Reflections on the film Youth

Youth is a poem of a film in that it’s shot through with striking visual images and can be taken to mean many things. So trying to “make sense” of the film is as hopeless as trying to “make sense” of a great poem. But I feel the need to try and mine something from the film.

Despite its title this is more a film about age than youth. Michael Caine plays an 80 year old composer who lived for music but is now overwhelmed by apathy. Harvey Keitel is the same age and after directing 50 or so films is making a film that will be his testament. Throughout out the film Keitel’s team search for the last words hat they dying person will say. Caine and Keitel have been friends for 60 years but say only good things to each other, perhaps a typically male friendship.  They discuss love and prostate problems.

“I pissed four drops this morning. How about you?”

“More or less the same.”

“Well, more or less?”

“Less.”

“I’m still in love with Gilda Brown 60 years after I failed to sleep with her. Did you sleep with her? You did.”

“The terrible thing is not that I slept with her but that I can’t remember whether I did or not.”

“I know,” says Keitel, “all there is to know about love.”

[These are not their exact words. I don’t have the script, but they are close.]

They are both in a crazy sanatorium high in the Swiss Alps, which provides many glorious shots. Other guests include a male film star who is preparing to play Hitler, a Maradona type figure, Miss Universe, who conveniently removes her clothes, an aging but beautiful couple who never speak at dinner but are seen copulating in the forest, and Caine’s daughter and secretary, played by Rachel Weisz.

Three scenes stick in my mind.

We discover that Weisz’s husband, who is Keitel’s son, dumps her in the tunnel while boarding a plane for a holiday in Polynesia. He’s in love with another woman, who is played by Paloma Faith as herself. Keitel and Caine ask him while he’s dumped a wonderful woman like Weisz for a “piece of shit” like Faith.

“Do you really want to know? Because she’s good in bed.”

Now we see Weisz walking with Caine discussing the break up.

“Why did he dump me for her?” asks Weisz.

“I don’t know.”

“But you saw him. You asked him. What did he say?”

“I can’t remember.”

“You know. You do know. Tell me, or I’ll scream. I will.”

“He said she was good in bed.”

“Why did you tell me that, you bastard?”

The implication is that being bad in bed is the worst thing anybody could say about you. Not that you’re stupid, evil, corrupt, or boring but bad in bed.

Weisz features too in the second scene that hit me. She is lying on her back, and we see only her face, but we know she is talking to her father.

“You never understood me. You never even tried. You didn’t care. My mother understood me. She loved you, but you treated her horribly. You betrayed her with woman after woman. But she forgave you, because she loved you. But nothing mattered to you but music. I remember you only ever saying ‘Quiet, Melanie.’ Quiet because you were composing, because you were preparing for a performance, because you had an important phone call.”

Caine, we know, misses his wife, who lives in Venice and whom he hasn’t seen for 10 years. Weisz accuses him of never taking her flowers. Towards the end of the film we see him in Venice, approaching San Michele. We think that she must be dead, but he’s taking flowers to the grave of Stravinsky, whom he once met. Then he takes flowers to his wife, who is in a nursing home and demented to the point of mute immobility.

The best scene in the film is when Jane Fonda, playing an aging actress (which, of course, she is), comes from Los Angeles to tell Keitel that she won’t be in his film. They have known each other for 53 years and made 11 films together. Fonda looks awful with thick make up and an extravagant blonde wig. They get to being truthful with each other.

“I’m not going to be in your film because it’s shit. I’m saving you. Your last three films were all shit. You’re an old man who is losing his talent. Recognise it. Your shitty films are running your legacy.” (I think of Woody Allen.)

This is actually a funny scene, which Fonda plays superbly. I’ve failed to capture it.

Keitel kills himself. Fonda freaks out.

At the beginning of the film we see the Queen’s representative trying to persuade Caine to perform his Simple Song #3 for the Queen and Prince Philip. He holds out, but the final scene is him conducting the song for the Queen.

The message? Take your pick, bit it’s another variant on life is tough and complicated but fun.

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