mike and harvey


Back at TIFF 2013, I watched a film called THE GREAT BEAUTY, where a man reflects on life itself at great length, and with much splendour. It was lavish, vibrant, and about everything and nothing all at once. So to hear that the  same director – now with an Oscar in-hand – was going to return with a long, languid look at youth through the eyes of two aging artists…well, I couldn’t sign-up fast enough!

YOUTH is set in a lush revitalizing spa in the swiss alps. It’s here that old friends Fred (Michael Caine) the composer, and Mick (Harvey Keitel) the filmmaker are vacationing while the former enjoys retirement and the latter prepares a new project. In-between, they reflect on their youth, their successes and failures, all while dozens of visual metaphors unfold before them. Just to throw things for a bit more of a loop, Fred’s daughter Lena is abandoned by her husband – Mick’s son Julian.

YOUTH begins as a joyous and glossy reflection on what we think we want when we’re too dumb to know better. It drapes the posh hotel and the lush mountainside with melancholy, letting our regrets and memories come to life through the unbridled whimsy of Michael Caine’s every word and gesture. It surrounds the ailing and aging guests of its main setting with nubile and virile staff, as if to underline the difference between passion and perspective.

Occasionally, we even get to see the two sides interact, such as when Paul Dano plays an actor who gets life wisdom from his chats with Fred, or when a screenwriter played by Chloe Pirrie is subject to an elegant analogy on the future and the past by Mick and a handy telescope.

However, right when it seems as though the film has just about reached its conclusion, an entire third act begins to unfold that sidelines all of that joy in favour of deep resentment and feelings of failure. The delicate ecosystem of humour, sadness, and perspective is suddenly kicked-over, as Mick gets manically introspective, and Fred is sidelined completely. I can’t express how sad this made me as up until then, I was falling deeply in love with this reflection on youth and the impish nature with which it told its story.

I’d never go so far as to call YOUTH a bad film – it’s far too stunning and far too funny. However, it does feel like a defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. There are so many images that are both absurd and elegant…profane and poetic. Getting so much time in the presence of personalities like Caine and Keitel as they just shoot the shit is reason alone to buy a ticket or press play. However, like a party that doesn’t know when it’s ended – or an artist that doesn’t know when to quit – the film takes something that was once sadly beautiful and turns it into something that’s just sad.

Like my own life memories, there are moments from YOUTH that I won’t soon forget; there are lessons on art, love, and losing hope that I will cling to long after this festival has ended. But I will do so in spite of its later failings…which might well be the best lesson of all.