Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 18, 2015

Youth; 45 Years

Filed under: aging,Film — louisproyect @ 10:42 pm

If you follow my writings on film, you are probably aware that I tend to review documentaries and foreign-language films with a focus on politics. As a member of New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO), I try to catch up with commercial films starting in late November through the DVD’s and press screenings the studio’s publicity machine churns out. Most years I go to NYFCO meetings and abstain on many categories for the simple reason that something like “Zero Dark Thirty” was beyond the pale for me.

This year I was pleasantly surprised by the number of quality films that came my way, including an animated feature titled “Inside Out” that was in some ways the best film of 2015. Over the next few weeks I am going to be posting reviews of some of the best starting today with a couple that are by no means political but speak to me on both on an artistic and existential basis since they deal with the question of aging, a preoccupation of many baby boomers. Just about all of the films that I will be writing about are still playing in local theaters, including the two considered below.

Although it is an English-language film featuring American and British actors, the ironically titled “Youth” is really an Italian film. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino, it is basically a two-character drama featuring Michael Caine as a composer named Fred Ballinger and Harvey Keitel as film director Mick Boyle. They sit around the hotel restaurant or swimming pool in a combination luxury hotel and health spa in the Swiss Alps discussing their various health problems, including enlarged prostate glands. They have been friends for decades and are acutely aware of having entered what Tom Brokaw called the “mortality zone”.

Ballinger has pretty much given up on new projects and spends much of the film fending off a representative of Queen Elizabeth who wants him to conduct one of his most famous compositions, “Simple Songs”. Boyle hasn’t given up yet and is working with a crew that has gathered at the hotel on a film intended to be his swan song. As grim as this sounds, it is mostly played as wistful comedy with Michael Caine at the top of his game.

Much of the film was shot on the premises of the Hotel Schatzalp, the same place that is featured as a TB sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s novel “The Magic Mountain”. Like Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The Cancer Ward”, such frameworks lend themselves to philosophical/political dialogues between the main characters. “Youth” has this aspect but it is blended with Felliniesque touches that are far sunnier than the gloom of Mann and Solzhenitsyn. For example, a monstrously obese actor plays Argentine soccer player Maradona whose daily waddle into the hotel swimming pool prompts catty commentary by the two old friends.

Ultimately “Youth” is as much about the cinematography and film score as it is about plot or dialogue. If you want to spend a couple of hours immersed in a stream of jaw-dropping tableaus assembled by a director/screenwriter with a mastery of his art form second to none, I recommend “Youth” highly.

Like the two main characters in “Youth”, the British film “45 Years” features a couple of old friends who have known each other for about the same amount of time. It also so happens that they are married. As I know from first-hand experience, a solid marriage is based on friendship more than anything else.

Tom Courtenay plays the husband Geoff Mercer and Charlotte Rampling is his wife Kate. Another main character is their German Shepherd Max that Kate walks each morning. Well into their seventies, their day is spent listening to music, eating meals with each other and puttering about their small but attractive house on the outskirts of a bright and prosperous looking town in the British countryside. As a retiree, I am familiar with the drill.

Their placidly quotidian existence is interrupted by a letter that Geoff receives one morning a week before their 45th anniversary informing him that the body of his companion prior to meeting Kate has been discovered at the bottom of a precipice in the Swiss alps. The two had been hiking when in their early 20s and she stepped into the precipice accidentally. As next of kin (he and his lover identified themselves as husband and wife in more straight-laced times), he received the news with a sense of finality.

Haunted now by her memory, he acts to put the anniversary on the back burner. He loses interest in his current affairs to the point of backing out of a big celebration his friends have organized. Not only is Kate disturbed by his decision, she is even more upset to discover that Geoff might be making plans to travel to Switzerland to see her body. When Geoff begins spending time in the attic pouring through the boxes that contain photos of he and the woman, she confronts him: if she had lived, would they eventually wed. His answer: yes.

Andrew Haigh, a gay man who produced and wrote for “Looking”, the HBO series about gay men, wrote and directed “45 Years”. It is as sign of his brilliance that despite his sexual orientation he was able to make a film about heterosexual marriage that is about as realistic as any I have seen in my life. He has the daily rhythms of married life nailed down perfectly, from the minor quarrels to the major dramas that naturally occur over the course of a life together.

The screenplay was adapted from a short story by David Constantine titled “In Another Country”. Constantine lectured on German literature at Oxford University for twenty years and was the editor of the journal Modern Poetry in Translation so we are dealing with source material that is obviously a cut above the junk that most commercial films are based on. It would be well worth your time to read the story at https://books.google.com/books?id=5WRwCgAAQBAJ. It would be an even better use of your time to see this amazing film that probes the depths and heights of human experience.

Is there a place for films starring septuagenarian characters? I would hope so since everybody will find himself or herself there at one point or another—if you are lucky. With so much crap coming out about geezers, from the stereotypical crotchety “get off my lawn” performance of Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino” to Alan Arkin’s performance of an out-of-control grandfather in “Little Miss Sunshine”, there is a need for films that depict people in their seventies and eighties as essentially the same people they were in their youth. As I told a good friend yesterday who I have known since 1961, there’s not much difference between the man I am today and back then—of course excluding the enlarged prostate.


  1. I try to remember as I age that we are all just cells and that the universe in which we find ourselves is inconceivably vast, so vast that we are not even specks. And then I think that given this we ought to make a better world for ourselves, one that will allow us to be as happy as specks can hope to be. All of the suffering and misery in our world is surely unnecessary, and life for all should be one of peace, adventure, friendships, and discovery, when we are young and until we die.

    Comment by michael yates — December 19, 2015 @ 8:32 pm

  2. Well! Louis, I always look forward to your posts. On politics and film. But this one had an unexpected unpleasantness in it.

    “Andrew Haigh, a gay man who produced and wrote for “Looking”, the HBO series about gay men, wrote and directed “45 Years”. It is a sign of his brilliance that despite his sexual orientation he was able to make a film about heterosexual marriage that is about as realistic as any I have seen in my life.”

    Melissa McEwan, the scribe of the blog ‘Shakesville,’ has a powerful and perceptive article addressing this sort of casual punch in the face:


    In my watching of film and reading of books, it has always been blindingly obvious that there are a great number of people (the overwhelming number of which are straight) who are stupendously oblivious to the way in which the human heart beats. Despite this cascade of evidence, I have yet to orient my criticism of that failing to sexual preference, preferring to credit the artist with a lack of observation and sensitivity. I think I am correct, because despite orientation, sex, age, race or even historical period, some artists have done and still do create work about individuals and relationships that are not them or theirs that touch us deeply.

    I think you could have left your sentence at “a sign of his brilliance he was able to make a film about marriage…” The suggestion that his orientation would somehow exclude him from insight into your orientations relationship suggests an estrangement (either personal or social) from a profound and common human trait (love and bonding) that is deeply offensive. His sexual orientation or that of the marriage depicted is far less relevant than his youth (he’s 42) or the probability that he’s not experienced a relationship of the length in his film (which I gather from your review is longer than he’s been alive!).

    I saw Andrew Haigh’s prior film, ‘Weekend’ and thought it one of the best depictions of new attraction and longing I’d seen. I’m not a fan of ‘Looking,’ but there was one episode that I thought brilliant: a date that just keeps going as the joy of each others company keeps drawing them along. But I did wonder if Haigh was a one trick pony. I’m glad you’ve drawn my attention to this movie and look forward to it.

    Comment by Jake Stuart — December 21, 2015 @ 6:30 am

  3. Some very excellent writing in here. You are constantly improving.

    Comment by jeffreymarlin — December 21, 2015 @ 1:55 pm

  4. Well said for a less-than-a-speck.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — December 21, 2015 @ 2:08 pm

  5. Good to read your appreciation of ‘Youth’. Sorrentino’s film was one of three in competition at Cannes this year and gave hopes of a renewal of a great tradition after a couple of sterile decades. Sorrentino began as a painter and puts something for the delight of the eye in every shot. If he chose a framework that led to “philosophical/political dialogues”, it’s because that’s where his bent led him. He has never been a storyteller. When he gave us the ‘Il Divo’ on the sinister politician Giulio Andreotti we didn’t get a political narrative of a long and tangled career. It was something else, good in its genre of satire going grotesque. What’s worrying is that Sorrentino is now making movies in English. Italy is a country of strong regional cultures. He’s a native of Naples which boasts perhaps the richest autonomous culture in the country. Toni Servillo, another Neapolitan, is his fetish actor. If both of them end up in California it will be a great loss to the cinema and nothing gained save a few sardonic laughs at how nondescript they’d become. Remember the bitter insights into French life Louis Malle gave us before America homogenized him. Visconti, Fellini and Pasolini knew better than to go international dollar fashion.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — December 21, 2015 @ 2:13 pm

  6. A somewhat different take by my colleague Armond White who happens to be a gay, conservative African-American:

    Ironically, it is through 45 Years’ heterosexual formula and allegory that Haigh comes closest of any current English language filmmaker to recalling gay culture’s former skepticism about marriage as a bourgeois institutional trap. It cannot be denied that in the face of the contemporary rush to sign-up and put a ring on marriage equality, 45 Years refuses offering a gift registry but something more daunting instead.


    Comment by louisproyect — December 21, 2015 @ 6:25 pm

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