MICHAEL Caine is an acting legend. He’s inhabited some of the big screen’s most iconic roles, and stamped his own indelible mark on them. There’s Harry Palmer, there’s Alfie, there’s Charlie Croker, and there’s Jack Carter – among many others. He’s also responsible, of course, for some best forgotten – but frequently remembered for all the wrong reasons – roles in films like Jaws: The Revenge and The Swarm, and more recently Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and the pitiful The Last Witch Hunter. But in Youth, Caine’s never been better. As retired composer and conductor Fred Ballinger, he ups his game, buoyed by an on-form Harvey Keitel. On holiday at a Swiss health spa with daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) and film director friend Mick Boyle (Keitel), Fred discusses the finer details of his life – resentments, misunderstandings and regrets over the beautiful women he never slept
with included – as he debates whether or not to accept an invitation from the Queen to perform for Prince Philip’s birthday.
Friend Mick indulges similar musings, though he struggles to remember large chunks of his life, and things are brought into stark relief for him when faded screen star Brenda Morel (a feisty and fabulous Jane Fonda) shows up to let the director down, having accepted a TV role over the film Mick is currently preparing for. Lena, meanwhile, sorts through her own feelings of middle-age angst, having been jilted by her husband for a younger woman. It soon becomes clear that Youth isn’t about youth per se; it’s about getting older, and being old – and how youth is viewed through that filter, whether mourning the loss of youth, regretting things not done or processing the lust stoked by the young and their young bodies. Youth, director Paolo Sorrentino says, is a preoccupation of the old; and, in particular, he spends time observing lust – specifically the lust inspired in the older man for young women. He juxtaposes young bodies with old bodies and asks us subtly to question our notions of physical attractiveness in the context of age.There’s one scene involving a traditionally beautiful naked woman in a pool. The camera lingers on her slow, deliberate and self-aware performance as she strides into the water, and it’s extremely discomfiting to see these two old men, Fred and Mick, leering. Although she appears to invite it, it’s clear we’re seeing her and the ‘performance’ through the eyes of two men aware of their own mortality and lamenting their own lost youth. Their reduction of her to a sex object is sad, and what they’re really obsessed with is the fountain of youth in which they’re symbolically bathing. An unsettling film, Sorrentino’s study of youth never really gets under the skin of its theme or characters, but it does ask lots of questions. We’re left with a sense
of pointlessness to existence, and to the film perhaps, and an awareness of the absurdity of life and human nature. Youth is far from perfect, but it’s always captivating.