Youth is a film that is difficult to assess, at least in conventional terms. It remains resolutely surreal throughout the whole of its run time. Your affinity for Fellini-esque discursion makes it difficult to discuss your intentions in concrete terms. What I can say with some certainty is that it provoked a strong emotional reaction, although it’s a little difficult to identify exactly what those emotions are. Regret perhaps. Certainly sadness, a little bit of hope, and a truckload of melancholy.
More than anything else Youth explores what happens when an artist is forced to come to terms with the inexorable passage of time—and whether that necessarily means a diminishment in their capacity to create and see the world in ways that are vital and interesting.
Michael Caine—whose character the film revolves around—plays an emotionally remote, recently retired symphony conductor. He shares a couple of what should be idyllic weeks at a Swiss spa with Harvey Keitel—an octogenarian director. There are several other unique personalities in residence, including Paul Dano and Rachel Weiz. The cast is, with a couple of exceptions, interesting and eclectic—especially Jane Fonda in a harrowingly accurate portrayal of what happens to aging women when shaped by the exigencies of Hollywood.
More a series of loosely connected vignettes than anything else, Youth depends upon a consistency in tone, rather than narrative cohesion, to maintain contact with its characters. The film maintains a delicate tension between hope and regret throughout—a constant push and pull between the idea of a life utterly wasted and the ephemeral rewards a creative existence sometimes allows. Michael Caine in particular seems to view his past with an ambiguity that belies his apparent success, whereas Keitel plays an eighty-year-old man who still (seemingly) remains completely passionate about his vocation.
The rest of the film explores some of the more absurd obsessions that creative people suffer from: relentless self regard, a kind of fetishizing of beauty that is adolescent and unpleasantly instrumental, and crippling self doubt. This all dovetails with a couple of mundane, and brutally honest, moments that pull the characters back into a less esoteric version of reality.
Paul Dano, in a small but vital counterpoint to the more elderly cast, manages to create an enigmatic and consistently interesting arc with a character that would have likely been cartoonish in lesser hands. He is really something special, at least partially because what he manages to achieve is so opaque and resistant to analysis. His performance is both surprising and also seemingly effortless.
The music in Youth is affecting and masterfully placed—both the incidental and the diegetic pieces. The orchestral dénouement, which would otherwise sound hopelessly sentimental, was so extraordinary it obliterated whatever resistance I may have had to its obvious manipulation.
While I found some of the heightened and deliberately theatrical moments a little difficult to swallow, the entire film still managed to connect in an insightful way, in part because the visual conceits—both the surreal and, in a couple of instances, the brutally real—cohered so beautifully. And at the end I was left regretting how quickly the lights came up. As much as this may be an art house film, it is a far more enriching experience if you allow it to be one of the heart rather than the head.