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Youth (2015) Review: Life’s Bittersweet Symphony!

Group of people sunbathing on their backs by the pool, lined up side by side in a bird's eye view.

The coming-of-age drama “Youth” follows the intertwined lives of three teenagers in a small Italian village as they grapple with love, friendship, and the uncertainty of their futures.

The Complexity of Film Interpretation

Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, known for his works such as Il Divo (2008) and The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza, 2013), presents Youth (2015), a film that offers the viewer familiar yet foreign landscapes from life. The film occasionally provides a feeling of conversing with an elder family member, listening to their memories, and gaining advice about life, making the film-watching experience even more subjective.

In films that are rich in dialogue like this, what the viewer understands and feels is entirely dependent on their personal life story. Of course, this observation can be made for almost all films, but for Youth in particular, what the audience takes away from the film is connected to their experiences and what they have witnessed before watching the movie. Furthermore, what the audience can perceive in the film and what they might miss entirely is entirely related to these factors. To comprehend a detail, subtlety, or message in the film, it is necessary for that message to have a counterpart within us, and for us to decipher that message. Especially in films like Youth that feature famous personalities and allude to them within the film, there are “extratextual” elements beyond the story told in the film. These elements that appear to be outside the film’s universe are shaped by the director’s own life, what he reflected in his other films, the real lives of the actors, and similarities or differences between the characters they portray.

Before diving into the content and details of the film, I would like to discuss how complex the act of watching a film is and how difficult it is to separate its building blocks. Moreover, I would like to emphasize how subjective the interpretation of some films can be. We can conclude this introduction by saying that watching a film is not only an activity that involves the senses, but rather an activity that involves the brain and the soul to a great extent. Cinema is an activity that tells you a lot about your mind and soul as you think about it and dig deeper into why you understood something in a particular way. With this explanation, let’s take a closer look at Youth.

A Poetic Journey at the Swiss Alps Hotel

We embark on our journey with Youth by getting acquainted with a hotel surrounded by the scenic views of the Swiss Alps. In the very first scene, we are introduced to Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a stubborn and grumpy former orchestra conductor who turned down an invitation from the Queen of England, and Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), an actor who complains about being recognized for only one film. The Queen of England requests Fred to conduct the orchestra and perform his beloved Simple Songs at an upcoming event. Meanwhile, Jimmy is struggling with a typical actor’s dilemma while thinking about his next role. Although Jimmy is portrayed as much younger than Ballinger, his omniscient perspective on Fred’s mood swings and dialogues provides an interesting detail. The contrast between the age difference of the two characters and Jimmy’s all-knowing gaze, combined with Fred’s increasingly childlike behavior despite his aging (or perhaps because of it), creates an intriguing dynamic.

Fred Ballinger and Mick Boyle gaze at a beauty of the world entering the pool naked in the movie Youth.

As we witness the events at the hotel and become more familiar with the characters, the everyday tasks and movements continue to be presented in a poetic manner throughout the film. The slow-motion shots of waiting, relaxing by the pool, and walking create a unique atmosphere for the hotel and its inhabitants. While the film portrays the human activities between waking up and going to bed in such an artistic way, it also makes the banality and simplicity of these actions more evident. When we think about our own lives, especially during vacations, why do the days seem to stretch out endlessly in front of us?

The repetitive nature of performing the same tasks every day, and worse yet, the fact that we know what to expect, makes us ponder on our routines and question our lives. In Youth, the stunning scenery of the Alps and the lush greenery that surrounds it adds to the suffocating monotony of routine, creating a feeling of sterilization that entraps us along with the film character in that particular space, separating us from the rest of the world.

Aging and the Praise for Youth

In the movie “Youth”, we see the contrast of older people being surrounded by younger people, which also carries the quality of “praise for youth and being young.” The director successfully links the audience with aging characters and makes them feel the emotions of loss, forgetfulness, and a sense of meaninglessness. Although this theme seems like a liberation and comfort, given that there are many things that the characters want to forget about their past, the film’s overall tone is one of sadness and loss. Thinking in this way, the director seems successful in encouraging the viewers to praise and hold onto their youth.

When Fred explains the reason why he rejected the offer made by the spokespersons of the Queen of England, he mentions that he made that piece for his wife, who can no longer sing those songs. It is possible to sympathize with Fred, like Lena (Rachel Weisz), who bursts into tears, and to indulge in romance, thinking that “he was someone who kept his feelings inside, loved people in his heart, and although he cheated on his wife throughout their marriage and hadn’t visited her for years, he loved her so deeply that he doesn’t even want to play the piece he composed for her.” However, for a more conscious audience, this emotion “storm” is quite short-lived. Of course, this conscious state often reduces the enjoyment of the film because the director has a message to convey, a thought to impose, and an emotion to evoke. When you realize that you are not caught up in that “flow” and become aware of that flow, you detach from the film’s own reality and return to the “real” reality.

Breaking Gender Norms

Regarding the norms of male and female perspectives, the film “Youth” seems to break down these norms to some extent. For example, the Universe Beauty (Mãdãlina Ghenea) can speak “intelligently” and outsmart Jimmy when she does not have the label of “universe beauty” on her, and Jimmy accepts that she is smart- as if Jimmy were a decision-making authority in this regard (!). As female viewers, we feel comfortable when a smart male character in the film takes back his words and acknowledges the brilliance of Universe Beauty. This mindset seems ridiculous from any perspective, but viewers do not usually have the opportunity to think about these things in detail while watching the film. They merely accept what is presented to them and may not even realize that they have internalized it.

Iconic scene from the movie Youth: Beauty of the world entering the pool naked.

Returning to the scene, we can say that neither the audience nor the characters in the film noticed that Universe Beauty was a Universe Beauty when she showed her intelligence. This was because her makeup was not done, and her clothing did not reveal her body. However, she was one of the two elderly characters in the film…

In “Youth,” director Paolo Sorrentino presents a critique on beauty and the perception of women, but whether this is a successful critique remains up for debate. Lena, one of the film’s main female characters, is portrayed as a graceful and beautiful woman, but her only “profession” is being her father’s advisor and daughter. Furthermore, her depiction as a character who cannot stand on her own when her husband leaves her for a “more successful” woman in bed supports the notion that she is unable to survive on her own. In the end, Lena finds happiness under the protection of another “strong,” yet kinder, man.

Another female character, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda), is depicted as an actress who has risen in the industry thanks to Mick and who has been with many producers to gain recognition in her profession. Brenda is portrayed as a “greedy” character who has no qualms about hurting Mick’s feelings by announcing that she will not appear in his latest film for more money and fame. This touches on the harm that television shows have caused to the film industry, which the film also addresses. However, since our focus is on the portrayal of women and men, we leave this topic as it is.

Brenda Morel is shown as someone who is willing to do anything, even already has done it, to get the money and fame she desires in “Youth.” When Brenda announces that she will not be appearing in Mick’s latest film, which he has devoted all his hope and life energy to, Mick is devastated and takes his life. He references the fact that the only real thing in life is emotions, which are always associated with female figures. Therefore, we can link Fred’s logical and “emotionally-contained” character to masculinity or romantically read Fred and Mick as two halves of a whole. Brenda Morel, who has a nervous breakdown upon learning of Mick’s suicide, tries to get off the plane and inflicts violence on the flight attendants due to her guilt.

Catharsis and Purpose of the Film

Fred, who becomes quite isolated after his friend’s death, chooses to continue his life, as we learn from his doctor that he is in good health and has no medical problems. From this perspective, we can say that aging comes from the soul rather than illnesses, and that youth or old age is a state of mind. Youth encourages its viewers in this regard, though it does so in a bittersweet atmosphere.

Fred Ballinger and Jimmy Tree walking in the forest, engaged in conversation.

After accepting an offer from the Queen of England following Mick’s death, Fred conducts the orchestra, and we hear “Simple Songs” from famous soprano Sumi Jo rather than from his wife. This part of the film may have been intended to be cathartic, but the distance we may have felt towards Fred from the beginning of the film prevents us from experiencing this catharsis. At least, we can say this for those who did not get lost in the film.

It is not easy to answer the question, “What exactly did the director want to say or do with this film?” Honestly, it is not right to ask these questions for every film. A film may have many purposes, but there are also films whose purposes are not beyond reflecting a certain aesthetic sensitivity. When looked at from this perspective, Youth seems to me like a combination of some aesthetic beauty, some comedy, some emotion, and some respect shown and wanted to be shown to master actors. Although Youth delivers less than what it promises and makes us feel less than what it can make us feel – perhaps that is the intention – we realize the importance of many “moments” that seem insignificant when viewed as a whole but become more significant when examined in detail, just like life itself.

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Last modified: May 19, 2023