On Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film,“Youth”, and its place among earlier works

There were many direct questions asked at the 2015 Cannes Festival Conference, where Paolo Sorrentino came to present his latest film, Youth. The directness had to do with the title, and its discrepancies with the hierarchy of the cast. Sir Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel are often ones to confront these questions. “As an actor, are you concerned about youth and the desire to create?”, asks a middle-aged French reporter. “I just wish I could get the youth back, but I can’t, so the next best thing was to be in a film called Youth”, Sir Michael Caine responds deftly. “I’m 82, and everybody goes, why is it called Youth if you’re in it?”. The reporter laughs and turns to the 76-year-old Harvey Keitel: “Do you sometimes think of the last film you’re going to make?”. In several minutes he restlessly follows up with a question for Paul Dano: “You’re still young, 30–31… Are you keeping yourself for later, are you trying to not make too many films?”. The wording of these questions often proves confusing for the actors. Eventually, reporters turn to Paolo Sorrentino himself in order to seek explanation. “What’s your secret?”, asks a young woman from an online French magazine called MadmoiZelle, “What do you do in order to not forget how to live as you grow old?..Why did you make this movie at this moment of your life?”

This is not the first time Sorrentino examines the topic of age. An old couple quarrels in his second feature film, The Consequences of Love, as the bluffing husband says, “Death should be a spectacle, it should be special. My life was a spectacle”. “The spectacle is coming to an end, Carlo”, replies his exasperated wife, “It’s time to conclude”. Other characters like to talk about age with sarcasm. “Ormano, at my age beauty is not enough”, says Jep Gambardella to his friend in the Great Beauty. “At my age getting in shape is merely a waste of time”, echoes Fred Ballinger in Youth while being massaged just as Tony Pisapia relaxing backstage at the beginning of One Man Up. However, Sorrentino likes to put his protagonists through a certain healing procedure, and it often hurts. In Youth the mere concept of age undergoes treatment.

It is the figure of the retired soccer player — a man of substantial physique with the Karl Marx tattoo on his back — that imperceptibly becomes Sorrentino’s oracle; he provides the explanation for the film’s title and its essential idea. One evening the player’s blonde assistant, usually seen dragging a respiratory machine behind, is massaging his feet, while he is wistfully looking in the direction of a spectral field where the teams are drawn up in front of a young player leaping in slow motion. “What are you thinking about?”, she asks. “Al futuro”, comes his response, unexpected in view of a seen flashback (yet in Spanish — as expected from a Diego Maradona look-alike). When asked about the film’s title, Sorrentino explained: “The film’s idea is how we think about future, how the future always offers a possibility of liberty, and liberty is a state inherent to youth”. To live thinking that the next day contains freedom doesn’t mean living under the banners of “YOLO” and “FOMO”, but “to live knowing that in theory you could do anything — without necessarily doing it”.

In her famous essay Goodbye to All That Joan Didion describes a feeling of levity and omnipotent possibility of choices and their handling inherent to her early days in New York: “Nothing was irrevocable; everything was within reach”. A much older Mick Boyle issues a similar line in Youth. Taking his young cast of actors onto an observation deck up in Davos, he shows his female actress to a pair of binoculars. “You see that mountain over there? Everything seems really close. That’s the future”, he tells her, pointing onto the peak that looks a hand stroke away. A twist and a look through the fish-eyed end of the lens and the distorted, distant view of the rest of the crew is a metaphor for the past. The film shows a struggle that happens inside the binoculars, a mood that draws some characters to the fish-eyed lens, like Mike who quits when the past seems to press too much onto his failed present. Others are drawn over to the proper side of the lens, like Fred who ends up performing in front of the Queen — or having considered the possibility of it.

During a festival conference at Cannes Jane Fonda mentions the “Maradona” character as an example of a man brought alive and young by his passion. She remembers his solo moment at a tennis court, juggling a small neon ball with obvious strain but incredible vigour, and Mr Ballinger noticing those mysterious, eloquent leaps above the fence from over the terrace. Fonda’s perspective — that of the gateway to youth through passion — may not exactly align with Sorrentino’s, but it finds a rather specific repercussion in the film’s corpus with Paul Dano’s character, Californian actor Jimmy Tree. He’s in Davos preparing for a new role (or, quite literally — for getting into a new skin), eventually coming to a passionate realization of his professional wishes. In “choosing between showing horror and desire” he picks the latter, after having undergone a brief and striking metamorphosis into Hitler who hobbles around with a wooden staff from a nearby alpine store. (Curiously, Jimmy goes to pick the staff right after accidentally spotting the soccer player’s staff abandoned against the ironwork fence during an improvised autograph session). Like a patient who has recovered his appetite, Jimmy, who is more of a contemplative, taciturn observer during the film, suddenly opens up to Mick, reclining on the round stage outside of the hotel where a day or two before Mark Kozelek sat singing, sustaining vowels and notes, “Contained in everything I do,/ There’s a longing I feel for you”, etc.

Another way of keeping the passion, or, if preferred, the idea of youth “à la Sorrentino” is considering the possibilities of your children; quite simply, investing into their alternatives. In light of this tangent one could look at Fred and Mick taken independently, by themselves, but also at Fred and Mick taken as fathers. They are relatives — to each other, due to their children’s relationship, disrupted though it is, but also relatives of themselves, as they step in and out of their role attires. Their children’s unexpected entrances give them fuller definition, and establish the ground for their obvious comparison. Mick feels alienated from his son as he learns about Julian’s separation from Lena, Fred’s daughter. In its brevity and formality Julian’s explanatory visit to the hotel compares to that of the Queen’s emissary. It also shows that father and son have never been too close in the first place: Mick’s wife left him and never tried to come back, which is reason enough for Julian to do the same to Lena. By contrast, the Fred-Lena dichotomy unravels gradually, throughout the film. We learn, too, that as “an artist” and a significant cultural figure of his time Fred hasn’t been close to his family. Clad in mud lying next to her father, Lena bursts out into a resentful tirade about her father’s trail of men and women; the hierarchy in which his children and wife, Melanie, occupied a far less glamorous and significant position than work; his constant alienation and absence from their daily lives and emotions. (Indeed, Fred seems to be genuinely surprised telling Mick “he has never seen anyone cry so much” when Lena comes back from a failed trip to Polynesia). However, Melanie never left Fred, unlike Mick’s anonymous wife, and if the past holds a lifetime of alienation, the present — a stay at the hotel — is the time for rapprochement. Novalis quoted on a sunny walk by Jimmy Tree — “I am always going home, always to my father’s house” — is a flaunting epitome for this kind of dynamic symbolizing a return to one’s past, one’s memories, convictions as of a prodigal son, a prodigal soul. For it is now that Mr. Ballinger consoles and defends his daughter by reappopriating her — confessing, inter alias, that he used to be a “god between the sheets” — thus fully reestablishing her slandered reputation of an unsatisfactory lover. It is now, too, that he gets to stroke his daughter’s cheek at night, and when Lena confesses to Mick her father doesn’t know she’s not actually asleep at moments like that, Mick, himself a fatherly figure even to his cast and crew, smiles with parental affection. In turn, Fred confesses to Mick that he’s worried that all the little things he’s done for Lena as her father will once escape her before she comes to process them, just as their own childhood memories have almost vanished from their minds. “Tremendous effort with a modest result”, Fred concludes with a discreet note of regret.

Surely, a particle of their mutual past that can’t escape Fred’s mind is the mysterious case of Gilda Black and the regret he feels of never having slept with her. Usually displaying more naiveté than Fred, Mick gets to play the trick here, only that it becomes revealed too late, submerging the memory — or myth — of Gilda under the fresh memories of Mick’s conversations with the long-haired doctor with long yellow teeth. It turns out the only rapport Mick and Gilda had was a short holding of hands in childhood, the moment for which Mick invents a trope to conceal the intimacy it has held for him ever since (“the precise moment I learned to ride a bike”, he calls it). Already, a hint is given during one of those walks around the sunny Alpine meadows, as a small boy rushes by the two friends on the back wheel of a bicycle, that truly Sorrentinian molecule which replenishes the eye with visual bounty. Here, perhaps, Mick’s great capacity for emotion is best displayed: reluctant to tell his friend (as “in a good friendship you only tell each other the good things”) Mick preserves that which Fred approaches as a pragmatic, wanting to know it, estimate it. A phrase that immediately comes to mind is one from the Consequences: “Progetti per il fututo: non sottovalutare le conseguenze dell’amore” (“Plans for the future: not to underestimate the consequences of love”).

The long-lasting, enduring love affairs of their lives are not really on display in the film. Mick’s wife is only once mentioned; Brenda is anticipated throughout the film in the vein of Gogol’s Inspector General, and only comes in for a few minutes in the end. We meet Fred’s paralyzed wife Melanie briefly, too. Contrary to former presumptions, she is not dead, but living in a hospital room overlooking the Venetian canals. ‘Living’ is perhaps too strong a word: Melanie is paralyzed, frozen with her mouth agape, staring out the window when Fred brings her flowers and talks to her as if he’s just been out for a couple of hours. Another female character of Sorrentino is found in a similar deathlike pose, never disclosed: Ramona in the Great Beauty, lying on her stomach, unblinking, in her underwear, next to Jep. I have recently stumbled upon a description of Clarice Lispector’s mother in Miranda France’s review of the newly published complete collection of Lispector’s stories in the TLS issue from early September. “Pregnancy didn’t cure Lispector’s mother (who had earlier been “gang raped by Russian soldiers and contracted syphilis”, which folk medicine advised to cure with pregnancy — K.Z.) . Mania lived on paralyzed and mute, a terrible and tormented “statue”, until Lispector was nine. One imagines the child returning from school every day and confronting that statue, the bright afternoon turning into repulsion”. Yet Fred is not repulsed by his wife, he speaks with ease, just as Sorrentino, in some kind of Diane Arbus fashion, is at ease with inserting eccentric characters as well as those with physical defects into his stories (the twins selling shoes in Consequences of Love, the dwarf editor in The Great Beauty, the lonely prostitute accompanied by her mother and a dramatic French singer devouring chicken with bare hands and heavily made up lips in Youth, among others). Why is it that he hadn’t earlier visited his wife — whom he misses — remains unclear. In the Consequences Titta di Girolama’s brother informs him that their father “is dead but doesn’t know about that”. Why don’t you call him, he asks, just like Mick or Lena would ask Fred in Youth. Perhaps Mr. Ballinger misses the Mrs. Ballinger whom he’d written his “Simple Songs” for, whereas seeing her now means looking into the past, revisiting, missing and possibly regretting.

In an interview with a young French reporter Sorrentino talks of how all we do belongs to the present, and how, consequently, not much remains of us, as the consequences of our work vanish along with its results, and all that remains is regret. And yet, throughout the film bits of works haunt its creators, Fred and Mick. Akin to the sound of a breaking string in Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, the first five notes of “Simple Song no.3” played by the incredulous left-handed boy fill the corridors of the hotel, except its frequency is more haunting here. Having seen his cast off onto a train Mick becomes a spectator to a slope of fictional women and a cacophony of their repeated lines, as if in a playback. His precursor would be Marcello Mastroianni entering a fictional harem in Fellini’s 8 1/2 where women of his dreams mingle with his existent wife and mistresses under the same roof, only that here Mick Boyle is a witness to the gesamtkunstwerk of his life, his lifetime’s oeuvre. All sorts of genres are present at the Alpine hill in Youth: romantic comedy, horror, historic drama, sci-fi, noir. We see a certain Lolita lookalike, even someone fit for a Breakfast at Tiffany’s audition. Finally, there’s Brenda, an eerie, slightly hunched old lady dressed in a brown gown, hair brown and silver, stirring something in a bowl with a surreptitious look, closest of all to Mick Boyle, truly, “a great women’s director” as we can now see. “We’re all just extras!”, he had been seen saying to his young team just before the train arrived. That’s one way to look at it, but these extras are also templates in a long portrait gallery captured by Sorrentino’s sifting eye, arranged into a collection of types.

People who say Sorrentino likes to make movies about old people are not exactly right. He also likes to make movies with the same people (a couple of producers who have worked with Sorrentino on all 7 of his feature films; Luca Bagazzi, his cinematographer, who has worked on all films except for 2; Tony Servillo, Sorrentino’s mascot, who appears in 5 out of 7 films). Sorrentino also likes other facets and types of characters, old couples and celebrities, for instance. Like Rome in the Great Beauty, where even Fanny Ardant makes a momentary appearance on a dark street, Bergdorf in Youth is swarming with all kinds of walking legends or their harbingers. Such is a composer visited by the Queen’s emissary, a filmmaker visited by his leading lady, a retired soccer player visited by his fans, even an existing British pop singer Paloma Faith. Such is the Queen herself (in One Man Up Tony’s wife tells him their daughter Veronica saw the Queen of England from up close). Remember, too, multiple allusions to various people of fame in the Great Beauty, or the retirees from This Must Be the Place and One Man Up, ghosts of their former success. Already the figure of a retired soccer player constantly working on strategies in One Man Up, Sorrentino’s very first feature film, comes back in the form of a grotesque Maradona lookalike in Youth. Soccer enters everything, from epigraphs (Pelé’s famous line “The draw does not exist”), to cameos (Ramona’s first boyfriend in the Great Beauty who is shown handling a soccer ball wearing white briefs). The famous soccer star in Youth comes to the hotel in order to rest. Such is Fred, too, who tells Jimmy Tree he doesn’t miss his work because he had worked too much anyway. Then there are characters who come to the Alps in order to get inspiration. It’s Mick, there with his future film’s youthful cast, tormented by the search for the perfect ending. It’s Jimmy who comes in order to prepare for a role, instead rejecting it and defining his philosophy which he chisels while observing the other hotel clients. Even Miss Universe is given a week at the hotel as part of her prize for winning the pageant. “Seems more like a punishment to me”, Fred comments. Yet, he, too, benefits from his stay at Bergdorf, since throughout the course of the passing events his attitude, long shaped by this age, seems to be modified, allowing him to restore his relationship with the family and finally perform in front of the Queen (we never know if this is actually happening in reality, but then how much do we actually know has?). If Lena diagnoses him with apathy early in the movie, we later see Fred inventing and joking, be it fictional prostate he reports on possibly in solidarity with Mick, or the secret of the ‘mute’ couple. An entirely apathetic person doesn’t tease others or conduct serene alpine cows while seated at a stump on a slope, even if in professional language of music composition those cow bells could connote the tintinnabuli, or ‘ringing of bells’, a style created by Arvo Pärt whose music Sorrentino had previously used in scores, like Spiegel im Spiegel in This Must Be the Place, or My Heart’s in the Highlands in the Great Beauty.

An entirely apathetic person isn’t bother by death, either. There is a short sequence of a dream, when Fred Ballinger finds himself in a dark and deserted piazza San Marco in Venice, a truly unusual and stunning spectacle topped with a Miss Universe materialized from the whereabouts of the palazzo’s flickering lights. What follows is a quick sinking, an inevitable end and angst anticipated, it seems, both by the city and its longtime symphony director (similarly, in Consequences Titta Di Girolamo meets his death by being lowered into a container with liquid concrete, gradually sinking in it). Fred is not apathetic; he is resisting while understanding, and is not keen on demonstrating weakness, like all Sorrentino’s protagonists. Irony, for one, is good for self-defense. As Giulio Andreotti says in Il Divo, “Irony is the best defense from death, and all defense from death is cruel”, which could at times be applied to Fred. It feels as an an act of resistance when he tells young Jimmy Tree about Stravinsky who had once told him “Intellectuals have no taste”. Since then, Fred has tried hard not to become one, he says, but then, surely, the Queen doesn’t send her emissary to just anyone. ‘Intellectual’ here has a subtler connotation, like once defined in Joan Didion’s Why I Write: “I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word ‘intellectual’ I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts”. The character who seems to surprise us in thinking more “intellectually” is Jimmy, a Hollywood actor who reads Novalis when “not taking drugs with anorexic models” or playing Mister Q (an existing robot character from a 1919’s film Master Mystery made by Studio Pathe where Harry Houdini battles an evil robot-automaton named Q). If Jimmy surprises Fred, then it’s Miss Universe, “not at all stupid”, who surprises Jimmy and the jury of the hotel’s old-timers seated in a neat row beside the stage one evening. Her bold behavior is reminiscent of another queen of beauty pageants, bold in a slightly different way, when, in late September, the 18-year-old Miss Italy, Alice Sabatini, told the judges she would like to have lived in the year of 1942. The other reason for my associating this is perhaps due to a longer stretch, as the hotel to which young Miss Universe arrives is not always looking so benign. For one, there is Jimmy Tree disguised as Hitler roaming the place. What accounts for this in the paradigm of film’s spaces is that the caravaggian chiaroscuro ominously illuminating the faces of hotel visitors during procedures sometimes turns into an apparently macabre gulag ambience. Accompanied by Stravinsky’s Berceuse from the Firebird Suite played very slowly, people in bathrobes with numbered badges ride elevators, and sit, almost motionless, in the fog of the deeply saturated crimson sauna ‘cameras’, some standing, most seated very closely. Ailment and populous uniformity makes for a menacing twain, even when it’s a row of diverse but dormant bodies lying in an inbuilt pool lounge zone (perhaps one of the film’s most tumblr’d stills). Another moment coming to mind here is a morning ritual featuring a row of bathrobed visitors proceeding obediently and slowly as the automatous hotel employees conduct them with broad arm strokes.

To be fair, this is only a fleeting impression: mostly, the hotel appears as a splendid retreat, and one with a long history, too. As Sally McGrane points out in her New Yorker article from February 17, 2014 the Schatzalp (or Bergdorf) “is the only sanatorium mentioned by its real name in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, although the hotel that provides the setting for the novel itself is a composite of the Schatzalp and the Waldsanatorium where Mann’s wife Katia was treated in 1912. Sorrentino, too, brings a touch of fiction to the place: the Schatzalp is purportedly the last hotel to have stayed away from renovations and installment of pneumatic equipment, so some of those pools, massage parlors and pleinair lounges are likely to be part of the movie set. The main long building with balconies from where Jimmy Tree observes Fred Ballinger observing the tibetian monk meditating is, however, a real place, with beautiful cracks in stucco and oldfashioned wooden panels (same is true for the red carpet floors like the one seen in Fred’s room, yet not necessarily true for the long and narrow rectangular frescoes seen in other rooms throughout the film).

This is not the first time Sorrentino settles his characters into a hotel. Titta di Girolama from the Consequences spends eight years in a Swiss hotel being indebted to the mafia. Due to its style and location Bergdorf in Youth reminds many of Anderson’s Hotel Grand Budapest (like it did to the Libération critic Clementine Gallot who seemed to be quite distressed about the fact). One other concurrence is that Harvey Keitel stars in both films. Generally, too, Sorrentino’s sophisticated and jazzy shots sometimes evoke Anderson’s wide-angle lens mise en scènes. Surely, there are spaces and sets where one could expect Monsieur Gustave or J.G.Jopling to casually stray in. Such is the deserted dark pharmacy rendered in redwood panels in Youth where Mick is stocking up on pharmaceuticals; the tennis court where the soccer player is juggling a ball (remember Richie from the Royal Tennenbaums), or the chairlift station, idle in the summer, where Mick toasts to Brenda with his team. The almost identical view from the chairlift actually appears at the very end of the Consequences where Titta’s best friend is fixing the chairlift pole. At the same time watching Sorrentino is like looking at a number of paintings. There are moments when Bigazzi’s camera glides past the faces of hotel visitors and reveals the surface of their occupation as it does when the mysterious man with the suitcase of keys to various palazzos takes Jep and Ramona to see the paintings in the Great Beauty. In Russian, for instance, smotret’ kartiny (literally, “watching pictures”) used to be a sophisticated and set expression for “going to the movies”. True, Swiss landscapes are picturesque by definition, but Sorrentino is an artist who oscillates on the interplay of stillness and movement, who also has a never-ending gallery of portraits which runs through all the films. Youth is filled with all sorts of stills whereupon one wonders how a herd of cows grazing on an Alpine slope can instantly respond to the light gesture of a composer and cease jingling their bells.

In terms of actual “pictures”, stills as paintings, another artist who comes to mind along with the aforementioned Caravaggio is Vermeer. The association is rather specific: it is the masseuse we get to see as if from behind the window, unaware of us watching her. Absorbed by her dancing routine, she becomes the equivalent of Vermeer’s focal point for his tronies, paintings not intended as portraits, but as studies of physiognomy and character. Another instance of the film translating well into a Vermeer palette features Fred seen from an open door of the balcony which Mick Boyle has just jumped off. Captured in a room carpeted in venetian red, his hat on the radiator, a Guardian in his hand, one leg slightly forward, Fred looks immobile as if fixed in a two-dimensional surface. Gradually, his chest starts lifting up and down as anxiety finds him, as if life had levitated for a second, observing its carrier from the outside, and comes back into the room, into the body, adding a third dimension to it, casting the still as a phase of motion.

A moment like this is heavy in its momentary paralysis. Sorrentino drops the news blatantly, startling Fred, the spectator of Mick’s death, and us, the spectators of Fred. In much the same way Sorrentino likes to strike chords of big statements that are dropped into the film’s script as revelations. There is an audience that doesn’t approve of Sorrentino’s “big truths”, with characters “coming to understand”, “getting it”, or making aphorisms on the go. Sorrentino’s latest films are filled to the brim with such big statements, but they may, in fact, be part sarcasm. In all interviews with Sorrentino (often, generally, in interviews with film directors) everyone always seeks large-scale significance behind every movement or line. They want to hear about that one big message behind the title, or that perfect mood in which the film should be seen, and, ask for that one grandiose piece of advice Sorrentino could give his audience. Perhaps, the ironic attempt at answering is manifested in the many fictional “truths” of fictional people who have reached the age of wisdom and contemplation. “Music is all I understand, because you don’t need words or experience in order to understand it; it just is”, says Fred. His masseuse tunes in on this, contrasting talking with touching, which has the potential for a greater significance. The most beautiful films are, in Sorrentino’s opinion, those that can’t be reduced to a message and are not, by their nature, didactic. Didacticism is also boring and brings forth fatigue from words. To a young French reporter who, in her own words, ‘cried 2 or 3 buckets of tears during the film’, Sorrentino explains that the reason why Youth may affect the younger audience is because the anguish and worries of older and younger people are pretty much the same. He elaborates: “The film speaks more about this fatigue which is to live in this world”, which is felt both by the young and the elderly. Every day is tiresome, and, in a way, “emotions are”, really, “all we’ve got”, as Mick says before stepping off the balcony, abandoning himself to the unknown. Similarly, when faced with the necessity to respond to the “big” questions, Sorrentino says that whilst watching a film you have to “abandon yourself to the emotions caused by it”. Its very process is “an intimate one which means it’s only significant for the self, not for use at the exit from the cinema theatre”. There’s a comforting thought endorsed by so many cinephiles: in a world where everything requires words or experience, watching a film (or, listening to music while watching Fred’s performance) is that moment just for the self, between you and the screen, where questions need not be answered in a uniform manner.

The search for truth, beauty, youth, recognition and acceptance doesn’t terminate in any of Sorrentino’s films, it is shown in its transitory state, its unraveling. Sometimes it gives the characters another chance: a certain levity, a certain liberty. In “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” Wallace Stevens writes:

“ .. Perhaps
The truth depends on a walk around a lake,
A composing as the body tires, a stop
To see hepatica, a stop to watch
A definition growing certain and
A wait within that certainty, a rest
In the swags of pine-trees bordering the lake.
Perhaps there are times of inherent excellence,
As when the cock crows on the left and all
Is well, incalculable balances,
At which a kind of Swiss perfection comes
And a familiar music of the machine
Sets up its Schwärmerei, not balances
That we achieve but balances that happen..”