When a character in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth introduced herself as Paloma Faith I knew the name, but I had no idea if this really was Paloma Faith, or an actress playing the part of Paloma Faith. The former scenario baffled me because there’s no particular reason for Paloma Faith to be in the film playing herself, and the latter because there’s no good reason for an actress to be playing the part of Paloma Faith in a film where Paloma Faith’s presence has no bearing beyond a brief name-drop that’s lost on the rest of the cast.
Paloma Faith’s inexplicable cameo isn’t the issue; my uncertainty over whether this was her or not made me realise I’d long ago reached an age where a certain type of celebrity barely registers with me, which felt pretty on point for a film about ageing. It’s happened before, when I saw Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman’s depressingly brilliant study on, among other things, death and decay, on the same day that I’d had my first tooth filling. All I can recommend is you avoid seeing films that touch upon the subject of mortality when you’re feeling particularly aware of your own.
Youth, anyway, covers similar grounds to The Great Beauty from a couple of years ago, a film which meditated on the subject of old age and lost youth without ever getting too maudlin about it. In Youth, it’s a focus felt mostly through Michael Caine’s retired classical composer known largely for his “Simple Songs”, and Harvey Keitel’s film writer-director working on what he believes must be his great, lasting work. This preoccupation with defining one’s own legacy rather than leaving it to society, family or friends, affects almost everyone in the film. Caine and Keitel put in the sort of sleepwalkingly-good performances that seem second nature to them, a barely-worth-mentioning brilliance; focus instead on the perpetually-underrated Paul Dano as a jaded actor worn down by his connection in the public’s mind with a single, trivial role that’s overshadowed his serious work. Dano puts on a charming, placid front but has a bitterness that keeps bubbling to the surface, particularly when he unfairly insults Madeline Ghana’s gushing Miss Universe, wrongly assuming she’s all body and no brains.
Equally strong is Rachel Weisz, playing Caine’s daughter and personal assistant, turning in a study not just in pent-up anger over how the men in her life have treated women, but in unease over her own future as well. Youth is perhaps more Dano and Weisz’s film than it is Caine and Keitel’s, but as is typical of a Sorrentino film the whole cast is memorable and almost everybody is deserving of a film of their own, a parade of slightly-strange characters dipping briefly in to Youth as if they’re on their way elsewhere. Sorrentino always shows such affection for his characters, avoiding outright mockery of them even when they’re at their most grotesque, that I find his films a joy to spend time with.
Youth is a slow, sleepy film, but it’s also deep, moving and frequently funny. It is, perhaps, a bit of an English-language retread of The Great Beauty, but it has its own voice and perspective nonetheless. I remain, however, unclear on the function of Paloma Faith, both in the film and in life.