The Way We Will Be: Sorrentino’s Youth (2015)
by Gabriella Edelstein and Claudette Palomares
I have to choose, I have to choose what is really worth telling: horror or desire? And I choose desire. You, each one of you, you open my eyes, you made me see that I should not be wasting my time on the senseless fear…
Picture this: a young actor costumed as an ageing Hitler telling a venerable director that he can’t take on this role because of a recent epiphany. He has realised that he has to live according to beauty and creativity, rather than destruction. This binary, desire and horror, is what structures Paolo Sorrentino’s most recent film, Youth. It is the fabric which weaves around the emotional lives of the various interconnecting characters during their sojourn at a luxurious spa in the Swiss Alps.
As the follow up to the highly praised The Great Beauty (2013), it seemed doubtful that Sorrentino could deliver another movie as sumptuous and stirring. I had been expectantly waiting for a follow up film, and when I learned that Youth would be shown as the opening selection of the BBC First British Film Festival 2015, I eagerly encouraged Claudette to see it with me.
As the cinema lights dimmed, we had a conversation with a woman sitting next to us about whether anything could live up to Sorrentino’s Oscar winning movie about an ageing journalist experiencing an existential crisis whilst living la dolce vita, “Oh, I bought the DVD because I expected I’d watch it several times”, she told us. Her friend was not so much a fan, “Oh that terrible decadent man!”, was all she had to say about Jep (Toni Servillo). Sorrentino has a particular skill at portraying the stories of dissolute and disillusioned men, and it was more of this beautiful treatment of the louche that I was looking forward to. Youth, though at points a tad overwrought, was a reminder of the potential sublime of the cinema.
The film tells the story of Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a retired composer and conductor, on vacation at a spa that he has been visiting for twenty years. His best friend, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keital), joins him whilst he is writing the end to his next film with his coterie of young writers. Fred’s daughter and assistant, Lena (Rachel Weisz), becomes another addition to this party when it transpires her husband, Mick’s son (Ed Stoppard), ruthlessly announces their divorce on an airport tarmac. The other residents of the resort weave in and out of their interactions, such as the aforementioned young actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano). Each of the characters face their own personal quandary: emotion or art? Life or death? Horror or desire?
Sorrentino’s flair stems from his ability to convey at once nostalgia and freshness. He encourages comparisons to Fellini, but by crossing over to English speaking audiences, his film technique has lost some of its fluidity. Despite this, Youth is a testament to the difficulty and jouissance of artistic creation, of the emotions which free and constrain us, and the beauty of ephemeral experience.
As we walked out of the film, Claudette described its visuals as a “revelation”; we were eager to discuss what it was Youth meant. Whilst we walked towards Mickey’s café on Oxford Street, we tried to repress the ebullition of words and opinions before we managed to press the ‘record’ button. What follows below is our conversation, in parts, interspersed with some later critical thinking about the aesthetics and potentialities of Sorrentino’s particular practice. Our discursive and meandering conversations lead back to the treatment of women, the duality of horror and desire, and the conflict between the artist and the intellectual.
—Gabriella Edelstein, November 2015
Women are Smarter? by Gabriella Edelstein
The Horror, the Horror / The Desire, The Desire by Gabriella Edelstein
Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man by Claudette Palomares
Sorrentino’s Camera: Aesthetics & Cinematography by Claudette Palomares
More than a Feeling by Gabriella Edelstein
Women are Smarter?
The main conflict of Mick Boyle’s plotline revolves around writing the end of his next film, starring his ageing muse Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda). Despite Mick’s great zeal and optimism, Brenda appears at the resort to tell him that she will not be starring in his movie – she has instead accepted a role in a sitcom shot in New Mexico. Brenda is inflexible, hardly some wilting flower who needs the support of a great male director (or so she likes to appear). As she tells it, Mick is nothing without her; his last two movies were a crock of shit; and she’s here to tell him this because she cares about him. Fonda’s performance is masterful, she is as sharp and cruel as her talon-like red nails. Mick, dismayed, attacks her in turn: she won’t get another role like this at her age; he brought her out from underneath the producers’ desks; she would be nothing if it weren’t for him. Her rejoinder: she enjoyed being under all those producers’ desks; she made herself, and Mick just happened to come along for the ride. Later in the film, in another scene inspired by Fellini, Mick has a vision of all the actresses he’s directed standing on a hillside; it is a myriad of his embodied fantasies of women. Mick later defends himself to Jimmy, “I am a great women’s director”. I chuckled wryly to myself, because of course Mick thinks he is.
Youth is a film that is concerned with ageing artists, and yet, we see no woman kvetching about their status as an auteur. The only woman we see who is in some way a creator is Brenda, and yet, her craft is not held to the same standards as Fred, Mick, or even Jimmy’s. Women in this film are always in front of the camera, and never behind it. This is the same for how they are captured by cinematographer Luca Bigazzi. He treats women as he does the scenery: something to have the camera aestheticise, but in that way objectified and encapsulated by the desire to make beautiful. This visual treatment is especially strange considering the script of the film, which gives female characters the space to express themselves about the failings of the men around them, as well as assert their intellectual superiority. Miss Universe, for example, archly criticises and outwits Jimmy when he takes her for a fool just because she is beautiful. And yet, a few scenes later, the audience gets a gratuitous full-frontal view of her body in the pool through the ogling eyes of Fred and Mick. This scene makes me wonder what the point even was of Miss Universe’s verbal one-upmanship if she is relegated to the position of object soon after.
Women are also presented as the mute supporters of men. The anonymous ageing sports star at the resort is always followed by a woman who I assumed to be his wife, dragging his health equipment and rubbing his legs. Indeed, the tragic plotline of Youth involves a silent woman: Fred’s wife suffered extreme decay and senility, and is left speechless in a hospital room in Venice. It is revealed to the audience that Fred’s wife, Melanie, was the only soprano to perform his Simple Songs. No matter how often Fred tells people he misses his wife, he is also shown to have been a typical genius-husband in his philandering and insistence that his work should come first. In a blistering monologue, Lena berates her father for his constant demands of his wife and children to keep’ silent, “Be quite, Melanie; hush, Melanie; Stravinsky is over, Melanie”. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as ultimately Melanie can no longer speak. Claudette pointed out that when we finally see Melanie’s face, it’s an appropriation of
Munch’s The Scream: woman has become silent void. Perhaps it is Melanie’s story which is the film’s greatest indictment of male genius: when male talent is privileged over female, women are ultimately rendered silent. I wondered, how would this story have ended if Fred placed greater importance on his wife’s talent as an opera singer rather than his own as a composer?
Ultimately, I felt that the treatment of women was a great flaw in an otherwise stunning film. I hope that in his next picture, Sorrentino is able to consider women in the same nuanced way he presents men.
— Gabriella Edelstein, November 2015
CP: I wanted to ask whether you found it… did you find it sexist? I didn’t think he treated women that well.
GE: I don’t know. One part of me says, I really like how he gives actresses opportunities to play roles that are more difficult. I loved Jane Fonda’s cameo, playing an ageing old Hollywood actress who was hard as nails, screaming and falling to pieces. But she had that strength behind her.
CP: I loved how she talked about moving up in the world because of herself, but she wanted to be on the casting couch. And her rise had nothing to do with him, but they also accepted a symbiotic relationship.
GE: Yeah, like if one of them chose to exit the symbiotic relationship they would both be destroyed. I think, if I were leaning towards not saying that it was sexist, I would say that Sorrentino problematises how women are shown in film. Like, they’re given the roles of the nurturing woman, like the sport star’s woman who is always following and helping him, but then you on the other hand have the voluptuous Miss Universe winner. Maybe it’s something about old Italian cinema’s representations of women. You always have the mother, and then you have the sex goddess, like in La Dolce Vita.
CP: But the mother becomes a void though.
GE: What about the part where Mick is justifying that he’s a great woman’s director? Like of course he thinks he’s a great woman’s director, it’s coming from a man. I think maybe the film is showing the difficulty for men to empathise with women when they constantly obecjtify them. To what extent can Caine empathise with his own daughter when he’s done to her mother what has just happened to her.
References (in Audio)
The Horror, the Horror / The Desire, the Desire
By the end of the film, the characters have chosen either horror or desire, resulting in tragic or beatific consequences. Those who have happy endings clearly choose to follow their desires, whether they be art or love. Desire is shown to be multivalent; it is not just the sexual drive, but also something that compels us to continue living. Perhaps for Sorrentino, pure desire is something like Freud’s concept of eros, or the life force. Lena’s husband, for example, chooses his desire and mercilessly leaves her on an airport tarmac. This decision, however, is what leads Lena to a better future where she can live more truly by her own desires. Fred, too, spends much of the film quashing all of his desires to create and conduct, and it is only when he accepts this need that he is freed from his past. In Youth, to choose life is to choose art is to choose love.
— Gabriella Edelstein, November 2015
CP: What did you think about Jimmy’s speech on horror and desire and choosing to live by desire?
GE: I think it’s like the thesis of the film, almost, like you can choose to live your life through horror and choosing to experience everything through the lens of horror and sadness, or you can choose desire, even if desire leads us to do hideous things. Like how Lena’s husband, basically dumps her at the airport… but desire’s what continues the human race, it’s what allows us to create art, it gives our lives meaning. And if we sustain the horror of existence, that’s the thing that kind of negates existence?
References (in Audio)
Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man
One of the central themes in Youth is the creation of art and the life of the artist, and as Gabriella has explored, this is inextricably linked between notions of gender and the ways women’s voices are silenced by the male artists in their lives. From F. Scott Fitzgerald to Richard Wagner, Woody Allen to Roman Polanski, debate continues as to whether an artist’s life or conduct should in any way affect our consideration of his or her work. Conversely, should an individual’s callousness, cruelty or indifference be tolerated if he or she is creating—or has the potential to create—something meaningful? It is a utilitarian as much as an aesthetic dilemma.
Though Fred remains a generally sedate, gentle presence in the film, we are told by the remarks of those around him that he was not averse to his own methods of madness and cruelty in his youth. It is revealed that his grief over his wife is in part due to extreme guilt for his own neglect and infidelity during their marriage. Yet—at least in artistic terms—Fred’s star remains ascendant as it always was—our last glimpse of him is triumphant, conducting his life’s masterpiece in front of Queen Elizabeth II.
In contrast, Mick’s efforts to retain artistic agency and relevance in old age are eventually shown as futile, leading to desperately tragic consequences. Perhaps this is the other side of the coin to pursuing the desire that Gabriella writes of, Mick turns to the horror of suicide rather than contemplate a life of unfulfilled desire—in his case, his desire for artistic legacy. In these two portraits—Fred and Mick— Sorrentino presents a rather nihilistic vision of the aging artist in the autumn of his life, a counterpoint to the hopefulness of youthful endeavour—that of the actor, Jimmy Tree, or even, Fred’s masseuse.
— Claudette Palomares, November 2015
GE: What do you think of Michael Caine’s character, Fred Ballinger and his hypocrisy in a lot of ways?
CP: What I find interesting is that the film is about an artist but you don’t see him doing any art until the end of the film. You hear him doing all these cliché things like womanizing and experimenting, but then you see this very placid man, so there’s this dissonance between what the film shows you and then what his life is told to us to be like. We are shown a lot of tenderness and fatherly love but then it may not be reality.
Sorrentino’s Camera: Aesthetics & Cinematography
In his seminal work L’Image-Mouvement (Cinema 1: The Movement Image), Deleuze posits that, in the aftermath of WWII, European filmmakers began to reject the simplified world-view and notions of time of American cinema (the action/movement-image), embracing instead, a dispersive, diverse, indirect and ambiguous representation of time and reality. According to Deleuze, what emerged was a new form of cinema: “the time image”. The “time image” possessed five crucial characteristics: “the dispersive situation, the deliberately weak links, the balade form, the consciousness of clichés, the denunciation of conspiracy”.
Many critics insist that the birthplace of this new form of cinema was surely Italy, it’s parents: the auteurs of the Italian Neo-realist movement beginning with Roberto Rosselini and his bleak, documentary-esque feature Rome, Open City (1945). In Youth, it is clear that Sorrentino and his masterful cinematographer and frequent collaborator, Luca Bigazzi, are true inheritors of this anarchic mode of viewing. While Youth never truly escapes its linear narrative, all the elements of the “time-image” that Deleuze speaks of: the “balade form”, the “weak links”, the “consciousness of cliches” can be found in the film. In inhabiting a much more ambiguous space than most Hollywood films, Youth becomes a beautiful film, as opposed to merely unconventional.
The cinematic image is inherently subjective, yet Hollywood cinema usually commits to—and ultimately believes in—presenting a veneer of objectivity. Youth on the other hand, luxuriates in it’s own subjectivity. This is shown through the highly stylised surfaces and the preciseness of framing where each and every shot would fit in comfortably as a art print on a gallery wall. This film has an acute sense of style that is deeply felt. In our discussion, Gabriella spoke of Sorrentino elongating time, as if to revel in the visual splendour, the beauty of the image. In such a way, Sorrentino reminds us most of all of Fellini, both thematically and through shared imagery.
One shot shows an extreme close up of Fred turning as if to look at the camera, his face unusually framed in the far right of the screen. The shot is very darkly lit—perhaps representing the current emptiness of his life and the lives of his wife, friends and family. It’s stylised and self-conscious shot, yet dramatically effective. Other shots that inhabit Deleuze’s criteria: “balade form” and “dispersive situations” include brief glimpses into the inner world of other characters, like the glimpse into the consciousness of the Maradona figure—a view of little boy in front of a row off opponents on a football field, or the constant shots of Fred’s masseuse dancing—unself-conscious and other-worldy. Almost as striking an image is when the camera doesn’t move at all, such as the riveting, brutal monologue that Lena gives to her father as they lie caked in mud treatment. Initially we see the scene in conventional shot-reverse shot between Lena and Fred, but soon as the camera zooms and focuses on Weisz’s face in an unbroken shot as as she excoriates her father for years of neglect and callousness. Filmed above Rachel Weisz as opposed to the more conventional close-up or mid shot, it is an extreme version of the high-angle shot. Here we see the character, supplicant in the most vulnerable position possible, better to reveal a soul scored by resentment and despair. It is an intense scene that in its lack of movement and unusual positioning makes it feel both claustrophobic and deeply theatrical.
Yet for all its beauty Youth does too revel in the cliche. Actively horrid-looking shots are interspersed between the beautiful and transcendent, such as the wondrously gaudy music clip starring Paloma Faith as a highly-fictional version of herself. One of the most-consciously ugly shots include the final shot of Rachel Weisz dangling off a mountain precipice with her new beau—a shot which features truly, terrible green-screen implemented mountain views. It’s a shot so ridiculous it is as if Sorrentino is calling into question the reality of what we are seeing, as if underlining in thick red ink strokes, the artifice of the cinematic image. It is this subjectivity that is the film’s brilliance, in the garish cliche, Sorrentino is at his most mischievous—revealing a self-assuredness and confidence that is wonderfully refreshing, and a mercurial imagination that makes Youth so eminently watchable.
–Claudette Palomares, November 2015
GE: I think it’s interesting to watch a contemporary film maker capture things, going into a film with the mentality of ‘I want to create something beautiful’. I was just subsumed by the beauty of it. I keep thinking back to this shot of a gazebo with the gauze curtains blowing in the breeze, but the slowness of it, it manages to take these these things that are almost bland and make them achingly beautiful.
The camera manages to take the ephemeral… it reminded me a lot of Fellini’s 8 ½, this moment where they go to a bathhouse and there’s this cardinal blessing people, and there’s this shot where it goes through a window then there’s this steam pouring out like a curtain. And a lot of Youth reminded me of that: the spa setting, the Fellini touches.
I think what Sorrentino does is he elongates time, like he makes things slower to capture the beauty of it, and I think that’s something Fellini does too. But then again, here we are applauding this newer filmmaker who is taking a lot of Fellini’s techniques and adapting them. I mean, what is originality? But I think it’s a testament to the experimentalism of Italian cinema. I loved how the film deconstructs realism, like it takes things from the world around us, like the levitating monk, was that supposed to real or was that art doing something unexpected?
CP: I think that’s because it’s a moment of levity (ha ha). It was a moment of beauty and joy and preparing us for the tragedy to happen later? It kind of reminded me of Japanese cinema. Like Tokyo Story, which is all about growing old, and being rejected by your children and the city, and I don’t know if that was an influence to this movie. But in Japanese cinema there’s this certain reverance for age, also in Howl’s Moving Castle. The beauty of that film is its celebration of being old, it sees the beauty of being able to rest in the moment, in ways that you couldn’t when you were younger.
More than a Feeling
The importance of feeling is one of Youth’s refrains. Twice in the film Mick accuses Fred of privileging thought over feeling, arguing that in the end it is only our emotions that reveal to us the truth of this world. He says early in the film, “We are all extras. All we have is emotions” and later, “You say emotions are overrated, but that’s bullshit. Emotions are all we’ve got.” Indeed, Mick and Fred are placed on a binary of feeling / thought. Fred spends much of the film denying his emotions and the past, whilst Mick fully holds onto his extremity of feeling. Although Mick makes mistakes, one could never accuse him of indifference. It is Fred that constantly jokes that he is at the health spa to treat his apathy. Although Fred likes to think that his apathy allows him to not hurt others through his decisions, he tricks himself into believing that everyone is as indifferent as he is. Indeed, it is this indifference which masks a surplus of shame, grief, and guilt. The greatest crime you can do towards your loved ones, Youth posits, is live in a state of emotional nonchalance. Apathy is still a choice, and a choice to live without care.
— Gabriella Edelstein, November 2015