Frustrating 'Youth' lacks substance beneath its beauty
In “Youth,” two friends, Fred and Mick — played respectively by Michael Caine (“The Dark Knight Rises”) and Harvey Kietel (“Taxi Driver”) — vacation at a real world “Grand Budapest Hotel” in the Swiss Alps, aimlessly moving between spas, massages and conversations about their own mortality.
“Youth” abounds with beauty — scenes of dialogue are separated by quiet mountain vistas and perfectly symmetrical shots of people floating in pools and lounging in saunas. “Youth” is strongest when it is silent, in the moments when it doesn’t try to be anything more than beautiful.
And perhaps it isn’t anything more than beautiful. The two lead characters are artists and therefore seekers and creators of beauty. Mick is a screenwriter and Fred is a composer; both are struggling with the gravity of final works. Mick solves the problem with a thinly veiled auto-biopic starring Jane Fonda, and Fred chooses retirement. One might expect “Youth,” then, to be a film about art or at least say something profound about art. However, the only message the film manages to send about art is a problematic one. It's clear in “Youth” that the men are artists and the women merely their muses. The creators are accompanied by women who (like art) often exist purely as sexualized objects. Miss Universe (newcomer Madalina Ghenea), one of the film’s few female characters, seems to be the embodiment of this notion. Fresh off being crowned the world's most viewable woman, she comes to the posh Swiss hotel and surprises everyone with her ability to speak. In this sense, “Youth” is like a man who does not recognize his inherent male privilege — not malicious, just frustrating.
“Youth” tries to say something poignant about aging by placing its leads in contrast with younger versions of themselves. Fred encounters a young violinist playing his most famous work, and Mick is accompanied by a team of young screenwriters who are helping him with his final masterwork. There’s potential for a really interesting parallel here, but “Youth” fails to develop any of its younger characters to the same extent as their older counterparts (who themselves are quite underdeveloped). An interesting relationship does arise between Fred and a young movie star played by Paul Dano (“Love & Mercy”) as the two find commonality — both worry they will only be remembered for their low-quality, high-popularity work.
Remembrance seems to be the idea around which “Youth” is centered. Surrounded by quiet, actionless scenes (which read very much like memories), remembrance is at the heart of most of the film’s dialogue. Mick and Fred discuss their own memories, their own forgetfulness, and the world’s remembrance of them. Therefore, the film’s visuals take precedence over the plot, creating the illusion that the film itself follows the incomplete and irregular rhythm of memory.
Despite the film’s name, I was the youngest person in the theater by at least 30 years. Maybe that means I’m just not in the film’s target audience. But perhaps the film doesn’t have a target audience, and is instead stuck floating between nostalgia and foreshadowing. Ultimately, “Youth” is a beautiful but hollow portrayal of friendship, age and mortality.