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"Youth": Beauty That Leads to Suffocation

The place is a European spa. The hero is a creative artist who finds himself unwilling or unable to create. There have been many women in his life, and, at one point, they all show up, calling out and crowding his imagination. Remind you of anything? Well, that was the story of Fellini’s “8 1/2,” and now it is the story of “Youth,” the new film from Paolo Sorrentino, whose previous work, “The Great Beauty,” sauntered in the footsteps of “La Dolce Vita.” How should we view such flagrant homage - as a show of humility, or of arrogance?

The artist in this instance is a composer, Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), who is taking the air at a Swiss retreat. There he is visited by an obsequious pest from Buckingham Palace, no less, who bears a request from the Queen: would Ballinger conduct his most celebrated work at a special concert—and, in the process, rise to become Sir Fred? Ballinger is content, however, to hang out with his friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a film director, who is stuck on his latest project, and whose son (Ed Stoppard) is married to Ballinger’s daughter (Rachel Weisz). Also present is Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea), who bathes naked in front of the old guys, indifferent to their flaccid gaze, and a movie star (Paul Dano), who feels in peril, poor lamb, of being typecast by success. The movie is gorgeous, as you would expect from Sorrentino, but beauty this great can lead to suffocation. The plot goes round and round and nowhere, and the highlight is a couple of blistering monologues—one from Weisz, delivered while she is cloaked in mud, and another from Jane Fonda, as an aging screen goddess, encased in her own crust of powder and Botox. The men in this film make a fetish of their blockage. The women want to break free.

Source: The New Yorker, December 7, 2015 issue

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