Youth is not for everyone. I’ve seen it hailed as the best movie of 2015, but I know it’s also the kind of movie many, many people would not like at all.
It’s an offbeat, unconventional offering, a character-driven slice of life with only a minimal plot.
Youth takes place in a luxury spa resort in Switzerland. The main characters are Michael Caine as a retired composer and orchestra conductor, and Harvey Keitel as a movie director. Semi-main characters include a young and at least somewhat successful actor named Jimmy, Jane Fonda as an aging big time actress, and Caine’s daughter and Keitel’s son, who are married to each other. All of the aforementioned except Fonda and Keitel’s son are staying at the resort; those two visit. Until very late in the movie every scene takes place at the resort.
Most important of all is Miss Universe from Romania, who is also staying at the resort, and who, alas, is only in the film fairly briefly. She has a nude scene in the pool. Her body is about as spectacular as you could ever hope to see. Refreshingly, she’s not super skinny, like so many women held out nowadays as the physical ideal. She’s tall and actually quite imposing and substantial.
There are various little subplots, but they all either move at a snail’s pace, don’t get resolved, or both. Among these storylines are the efforts of an emissary from the Queen to overcome Caine’s refusal to come out of retirement for a special command performance for Prince Philip’s birthday, Keitel’s efforts to make a final movie that will convey his philosophy of life (it’s very much in the early stages at present, as he and a group of young screenwriters are trying to hammer out the script at the resort; getting the picture made hinges in part on getting Fonda to play the female lead), and what is to become of the marriage of Caine’s daughter and Keitel’s son (he dumps her early in the movie). Perhaps you could also count as a subplot Jimmy’s trying to find himself as an actor, trying to overcome the fact that the character for which he is best known by far was one of his least serious roles, but this is even less developed than the other stories.
The movie is visually quite interesting and impressive. Well, mostly Miss Universe is, but there are even some shots without her that are striking in one way or another. The cinematography and editing make this one of those films you can tell was put together meticulously and lovingly, by creative professionals always looking for the unconventional or beautiful perfect shot. I’m not enough of a connoisseur of such things to be able to describe precisely what makes it so visually remarkable, but I could see this movie being used in film classes for its cinematography.
I found most of the main characters to be highly likable—I’m thinking of Caine, Keitel, and Jimmy the actor primarily. Jimmy was the biggest surprise in that regard. I’ve liked Caine and Keitel’s work for years, and I anticipated that these older, distinguished characters would be worth getting to know. But when I read that one of the important characters was a young movie star, I figured he was in the film to appeal to demographics other than any I belong to. But in fact, I was interested in Jimmy throughout the film, and actually wish more had been done with that character.
All three just struck me as people I’d like to know and hang out with, not through some kind of hero worship or desire to rub shoulders with the rich and famous at this ritzy resort, but as an equal. In part that’s because the chemistry is so good between them. None of them seems inclined to look down on anyone else, or to compete for who is the biggest big shot.
That’s least surprising in the case of Caine and Keitel, as they are of the same generation and have been friends for most of their lives. But they’re also totally at ease with Jimmy, and him with them.
Good use of music in this film too. The climactic orchestral scene, and for that matter the song that plays over the closing credits, I found quite moving.
In so many respects, this is just a really well made, intelligent film. It addresses important issues like aging, popularity, death, and friendship. The acting is generally very good. (I did think some of Keitel’s dialogue was stilted. I’m not sure if that’s a problem with the script or with him. Insofar as it’s the latter it surprises me, because he’s usually solid.) The subplots, such as they were, were interesting to me, and the characters themselves even more so. A few scenes have substantial emotional bite. And I’ve mentioned that both visually and aurally the film has more than its share of impressive moments.
Yet in spite of all that, I can’t say that subjectively I enjoyed the film in proportion to how good I think it is. I’m not sure why. I definitely liked it, but I’m just saying it didn’t blow me away the way a film this well done perhaps should have. Compared to all the movies I see, on a scale of 1-10 I was into this and enjoyed it at about a 6 or 7 level, but I suspect that just in terms of its quality as a film it’s at least a 9.
One of the oddest criticisms I came across concerning this film was a commentator (a male commentator, by the way) whining about the nude scene with Miss Universe being an offensive instance of pandering to the white male patriarchy (because rich, powerful, white males prefer looking at someone like her, whereas in reality everyone of any age, gender, body type, etc. is beautiful, especially the people those rich, powerful, white males oppress by not finding attractive—or something like that).
I had a subtly different response to Miss Universe, which is that I’m utterly astonished that anyone could see her naked and not immediately be in favor of converting the Earth (or perhaps more appropriately the universe, given her title) to an absolute monarchy with her as our queen.
But it’s also just a weird response because if anything Youth is striking in the way it passes up opportunities to dwell on conventionally beautiful women. One of the things that makes the visuals of this film offbeat is the high number of long, lingering shots on extremely imperfect bodies. You will see more close ups of naked and semi-naked elderly people in this movie than probably any movie you ever watch, unless you’re inclined to watch elderly fetish porn.
Beyond that, multiple of the younger female characters that in the typical Hollywood movie would be played by unusually attractive actresses—even if there’s nothing about the character that requires them to be hot—in Youth are not. I have no complaints about Rachel Weisz as Caine’s daughter in terms of looks, but it’s not like she’s made up to be some conventional sexpot—more of a pleasant, above average looking middle-aged woman.
But the pop singer that Keitel’s son dumps his wife for (Paloma Faith) would rank in terms of looks (facially anyway) in the bottom 20%, and maybe bottom 10%, of people in the demographic of young female pop stars. The resort employee who gives Caine massages and appears in many scenes, while she has youth and a decent body going for her, and is multiple times shown dancing/exercising in a sultry, seductive manner, has big goofy ears and braces. The hotel escort is hot neither in appearance nor behavior. She’s not grotesque, but she’s a below average looking young woman with a kind of unconfident, dumpy body language.
Miss Universe is very much the exception in this movie. She would stand out anyway, just on the basis of having a supernaturally beautiful body, but she stands out all the more here because there is such an unusual dearth of regular-level hot women in this movie.
There were times I felt very much engaged watching Youth and times it just felt slow and I wasn’t all that much into it. Overall I liked it to a decent extent, but admired it considerably more.