Roger Ebert once wrote “That the firemen are going to come looking for all of us one of these days, sooner or later.” in reference to mortality in the film Amour. Within 3 months he was dead after fighting on without his voice and limited mobility for years. He did not go quietly into the night but the firemen had come. The giants of my adolescence as eclectic as Ebert and Tom Clancy are disappearing from my life. Youth shows me that Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel remain as strong as ever but here are playing characters well aware that there are a handful of years left in their lives. You can’t help but marvel at the passage of time.
Keitel and Caine share a lot of similarities in their personas and histories. Both served in the military as young men overseas, Caine as a Royal Fusilier in Korea and Keitel as a U.S. Marine in Lebanon, both rode film renaissances of their eras on either side of the Atlantic, both are identified with rough neighbourhoods of their youth Caine a Cockney from London and Keitel a Jew from Brooklyn, both got some big breaks in films playing criminals and both have been re-discovered by hip young filmmakers who revitalised their careers. Michael Caine is 82 and Harvey Keitel is 76, these are not ages where you believe you have all the time in the world left but they thankfully still enjoy working and we are the more fortunate for it.
Michael Caine stars as retired composer Fred Ballinger who is vacationing in the Swiss Alps at a health resort. His oldest friend, director Mick Boyle is also staying there brainstorming his new film with some young screenwriters. Also present is Rachel Weisz playing Lena Ballinger, Fred’s daughter and assistant who is married to Mick’s son. There is an overweight retired soccer star, the latest Miss Universe shows up and Paul Dano as a young film star who wants to do a good picture rather than be remembered playing a robot in a broad comedy. Jane Fonda essentially has one scene where she shows up as Boyle’s former star and muse Brenda Morel to be asked to headline his new ‘legacy’ film.
The film has its own leisurely pace observing each day one by one as Boyle fusses over his film, Ballinger is hounded to return to perform for the Queen and Lena deals with the aftermath of her marriage imploding. A key scene for revealing Fred’s current state is the only weak moment in the film because the Queen’s emissary appears remarkably ignorant and insistent. A great fallacy that comes naturally to us is that the old must somehow be wise but Youth shows clearly that both Fred and Mick still have questions they can’t answer even if they understand how fleeting and poignant it all is. It is a pleasure to watch these two performers bounce off each other. Caine as far back as The Ipcress File knew the power of a silent gaze and Keitel who has remained physically in shape all his life appears with still the exuberant energy of a boy ready to take on life. Your oldest friends bring out the child in you; there is something special when you see peers interact with each other. Many years ago in a hospital ward I finally saw my grandfather wasn’t just a grandfather but a brother and a young man somewhere inside bubbling to the surface. Notice how Caine plays a scene with Keitel compared to Dano or a young boy.
The film (relatively low budget) looks fantastic, the retreat itself surrounded by beautiful pine forest mountainsides has a courtyard where hip young bands play on a lit stage at night. In the morning rows upon rows of guests of various ages move through pools, saunas and massage tables in various states of undress. There is a celebration of flesh in all its forms in this film which reflects the earthy quality of Europeans when it comes to sex. Americans get excited by the garter underneath a skirt. Europeans count all the freckles and wrinkles on a bare thigh before devouring it lustfully no matter what the number. After all the firemen are coming. Even Madalina Diana Ghenea as Miss Universe displayed on the film’s marketing for a famous titillating descent naked into a pool is introduced as a human being before being celebrated as a goddess.
Director Paolo Sorrentino is a compelling visual artist engaging in both full blown dream sequences and one compelling close up shot of Weisz as she speaks about much that has been left unsaid for far too long. After that confrontation not much else is said between father and daughter for a bit and then it is. It can go like that sometimes with family. Lena worries about Fred and Fred worries about Lena but in the end they will find their solutions to their life crises themselves. It is nice to be loved though. The whole cast is uniformly exemplary but Sir Michael Caine is here once again taking on the lead role and giving one of his best performances ever-worthy of an Oscar as anything else I’ve seen this year. Even at this stage of life Fred Ballinger has a character arc and grows. He learns there are things to be done, there is still strength in these arms and there is not a moment to lose. The firemen are coming. This is one of the year’s best.