Great Beauty,” and they are either tired of life or unable to enjoy it as they used to. Instead of partying everywhere in Rome, they are stuck in a resort hotel at the foot of the Alps. Much like a quiet retirement, “Youth” has a charm of its own, but it is something of a disappointment after “The Great Beauty.”

This difference directly influences the cinematography of the film. While “Youth” contains many of Sorrentino’s signature parallel montages and complex camera movements, they are reserved by his standards. Most of these shots are much slower and more contemplative than those in his other films, and, throughout the “Youth” there is a sense of anxiety and boredom as these beautiful shots finally cadence to daily triviality. The majority of the film happens only in a rather ordinary hotel, in which guests have nothing to do but sit on the lawn, eat in the dining hall, and kill time in the swimming pool. While the two main characters Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) often plan to go to other places, they eventually have to return to their resort. For this reason, gorgeous mountain and city shots cut back to dull hotel scenes, and so Sorrentino conveys the futility of trying to return to one’s youth.

Most people in the hotel, though, are nevertheless obsessed with their youth in one way or other. The fat retired soccer player tries to pick up his craft again and is always delighted to give autographs. The washed-up actress wishes to stay relevant and is doing a TV series in Mexico. The protagonist Ballinger always talks about old anecdotes with his best buddy Boyle, remembering, among many things, all the beautiful women they did not have the chance to sleep with. Ballinger is a renowned composer who used to be close with Stravinsky and has recently been invited to conduct his most popular piece, “Simple Songs,” for the Queen of England. However, he refuses the offer due to unexplained “personal reasons.” Boyle is a veteran film director, and is working with a group of aspiring young people on an ambitious screenplay that he hopes will be his testament to life. Sorrentino effectively keeps this theme of obsession in focus without ever becoming repetitive or didactic.

Both Ballinger and Boyle live in a beautiful nostalgia for the lost time, but they have a fundamental difference: As Ballinger puts it, “I never really loved life.” Ballinger is a mixture of hedonism, cynicism, and pessimism, a personality almost identical to that of the protagonist of “The Great Beauty.” Michael Caine’s performance of the character, however, gives the archetype additional layers. He is a witty but self-belittling intellect, a sometimes-stubborn old man, and a father full of regrets of past ignorance of his daughter.

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The biggest problem of “Youth” is that, despite the nuances of the theme and the protagonist, its style is essentially the same as “The Great Beauty,” just on a smaller scale and one less appropriate to the film’s general atmosphere of decay and ennui. It would have been preferable for Sorrentino to develop a different approach more closely suited to the film. In some scenes, it is evident that Sorrentino wants to go grander, as his cinematographic style demands, but restrains himself because the story does not allow him this luxury. This split eventually prevents the movie from becoming a true masterpiece.

—Tianxing V. Lan can be reached at tianxing.lan@thecrimson.com.

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