A few years ago everyone was raving about The Great Beauty (2013) my natural reaction was to not watch it, which makes no sense, usually you’d go out of your way to watch a film. I decided to let it pass me by until it showed up on TV where I took the chance to see what all the fuss was about. Which in turn enriched my later understanding and enjoyment of Youth (2015) which to a certain extent deals with the same themes as the previous film – the effects of aging as we grow older. This time director Paolo Sorrentino gives us a mostly English speaking cast and more varied age range of actors which helps us explore themes of the film.
Why I really wanted to see this film was to see both Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in this more thoughtful film than the average. I soon learned why. Like The Great Beauty it’s bright, luxurious and treats its cast as both beautiful and flawed people. You enter into this almost perfect world that is the Swiss health farm where we spend the long duration of this sometimes drawn-out film that moves between four main characters, each with their own challenges. It’s not just about being in the lap of luxury, just lying there and being pampered. Of course we have a lot of that but at a mental cost.
Turning to both life-long friends Fred Ballinger (Caine) and Mick Boyle (Keitel) who as we learn have led long productive and creative lives; a retired conductor, the other an aging director whose in the midst of developing his next project. It’s the desired image and rich in cliché which becomes a bit of a turn-off, the high life and big profound ideas that after a while you have to switch off and go with. Unlike Ballinger the retired conductor whose being hounded by the emissary for Queen Elizabeth II who want his to conduct for her, one of his most famous pieces, one of his simple songs (for a opera maybe). Refusing due to personal reasons. Also he has his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) whose also his PA. These are not exactly average people at this health-spa.
Then we have a contemplative and arrogant actor Jimmy Tree, a skewed version of Paul Dano who’s there to find and develop his next part. That I won’t tell you. It’s a film that I find builds itself on the use of the clichés of the high and modern life. They are all discussing life but not really experiencing it, cut off by the mountains which we are allow ourselves to be transported to. They dwell and ponder not worrying about time. It’s somehow not boring though, as much as they could be talking down to you, we all have these conversations on some level. Maybe not with some of the big and clever words that.
As the film progress it does rely on a lot of repetition to carry the film, the formal structure of the health spa as we go through the week or so we spend there. From the performers on the rotating stage to the masseuse who works out at night and the almost levitating Buddhist monk. You have to have the routine to show the passage, we are only visiting as these characters learn about themselves, boy do they take their time too.
I have mixed feelings about this obviously accomplished film. It’s not your average pop-corn movie, it does take a bit more to sit through this admittedly sumptuous film, much like The Great Beauty which is more aware of its own world, the high life that Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) who wants to find meaning in his life beyond the luxury he has surrounded himself with. His friends are starting to die-away. He needs more purpose that just a pretty one-night stand. Compared to Ballinger who is obviously much older he has surpassed that stage, his has a daughter who he hardly knows but still adores him besides his faults.
Whilst director Boyle is still working, wanting to keep going to be known and appreciated. Wanting to work with his once starlet Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda) who herself is a has been living on old glories, wanting to find recognition and meaning in her own life. A washed up actress (a version of Marilyn Monroe maybe had she lived longer) who s in-fact more aware of her position than her old friend. Fonda is fantastic, taking a massive risk, playing a version of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) deluded but still wanting to carrying on. Riding the wave of her fading legend to find relevance.
That’s not to say the rest of the cast delivered strong performances, none of them underused. Even supporting characters have their moments that make the film a rich experience, But rich is word I must emphasis it is a very rich film in its look and language which makes gives it exclusivity, I’m even using these big words myself to review this film that both entertain, enrich and to a point isolates at times. It would be lost thought without Caine and Keitel who are a part time couple who as we learn only share the good things until the end when we learn life must go on however it finds us.