Grumpy old men: Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel star in Youth
Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel grapple with their own mortality in Youth, the new film from Italian Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino. David Roy contemplated this comedic drama's visually arresting, wilfully surreal charms
SCREEN veterans Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel are great value as a pair of old geezers grappling with the fag-end of existence in Youth, Paolo Sorrentino's beautiful, strange movie meditation on memory and mortality.
Fred (Caine) and Mick (Keitel) are lifelong friends who've checked into a sprawling Swiss hotel and spa. The former, a retired composer of some note, is there out of habit: we learn that he once visited every year with his wife.
Keitel's aging Hollywood director is using the place to work on his new film, set to be his one true "testament".
Among the other guests at this exclusive, deeply weird establishment – amenities include bizarre cabaret style evening entertainments, suspiciously young masseuses and a dowdy looking house prostitute – are jaded young Hollywood type Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) and a balloon bellied South American (Roly Serrano) clearly modelled on a certain Argentinian soccer star.
Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) and pop star Paloma Faith also pop by for a bit, the latter's bizarre cameo being one of the flimsily focused film's few major mis-steps.
The story, such as it is, follows Mick and Fred as they stroll around while comparing notes on the day's urinations and attempting to reminisce about their past. Fred is a something of a 'ladies man': part of him still pines for Gilda, a woman they both fell for once upon a time.
"I would have given 20 years of my life just to sleep with her once," he rues.
"I can't even remember if I slept with her or not," responds Mick glumly.
Indeed, Mick's memory is not what it once was – except when it comes to his movies and leading ladies.
An unexpected encounter with his biggest star Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda) provides Youth with one of its most memorable exchanges.
The film is shot with a fluid attitude to fantasy and reality, reflecting Fred's tendency to drift off into daydreams.
In one scene, he begins 'conducting' the sounds of the surrounding countryside while surveying the impressive alpine vista, while later he encounters an errant skydiver.
"I don't think I was supposed to land here," remarks the puzzled parachutist, mirroring Fred's own existential musings.
Youth's altered reality vibe and claustrophobic hotel setting with occasional forays into nearby nature recall last year's surreal Irish oddity The Lobster, which also featured Rachel Weisz.
Here, she plays Fred's daughter/assistant, Lena, a frustrated figure long sidelined by her father's dedication to his composing career (was becoming his assistant a pragmatic solution to this problem, we wonder?).
Once swallowed by a fresh emotional crisis involving her husband and the aforementioned pop singer, Lena unloads at her pa for 30 years of inattention and philandering.
It's a powerful scene made all the better by Sorrentino's decision to have the pair undergoing a mud bath spa treatment during it.
However, Fred is not as cold a fish as he initially lets on: we begin to learn that there are emotionally affecting reasons for some of his more apparently truculent behaviour.
Packed with shots of the naked human form in various states of full bloom and wilting decrepitude, plus regular moments of joyful surrealism and absurdity, Youth is a memorably odd watch pushed into compelling territory by its terrific pair of septuagenarian leads.
Often intoxicating and only occasionally infuriating, Youth deserves to be absorbed and pondered over by imaginations of every vintage.
:: Youth is showing now at QFT Belfast, visit Queensfilmtheatre.com for tickets and times.
YOUTH (15, 124mins) Drama.
Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda.
Director: Paolo Sorrentino