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.