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Tuesday, December 8, 2015
Paolo Sorrentino | Youth
returning to life
by Douglas Messerli
Paolo Sorrentino (writer and director) Youth / 2015
Somewhat like his previous own film, The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino’s new work, Youth is, in fact, a thing of great beauty that takes us on a meditation of an older man observing the pandered young and old among us. And in that voyage, we are seduced—very much the way Federico Fellini used to seduce us—by the hedonism and perversity of the rich and famous. Films such as Youth and Fellini’s 8 1/2, which Sorrentino references in this work, may seem like grandly absurd satires, but we know that they are also based on some truth about the way their gilded, grand figures have actually lived their lives.
Filming centrally at Switzerland’s Hotel Schatzalp—the location also of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain—the director calls up not only the glorious pre-war remnants of the belle epoque, but purposely references the Roman spas of Fellini’s post-World War II work, in which the resort visitors daily marched to the music of daily baths, mud-baths, and massages, while nightly being wined, dined, and entertained by singers, clowns, choruses, and magic acts. The general age of the decaying, overweight pilgrims is ancient, and the place literally drips with incapacitation and ennui; the few youthful denizens, Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea), Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), a Johnny Depp-like actor who has gained fame less for his well-acted characterizations than for his role as a heavily costumed robot, and two precocious children, a young film-loving girl and a violin-playing boy who, obviously, have already been so pampered that in a few years it will be hard to tell them from their elders.
Ballinger’s personal secretary-daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz) is married to Boyle’s son Julian (Ed Stoppard), who early on in the film, breaks up with Lena in order to run off with the real-life pop singer, Paloma Faith, who, although lacking any of Lena’s dark beauty is, he informs us, “great in bed.”
If Boyle is still determined to work, even as it becomes apparent that his masterpiece is an empty-headed piece of nonsense, Ballinger is insistent on gradually removing himself from life. The film begins with a visit to him from Queen Elizabeth’s envoys, requesting that he conduct a performance of his beloved “Simple Songs” on the occasion of Prince Philip’s birthday.
For “personal reasons” Ballinger plays Bartleby to their requests, repeating again and again that he “prefers not.” In fact Ballinger has become a kind of Bartleby, preferring not do much of anything, including writing his memoirs—desperately wanted by a European publisher—or, when Lena lashes out at him after she has been jilted, to face up to his past, wherein, from his daughter’s viewpoint, he has basically abandoned both mother and child for his career and other romantic infatuations with both other women and men (reminding one a bit of elements of composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein’s life). He is “apathetic” as Lena describes him, which, we quickly perceive, might describe nearly all those visiting this outrageously expensive retreat, each of them, in one sense or another, running away or escaping from the truths of their lives.
The problem is that once Sorrentino establishes this he seems at a loss himself where to take his own piece of cinema. It may be fascinating and even fun for a short while to see these extravagantly blessed beings commiserating for their down-on-their-luck feelings and stewing recriminations, but in a short while it becomes absolutely maddening, as if we were watching a group of elderly millionaires sitting in the corner to cry their eyes out. True, these highly successful gripers do their gripping often with a high dose of wit; and we all recognize that, in truth, they lived out their fabled existences not so very differently from most of us, full of clumsy sloppiness. But daily interchanges about how much they have been able to piss each morning quickly turns into what might have been a quick-floating joke into a yawn-inducing arch of the eye-lid. And no matter how Sorrentino attempts through Boyle’s daily attempts to creatively spur on his team with group hugs and Ballinger’s private compositions among the cows, the film can’t quite determine whether or not it wants to be a satire or a sad meditation upon the arts and what it means to grow older.
As it is, it remains caught in between. And the sad comic duo at film’s center, in their increasing listlessness and voyeurism, lose our interest. Despite the presence, at moments, of the god-like appearance in the totally undressed Miss Universe and the inexplicable dressing up of disaffected robot actor as Hitler—perhaps in an attempt to try-out his next character in what will be a German-made movie—we quickly begin to long to leave this moribund costume-drama behind.
Only when the director calls out—a bit like a summoning of the Eumenides—a frightfully made-up aged Jane Fonda as Boyle’s great actress-love Brenda Morel does the film begin to wake up.
She has, as she puts it, “trotted her ass from LA to Europe” in order to tell her former mentor that he is a has-been director who she should no longer be allowed to make another film, and that she has no intention of appearing in his great final “testament.” Besides she’ll make more money playing in a Mexican soap opera, enough to pay off her debts and buy a house in Miami. In an over-the-top, bravura performance Fonda so clearly lays out the situation of both Boyle’s personal failures and the problem with the film, that the director—after another unfruitful conversation with Ballinger, wherein he explains why he cannot abandon his art as his friend appears to have—he suddenly jumps over the alpine-high balcony to his death. For Boyle, it appears, emotion is everything!
In the meantime, we have discerned that the reason why Ballinger will not perform his “Simple Songs” (a momentous work composed just for this film by Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer David Lang) is that he wrote it for and it was sung by only his wife—a woman, now living in Venice, who, he explains, can no longer sing.
Finally released from the retreat, Ballinger alone must face up to his own youth, to the past that he has refused to embrace throughout the story. Returning to Venice, he brings flowers to his incarcerated wife, who sits throughout his gentle conversation—during which he calls up a deeply loving life between the two of them, despite everything, that his daughter might never have imagined—staring out the window with open mouth, obviously suffering from severe Alzheimer’s or dementia.
The sadness of their life, as well as the beauty of it, is summed up, finally, in a performance of his “Simple Songs,” in concert, after all, before the Queen and Prince, sung by soprano Sumi Jo and violinist Viktoria Mullova with BBC Concert Orchestra. The simple beauty of that music restores much of the energy previously missing from this film, and stunningly explains its previous lethargy. Yet Sorrentino’s determination to visually finalize some scenes back at the retreat and depict the mid-air breakdown of Brenda Morel during the performance sentimentalizes everything, while the “simple” presentation of music surely might have been expression of the central character’s sorrow and redemption enough.
Los Angeles, December 16, 2015