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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“A shot is a story. A shot on its own should be a piece of a story. Which is why I talk a lot about watching films, even the films we’re working on, with the sound off. Just to analyze how the film works, because a film should work for an audience without any sound. The biggest problem I see is that someone may have a superficial understanding of what a shot is propositionally, but they don’t have an understanding of how all of these shots are part of a family that needs to connect, and so you’ll get something that’s like a sentence arranged poorly with six nouns in a row. That surprises me, because I think that’s something that can be learned. Some things can’t be, but that can. It’s a grammar. In a classroom I could walk somebody through the difference between a sequence in which the filmmaker has a deep understanding of how images connect, and someone who doesn’t. It’s not really an intellectual process. Some people are just born with it and are just sort of savants at that deep mathematical understanding of shot construction.  I’m better than I used to be, but there are some people I’m just never going to catch. Spielberg. His staging ability. I’m never going to catch him. But when you’re trying to figure out how to get better—I’m not competitive in the sense of looking around at other filmmakers and comparing myself to them. What I do have to think about in trying to navigate myself through a career is: what can I get better at, and what do I have that I can enhance that somebody else doesn’t have?”
~ Steven Soderbergh

“It’s not going to be huge. He and I had been corresponding for a while. When I finally met him, he said, ‘We should collaborate.’ When John Ashbery says that to you, you don’t say when, you just say yes. It has not been easy to conjure this out of nothing. Sean Price Williams and I spent time with him, and it will appear on FilmStruck before the year is out…. I have figured out how to streamline things. I still have dreams of making movies with bigger budgets, and they might be considered to have more of a voice in pop culture. I don’t want to let go of that. I also realize that you grow up a lot of your life with wishful thinking and waiting. I have figured out ways to avoid doing that. I am working on a bigger movie about Nikola Tesla, set in the past, so it is not an easy film to make. I am also working on an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s ‘White Noise.’ That seems more likely to catch fire.”
Michael Almereyda Steps It Up