Youth is many things: a family drama, a buddy comedy, a tour de force in cinematography, a rejection of apathy - but above all it’s an artist’s manifesto.
Perhaps most striking about Youth is it’s inventive use of space. Virtually the entire film takes place within the confines of this one resort. Yet, its walls are filled with such rich, Fellini-esque, characters constantly wandering around and bouncing off each other that these walls never feel stale. Sorrentino’s constantly lensing new areas of the resort or shooting the same locations in different manner so the film feels less like a strict linear tour of a location than a glimpse into a prismatic world that only unfolds and reveals further beauty as the film goes on, the otherwise disconnected vignettes compile and complement each other through strict spatial and temporal association.
Sorrentino uses this space as a theater through which he puts ideologies, embodied by characters, in conversation. These people represent the most exaggerated peaks of society: famous artists, pop stars, ex-revolutionaries, monks and emissaries – and with it their complex corresponding composites of deeply held beliefs; all that was good and important in the continental social sphere had at last come to intersect at one specific point deep in the Swiss Alps, where therein they ferment. Sorrentino’s endeavor takes those cultural bastions of exalted attention and put them in talks, as if to dialectically distill the core of their appeal.
But to say Youth is a mere meditation on the celebrity aura would be a discredit to its more nuanced approach. Much like last years’ Birdman, Youth takes on the question of popular culture; but here Sorrentino uses the question as a point of departure rather than a point of contention and spends the film delicately examining it through real human emotion rather than throwing an existential fit and producing two hours of cinematic masturbation. Forget sparing the rod, Birdman spent its time treating the audience as the deaf, dumb, and mute child caught stealing from a cookie jar. Youth asks why you stole in the first place, suggesting maybe there wasn’t something so wrong with that to begin with. The child, Sorrentino notes, was the coordinates of the place and the time where we could be happy.
It’s no surprise then that Youth’s sweetest moments come when we find our characters completely alone: Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) orchestrates a field of empty cattle, our ex-revolutionary kicks a around a tennis ball with child-like glee, Ballinger’s young masseuse jumps with electricity to the latest dancing game. Even the nightly shows - what ought to be wholly communal experience, passed off by one of the characters as facile schlock - are seen through the tunneled view of individual characters, their reaction shots framed isolated in close-up. These are moments free from that ‘mature’ chastising embodied so well on both sides of the fight between Innaritu’s Riggan and his thin-nosed critic - more the result of jealousy than some innate hierarchy of artistic pursuits, if anything.
Ballinger walks together with his friend, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), down a long worn path in a meadow and remarks that he can no longer remember his family’s faces. Having just fought with his daughter in the moments preceding - with tears, screaming, and rejection - one can’t help but wonder if she too wouldn’t remember him. Or if she did, would it be worth it?
The two continue to fight over her mother, Ballinger insisting that he understood her while she berates him for sleeping around. But he didn’t know her, he didn’t know a goddamn thing. But what of it? Soon too she’d be forgotten. And in time, famous as he were, that long gone composer to whom the Queen of England so insistently beg play would be reduced to the name at the bottom of those “Simple Songs” for the crumpled practice of bad musician kids in far off lands.
Ballinger repeatedly states that his “Simple Songs” were written for his wife: he refuses the Queen’s emissary; he recounts his daughter this story; he’s driven to tears by this thought; and yet they were not written for his wife. They were only for the love of her, for his love - the product of light bounced back, refracted, and endlessly received in retina – but not the source. He says that they can only be sung by her; they can only be sung for him - his mind sings the world through her. Her voice gone, so too goes that man - forgetting himself part into time.
Indeed, in the halcyon walls of this tucked away resort, the aged flesh walking through with the measured beat of those same hands that so ceaselessly wipe its inhabitants, life appears montage of faces, each easily lost in multifaceted complexity or vain transience. At the day’s close, none of it all mattered. We were all (bitterly, melancholic, and sweetly) forgotten in the act of speaking. But it was not this forgetfulness that brought us to a pressing concern for our actions or an irreconcilable apathy of doing, more so a humble admission to mortality. As the actions passed by, we didn’t worry that it was worthwhile or altogether significant - not that we forgot the faces, but that they were smiling.