Director: Paolo Sorrentino
15 | 2h 4min | Comedy, Drama | 29 January 2016 (UK)
As he did with his acclaimed 2013 film The Great Beauty, Director Paolo Sorrentino once more crafts for us a beautiful, although languid, meditation on ageing, self-worth, creative fulfilment, and the search for dignity and fulfilment when your best years seem behind you. A refined air hangs about this film, in large part due to the gorgeous setting of a luxurious Swiss Alps spa, where the guests and the surrounding mountainous vistas are captured via some exquisite cinematography. Yet Sorrentino, who also wrote the script, seems more content to tease the viewer with various musings on a variety of highbrow topics, sliding between magical realism and moments of droll, mordant comedy, rather than deliver a real punch. Or maybe it is just a bit harder to care about how the rich cultural elites of the world feel about the process of getting old.
Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel star as Fred Ballinger and Mick Boyle, two old friends, who are on vacation in this elegant hotel, and who are the main, though not only, characters dealing with the dilemmas of the twilight years. Fred is a retired composer and conductor, whilst Mick is a film director about to embark on his ‘testament’ film that will not only be his swansong, but will reunite him with the famous female star (a great cameo turn from Jane Fonda) who’s name he helped make. Despite his retirement, Fred is being ardently courted by the British Queen’s Emissary, who desperately wants him to perform his most popular work, called “Simple Songs”, for Prince Philip’s birthday despite Fred’s outright refusal to pick up the baton again. The fact that old acquaintances and children (including Fred’s daughter, played well here by Raquel Weisz) are also guests at the resort, and that both men are on the verge of getting involved in what might be their last artistic ventures, means that this hotel effectively becomes a microcosm of their lives, a place where the ghosts of their past behaviours can haunt them. Caine and Keitel’s character also spend a lot of time gawping at a variety of beautiful young women – including the current Miss Universe (played by Madalina Diana Ghenea) – who are also staying at the hotel, comparing past conquests, as well as groaning about how their prostates are denying them the pleasure of a hearty piss.
The film does hit some grace notes, more through its visuals than the sometime haughty dialogue, such as when Caine is framed against a series of empty deck chairs that are rocking in unison despite being empty, or in one of the many low-lit evening scenes when guests mingle as the hotel puts on old-school circus entertainments in the gardens. The cinematography focuses as much on the wrinkles and pockmarks of the two lead actor’s skins, and the inelegant bodies of other guests, as it does on the beautiful alps; maybe to suggest both have equivalent value or maybe just to remind us of the painful reality of mortality. Sorrentino often deflates these elevated moments with humorous beats, often through Caine and Keitel’s scatalogical back and forth, or with some more on-the-nose comedy. At times the film goes off on some weird and superfluous tangents, such as the cameo from pop star Paloma Faith, and a sequence when Paul Dano’s disaffected actor character (people only know him for his role as a robot in the awful-sounding film Mr Q) reveals that he is at the hotel to get into character for his role as Hitler, which involves full Nazi regalia and sharp moustache at one breakfast session. Caine and Keitel are fine as the leads, Caine in particular giving Fred an ambiguous and sombre air that leaves you wondering if he is more a noble or cold figure lost in his ennui, but much of the time the film never gets beyond creating an atmosphere that suggests something important is being discussed in a roundabout, albeit mostly sweet, way.