‘You say emotions are overrated. Emotions are all we’ve got.’ Mick Boyle.
I visited the hotel Schatzalp in Davos yesterday. It is a truly magical place. It was built in the 1890s as a sanatorium for TB sufferers, and now, as a hotel, it has an aura of both nostalgia and luxury. It is said to be extremely similar to the hotel that inspired Thomas Mann’s Zauberberg. More recently, it was the setting for Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, a film that alludes to Zauberberg in its isolation, its pace, its self-reflectiveness.
I was not immediately a Paolo Sorrentino fan. I enjoyed La Grande Bellezza, but in its sentiment it was foreign to me. Constant parties and orgies are things I can appreciate, but only from a semi-detached position. Sorrentino insisted on immersing me in them, and I resented it. Even more annoyingly, La Grande Bellezza depicted an author who did not write, who seemed to have no qualms enjoying his status as the man who had once written a single famous title. The much adulated hero had far too much of Hugh Grant from About A Boy to strike me as a serious artist.
Youth is an entirely different film. It is a film about the importance of art.
Just take its protagonists: two elderly white men at a Swiss spa resort. Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a retired composer who refuses to write or conduct anymore. Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is a film director, intent on directing his last great opus. The two old men discuss the pain of growing old, but the approach of each is radically different. Whereas Fred Ballinger obstinately refuses to conduct music as a tribute to his past days of greatness, Mick Boyle insists on constantly creating, imaking anew, even though his recent films have been accused of mediocrity. The film at first hangs in the balance between the two artists, emphasizing Fred’s emotional reserve towards his past self and Mick’s passionate immersion into art. Yet the film insists that creativity cannot be restrained, which is apparent when, in a Fellini-like twist, Fred Ballinger finds himself conducting a field-full of cows.
The Guardian had an article about Youth, entitled ‘Dirty Grandpa and the return of the Viagra cinema’ and the film has enjoyed a mixed reception as critics object to the depiction of old men lusting other young female bodies. But the critics miss the point. The female body for the two artists in the film symbolizes passion and creativity–Fred Ballinger refuses to conduct his Simple Songs, because only his wife was allowed to sing them. As she is gone, Ballinger’s capacity for creation becomes frozen in the past. Mick Boyle is destroyed when his muse and favourite film star (Jane Fonda) refuses to cooperate with him. Yes, of course, there are scenes in which elderly men admire younger women, and The Guardian reviewer may be right to point them out. But they symbolize not only a wish for the sexual prowess of youth, but also for the creative power associated with it.
What most critics have left out entirely is the relationship of Fred Ballinger with his daughter (Rachel Weisz), which is anything but simple. She is furious with her father for neglecting her mother; angry with him because of the numerous affairs he had in the past. But she loves him as her father, and she respects him as an artist. She is perhaps the key to a critical appreciation of the film, which despite voyeuristic tendencies, truly achieves its aim: a reflection about the beauty and fragility of art and life.