Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth and the new James Bond film, Spectre.
I loved Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, as did many other people. Sorrentino’s new one, featuring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel as a retired composer and a director, respectively, at an Italian resort, deals with similar themes of aging, nostalgia, and memory.
This is a film that could really be pretentious, but Sorrentino injects it with so much levity and so many out-and-out laughs along the way that every time it veers towards arrogance that pontificating is redirected towards something that is either warmly comedic or straight up slapstick.
My favorite part of this comes on a very romantic, luxurious (as is much of the film) shot of an opera singer belting out a few beautiful bars at the spa. Sorrentino then hard-cuts to her chomping into a huge chicken wing in close-up. It’s a hilarious cut, is purely visual humor, and really upends the stereotypical “beauty” that otherwise pervades. One of Sorrentino’s points in this film is certainly the old “don’t judge a book by its cover” mantra, as nearly everyone and everything is different than they/it first appear. (Some of the other hilarious moments: Paul Dano as Hitler (trust me), a woman unexpectedly slapping her husband in the midst of dinner, a mountaineer’s various lustful looks…).
There’s a great rhythm to Youth, part of which is the editing of scenes, which so often start close, break the 180 line, and only reveal the wide once the scene is well underway. It yields a hidden feeling – not necessarily confusing, but jarring enough to make the pace unique.
That rhythm is also evident in the somewhat discursive (narratively at least, not thematically) shots that occur throughout the film.
Ultimately, Youth‘s movement is great. For such a reflective film it’s far from slow.
There are a few moments that aren’t my favorite in Youth – a cliche precocious young girl; a moment where Keitel’s Mick Boyle sees his past actresses (who are all bad…that’s intentional, and the best part of the scene) all in a field. The first just feels overplayed, the latter somehow visually uninteresting and also too on-the-nose (whereas Caine’s Fred Ballinger’s dream sequence of a surreal chance encounter with Miss Universe atop an odd, treacherously narrow bridge, is delightfully ambiguous, funny, and meaningful).
Still, those scenes fall away easily in the final analysis. Youth is great. And Sorrentino, as easy as a comparison as it is, remains indebted to Fellini without borrowing too much.
The ending of the film is quite interesting. Without spoilers: there’s a musical performance. The shots to the singer are very obviously out of sync. For a film that has been so obviously carefully planned, this is strange. In fact, it feels intentional. So why put someone’s voice out of sync? I think there’s an argument to be made that Sorrentino is trying to disembody the voice from the singer, since, as you’ll know from the plot that precedes it, the song “belongs” to someone else. The cut to that someone else during the song is perfect.
I’m not a James Bond fanatic, but I definitely enjoy the movies. Spectre feels to me like a throwback to when the Bond movies were sillier, and reveled in that silliness. The film doesn’t start that way. The opening sequence is fantastic, and one of the best of the year. The setting and set pieces at the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City are brilliant, and Sam Mendes’ long take is carefully planned and exhilarating.
That long take’s fluid, elegant formalism is countered – not necessarily in a bad way – by the most tongue-in-cheek, goofy Bond film we’ve seen in the Daniel Craig era. Christoph Waltz, great but underused, is a smirking comic book villain. He’s not so much menacing as…spoiled. You half expect him to start a crying fit at some point. And while that’s sort of relevant plot-wise, it just adds up to, well, silliness.
Couple that with a few more one-liners than the modern norm, and a hilarious transition to a sex scene, and Spectre is fun, cornball stuff. I like Daniel Craig, and in fact, I like this whole cast. There’s the usual shadowy conspiracy, gadgets from Q, etc. Where Skyfall went existential, and imbued that dystopic sense with neon lights, reflected images, and negative space, Spectre is kind of happy. The look that accompanies that happiness is expert, but far from the brooding enigma that its predecessor produced.