You Didn’t Know You Had It Until It Was Gone

Youth  A Film by Paolo Sorrentino

“Two seniors for youth.”  It was a funny remark that I didn’t realize I was making until I said it.  But then, apparently, it was adopted all the way down the ticket line.  If that Saturday afternoon showing in Asheville was any indication, the people who are seeing this movie are looking back on the subject nostalgically.

But this movie could just as easily be called Beauty (as Sorrentino’s last film was called The Great Beauty).  Or Life.

 Youth in any case is a magnificent work of art, and you should quite dinking around on the Internet and go see it immediately.  My wife tells me the reviews have been mixed, and if there are intellectual or academic critics of this film who have not enjoyed it, ignore them.  There is a moment early on where Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is rubbing a piece of cellophane so is makes a crackling noise, and as I left the theater I heard a couple of men talking, pondering the meaning of that gesture.  Oy vey.  That’s the kind of person who will not enjoy this film.

Everyone else will be bowled over by it.  It has absolutely no plot, no meaning.  Ballinger is a famed composer of music, taking a vacation at a resort in the Alps where he use to go with his wife.  An emissary from the Queen of England has come to ask him to conduct some of his music for the birthday of Prince Philip, and to receive Knighthood from the Queen.  Ballinger refuses, and at first we don’t know why.  We don’t really know until near the end of the film (the Queen’s emissary will be back).  But solving that mystery isn’t the point of the film.  It’s just a little byway.  Youth is about all of his life, and all of life.  It’s as mysterious as reality itself.

As he walks away from the first meeting, this emissary—played superbly and hilariously by Alex MacQueen—sees someone in the resort’s swimming pool, and says something to the effect of, “Oh.  That’s him,” as if he’s just spotted a celebrity.  The man in question (Roly Serrano) is enormously fat, accompanied by a wife who is much younger and who is wheeling along his oxygen tank.  Everyone knows who this man is—in a casual exchange later, someone says to him, “Everyone knows you’re left-handed”—but whatever it is that makes him famous is long gone.  There is a scene later where he laboriously, but quite expertly, keeps kicking a tennis ball into the air, an act which leaves him so winded he can hardly stand.  Apparently he was once a great athlete.  But the thing that made him great, that made him famous, is gone.  All that’s left is this massive wreck of a man.

That’s more or less the theme of the movie.  Ballinger, as far as we can tell, has completely given up composing, conducting: all the things that gave him life and fame are gone.  He is accompanied by his daughter (Rachel Weisz), who is also his manager, and during the early moments of the film her marriage ends, quite unexpectedly.  She was married to the son of a famous movie director, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), who is an old friend of Ballinger’s and is at the resort as well.  Boyle, however, continues to work, and is developing a screenplay.  He and Ballinger get together to discuss old times, their art forms, their lives.  In a way the film is about their friendship.

One is an artist who for some reason, in his old age, has abandoned his art.  The other continues to work.  But they’re both old, and their best days are behind them.

All around them are people who are young, who in a sense are looking forward in their lives, wondering how things will go, in the same way that these men are looking back.  One such person is a young masseuse who works on Ballinger every day (Luna Mijovic).  She can feel with her hands how Ballinger is, what he needs, but isn’t especially verbal.  When Ballinger questions her about that, she admits, “I can’t think of anything to say.”  But we periodically see her dancing wildly and beautifully in her room, living out the life of a young woman in a young body.

In some ways the whole movie is about bodies, young bodies, old bodies, everything in between.  We see Ballinger getting massaged; we hear him and Boyle talking about their problematic urination; we see long lines of people getting treatments in the spa, naked bodies young and old; we see, toward the end of the movie, Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea), whose mind people take lightly—though they shouldn’t—and whose marvelous body, at one point, we see totally naked, walking slowly into one of the many pools on the property.  Ballinger and Boyle are as transfixed as the audience.  Right after that an aging actress who once had a great body, but no longer does (Jane Fonda), comes to talk to Boyle, and deliver her opinion on his film project.  Her participation will make or break the film.

One of the most intriguing characters in the movie is a young actor named Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), who is preparing for a role in Boyle’s film.  He speaks to Ballinger as if he knows him—he appreciates that crackling cellophane, by the way, and doesn’t seem to care what it means—and they have an exchange early on, in which Tree says that they have something in common: both of them gave in at one point in their career to a spirit of levity (“Levity is very important,” Ballinger says), and their whole careers have been marked by that.  Ballinger is known for his Simple Songs—the piece that the Queen wants him to conduct—and Little is known for a movie in which he played a robot.  Everyone who sees him says that is their favorite role.  In a way the men are condemned by that one composition, that one role.  Nobody remembers anything else.

But levity, as Barringer says, is important.  This whole film is about levity.  Paolo Sorrentino is about levity.  The short brief scenes, the little glimpses of things, the fat guy kicking the tennis ball.  I was laughing so hard while I watched that that I almost fell out of my chair, my wife and I were both laughing, but the rest of the theater was silent.  Hello, people.  Levity is important.  There are so many things like that in the movie, including all the music, including the opening number by the Rosettes, which is so weird, but also so good.

At one point Ballinger is getting a massage alongside his daughter, and she goes on a long rant about how he was never faithful to her mother, he was never a good father, all he really cared about was his music, he was terrible terrible terrible.  And yet she still seems to love him, and to care for him (and she’s speaking as a person whose marriage just ended, so her mood might not be the greatest).  Ballinger doesn’t deny a word she says.  He doesn’t say anything at all.  Nevertheless, though we don’t doubt all those things are true, it’s obvious that he cares for his daughter, and that he did love his wife.  We eventually see the extent of that love.  That doesn’t mean his daughter is wrong.  Both things are true at once.

Eventually we discover why Ballinger doesn’t want to conduct his Simple Songs, why he doesn’t want to appear before the Queen, probably why he has given up composing and conducting, and it is terribly sad, but there are two sides to it.  It’s sad because it was once wonderful.  It’s sad to see Jane Fonda so old because she was once so young.  Miss Universe and the young masseuse will one day be old.  You don’t get the one without the other.  The happiness comes with the sadness.

At the end of the film, we do see an orchestra getting ready to play the Simple Songs, and I thought to myself, surely Sorrentino isn’t going to actually play them.  There’s been such a buildup.  Nothing could ever live up to it.  But the orchestra does play them, and a beautiful young woman (Sumi Jo) sings them, and they’re beautiful, they bring tears to your eyes.  It’s youth, it’s life, it’s beauty: it’s there and then it’s gone.  That’s why it’s so wonderful: it will soon be gone.  We don’t sufficiently appreciate it.  This movie celebrates it.