"Does he know how old I am?" This is how Michael Caine responded when he heard that Paolo Sorrentino wanted to cast him as the lead in his new film Youth. Actually, his first response was, "You mean he's heard of me?" I saw the film tonight at a London Film Festival screening, which was attended by Sir Michael, Sorrentino, and various co-stars, including Harvey Keitel, Paul Dano and Paloma Faith. Suffice to say that it was a fun night — and the film itself is a compelling story of friendship, success, regret and hope.
Almost all of Youth takes place at a luxurious spa retreat deep in the Swiss Alps. Fred Ballinger (Caine), a renowned composer and conductor, likes to get away from it all for a few weeks every summer at the same hotel. His close friend Mick (Keitel), a film director, is also there, along with a gaggle of young, self-deprecating writers who are trying to help him decide how to end his next film, Life's Last Day. The two chat about their children — Fred's daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), who is also his assistant, is staying at the hotel too — their work, life itself and their inability to pee.
Events happen around them — Mick struggles with the casting on his film, while Fred must deal with his heart-broken daughter and fend off the advances of an emissary to the Queen of England, who is desperate for him to conduct one of his most special works — yet very little really happens. The hotel is packed with activities as diverse as rock climbing, spa treatments and live music, but everyone seems bored. Ennui is the dominant emotion.
Despite this absence of activity, the film is beautifully made and extremely enjoyable. The chemistry between Caine and Keitel, who met for the first time on the set of Youth, is wonderful and you feel that you could watch the two of them pootling around the Alps, making small-talk, for hours. But although the gorgeous scenery predominates, there are some particularly cinematic moments: Fred — ever the conductor — sits in a quiet field listening to the sound of the cows' bells tinkling, but in his head, it sounds like a symphony. Then there is the morning rush to the pools and treatment rooms: guests and staff, clad in white robes and uniforms, flit through the halls of the hotel in perfect synchrony as though they are part of a corps de ballet.
The other hotel guests provide some light relief for Fred and Mick: Paul Dano plays an actor who hates that everyone knows him only from a role in a robot movie, for example. Mick fails to recognise both Miss Universe and Paloma Faith, who has a small role as herself. There are some very funny lines, but there are sadder moments too. Fred and Lena talk wistfully of Fred's wife, Melanie, and Weisz has a particularly powerful and angry monologue that takes place while the two characters are having some kind of chocolate facial. Amid all the small talk there is a lot of emotion, and Sorrentino does a beautiful way of communicating this through sound and touch as well as vision.
During the Q&A, an audience member asked Sorrentino if Youth was a sort of sequel to La Grande Bellezza (which I still haven't seen), but Sorrentino explained that it was more the opposite. He said that Youth is as simple as La Grande Bellezza is complex, and that in many ways this was his effort to distance himself from the latter, in the same way Paul Dano's character in the film goes to dramatic lengths to distance himself from the robot movie. Meanwhile Caine said that what he loved most about the film was that every scene involved something he had never done before, to the extent that it felt like being a youth again.
Sadly, this is my last film in this year's London Film Festival. Next year I really must try not to book any holidays during the festival so that I can go to a few more screenings.