By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Cannes Review: Youth

It seems like a lot of Paulo Sorrentino’s work is steeped in the truth that it doesn’t matter what age you are, because the grand narratives of life seem to more or less remain the same. At least that’s one of the complex takeaways from Youth, the latest Competition entry from the Oscar-winning Italian auteur that was met with a mix of loud cheers of bravo and candid bellows of booing this morning, if that means anything at all (it doesn’t).

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In a lot of ways, Youth feels like it is set down the slopes from Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, to be specific, except that Sorrentino’s film is philosophically up, up, up way higher—and shining a little brighter—on the dichotomies of life, in terms of aging and art and what it means to live. I mention Assayas’ film because Paulo Sorrentino’s sumptuous Competition entry feels like a continuation of its themes—but also certainly images, as both pictures share the same sweeping valleys and Swiss mountains that visualize the highs and lows of our existence.

Youth unfolds at a fabulous retreat at the foot of a mountain, and it’s where we begin. Opening with a beautiful rendition of “You’ve Got The Love,” a song photographed up close on a rotating platform with audience members in bokeh focus, this ditty is one of many nightly entertainments that Sorrentino’s characters are privy to each night, including a cast of Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, and Paul Dano, each of them playing an artist in a state of flux (with an additional cameo from a brief-but-brilliant Jane Fonda).

The most reflective of the trio is Michael Caine, portraying a wry—though not very spry—composer who is known primarily for his “Simple Songs,” a collection of melodies written for his now-invalid wife. His daughter-turned-assistant (Rachel Weisz) has anxieties of her own in the shadow of her famous father, who despite a career of excellence as a maestro, his most basic work is also his most popular.

It’s a reality he seems to have gotten over, but Paul Dano hasn’t, as he’s bitter that his filmography as a character actor is best known for “Mr. Q,” an iconic robot from what sounds like a meaningless action film. He sits quietly in courtyards trying to ignore this as he studies his fellow guests for an upcoming role (eventually revealed in a hilarious, bizarre gag).

Meanwhile, Harvey Keitel’s aging screenwriter—potentially a hack—is trying his best to crank out an ending to his latest script, the premise of which sounds like a middling Sundance dud. He sits with his team of younger scribes pondering the ending, wink-wink, and Sorrentino builds the film around the delivery of these drafts.

There are other instances of this kind of career-based ennui—a knock-out supermodel, for example, is a lot smarter than one character expects her to be—and the film mines and explores this theme with a cracking wit and a pang of sadness that was touched upon in Sils Maria, but not to this effect or poignancy. Or with imagery this evocative of the meaning.

Because adding to the great beauty of Youth is the cinematography, as Sorrentino is one of the only filmmakers in this year’s Competition to, with every scene, remind us bombastically that cinema is a visual medium (Mr. Haynes and Carol being the other entry to do so). Featuring a commitment to engaging mise-en-scene throughout and a variety of framing decisions that are inspired (and certainly relevant to the subject matter), Youth never grows old to watch.

Despite a few cracks at the medium itself (Jane Fonda steals the show at one point), this is a film that I found myself missing lines of dialogue from because I was so interested in the visual motifs of scaling and descending—a levitating monk, an earnest mountaineer, it goes on—and the dramatic facial expressions from the cast.

If I learned anything from Youth, it’s not the art that is the most visible is the most meaningful. The art that is the most meaningful is the most meaningful, and that’s all that matters once we’re old and gray, lowered into the ground to ascend beyond the corporeal.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin