What happens when a group of smart, privileged people gather at a beautiful European Alpine resort? Do they enjoy the doting service, beautiful views and rarified air? In reality, maybe. In movies -- particularly those that slip into art-house terrain -- they suffer.
Welcome to the world of Paulo Sorentino's Youth, the follow-up movie to the director's Academy Award winning Great Beauty.
I took Youth as a highly stylized -- if occasionally amusing -- form of whining that focuses on two characters: a retired composer (Michael Caine's Fred Ballinger) and a writer/director of films (Harvey Keitel's Mick Boyle).
Ballinger seems to have given up on pretty much everything. Boyle, who still has a bit of hope, has gathered a team of youthful subordinates in hopes of finishing a script that he regards as his "testament," the final statement of a Hollywood survivor.
A variety of additional characters circle our two principal sufferers, satellites affixed to these two waning moons.
Rachel Weisz portrays Ballinger's daughter Lena. Lena, whose marriage breaks up during the course of the film, manages her father's affairs, which seem to consist of saying "no" to everything.
An American movie star (Paul Dano) smokes cigarettes and carries himself with aloof poise. A Miss Universe (Madeline Ghenea) glides through the premises. A very fat man with a portrait of Karl Marx tattooed on his back occasionally turns up.
Early on, a representative of the Queen of England arrives with a request. The queen would like Ballinger to conduct his signature composition -- it's called Simple Song, No. 3 -- at a concert celebrating Prince Philip's birthday. Citing personal reasons he prefers to keep murky, Ballinger refuses.
Those familiar with Sorentino's work know that he's heir to Federico Fellini's creative spirit. La Dolce Vita informed Great Beauty; hints of 8 1/2 waft through Youth.
This is not to say that Sorentino lacks for original talent: His images can be archly witty, and he's able to create mood with a single shot.
Watching a group of folks filing through the spa in their white bathrobes suggests an assembly line of submissive sheep en route to their slaughter.
Death becomes the unseen character in Youth, coloring everything about the movie, including its sense of elegant ennui.
If Ballinger and Boyle (would have made nice law firm, no?) are any indication, Youth wants us to remind us that the most creative among us have their moments -- but even they die.
And even if they're not instantly forgotten, what does it matter to them: They've joined the anonymous ranks of the formerly living.
This kind of supernal detachment gives the movie a feeling of doomed grace that impacts its imagery. At times, though, I half wondered whether Sorentino and his cinematographer Luca Bigazzi were engaging in an exercise in which they were required to bring as much visual invention as possible to a movie shot on a single location.
Smoothly edited and languid in its pretensions, Youth can be genuinely beautiful, although its sense of visual invention isn't always matched by a script whose tropes suffer from art-house familiarity, grapes that have been pressed too often, and, therefore, robbed of bite.
Surely, there were better ways to have two aging men lament about their diminishing powers than by having them chat about their difficulties with urination. Caine's character also jealously wonders whether Boyle ever slept with a woman that they both desired when they were younger men.
In examining a list of credits on IMDb, I noticed that a good many of the characters aren't given names but are referred to by function or some other general descriptor: escort, Buddhist monk, South American, South American's wife, bearded screenwriter, etc.
Perhaps that's fitting because most of these characters are little more than props in Sorentino's visual stroll through the wrinkled, withering manhood of his main characters.
Amid an atmosphere ripe with defeat and resignation, two explosive moments stand out.
At one point, Weisz's Lena unloads on her father, puncturing any delusions he might have about having been a decent parent. Later, Jane Fonda shows up to deliver a blistering rebuke of Keitel's character.
Fonda plays Brenda Morel, an aging actress who has starred in many of Boyle's movies and whose presence is necessary if Boyle has any hope of financing his swan son.
Caine and Keitel play an intriguing duet, but at the same time, I can't say I totally believed in either of their characters. In the hands of two lesser actors, Ballinger and Boyle might have come off as mere shadows, weary confirmations of the trials of aging.
Frequent images of Caine receiving massages struck me as emblematic: At times, it feels as if Sorentino is massaging the audience, winning it over with smooth edits, eye-opening shots and pacing that can seem hypnotic for those who fall under its spell.
Youth's final scene -- which blends into the end credits -- is a true beauty. For fear of spoilers, I won't describe it here, except to say that it floats past us, lifted by swells of Ballinger's music. It's like watching the curlicues of a skilled skywriter whose images impress and then evaporate into nothing, leaving you to wonder why you're still looking.