My Own Cannes Film Festival 2016: Youth, and 45 Years

by M. L. Longworth

May is always exciting in France (along with asparagus and strawberries in the market, and the first cherries!) as the Cannes Film Festival opens and the newspapers are flooded with photographs of stars, and news of films that wowed the jury, and films that went bust (this year, Wow’s are going to Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada and Boo’s to Jodie Foster’s Money Monster).

The Festival always gets my husband and I back out to the cinema and talking about which films we loved this year (we are lucky as Aix has two theatres that show art-house films from around the world in their original language). Here are my two favorites.

Youth

directed by Paolo Sorrentino (filmed in English)

Our daughter, when she began studying Italian in junior high, introduced us to the films of Paolo Sorrentino. Back then (our daughter is now 23 years old) Sorrentino only had one or two movies, and we adored, and were amazed by, his 2005 film, stylish and yet meditative, The Consequences of Love. Youth, released at the end of 2015, is stylish like Sorrentino’s previous films, and admittedly less profound; “an entertaining but minor work,” wrote my favorite film critic, Peter Bradshaw, in The Guardian. But I LOVED it anyway!

Music plays an important part in Sorrentino’s films, and Youth begins with a band playing a fantastic upbeat song while on a turning stage (the film is set at a luxurious Swiss hotel). I was glued from the beginning seconds.

Sorrentino didn’t cast his usual leading man, Toni Servillo (if you haven’t seen Servillo in The Great Beauty, please do now!), but Michael Caine is elegant and thoughtful as Fred Ballinger, a retired conductor staying at the hotel with his daughter and best friend. Ballinger is visited by a representative of Queen Elizabeth, who would like Ballinger to conduct his Simple Songs for Prince Philip’s birthday. Ballinger obstinately refuses, for reasons we find out later on.

Michael Caine as Fred Ballinger.

Michael Caine as Fred Ballinger.

The many close-ups of the faces of the cast are visually stunning. Sorrentino likes faces (and bodies) of all kinds, from the beautiful to the grotesque. It’s one of the things I admire about his films. There’s an obese former soccer star, obviously at the hotel to lose weight; and a skinny, very odd-looking masseuse who gracefully dances in front of her television at night; a Miss Universe who’s smart and well-spoken; and Jane Fonda who has a great cameo role as an brash street-smart famous actress. Those wonderful faces—combined with the ennui the characters (and staff) experience at that Swiss hotel, the stylish music, and breathtaking cinematography (beautiful mountains, including a gorgeous and heart-breaking flashback to Venice, where Ballinger once conducted)—made this one of my favorite films this year.

And yes, you do hear the Simple Songs at the end of the film, played before the Royal Family. It gave me goosebumps, as I had never heard Sumi Jo sing, nor did I know anything about the music of contemporary Los Angeles composer David Lang. I found this video clip, not a trailer, of David Lang, Sorrentino, and Sumi Jo explaining the importance of music in the film and what it meant for them. Sumi Jo said that the music gave her goosebumps, too. You can see that, and feel it, when she sings in the final six minutes of the movie.

45 Years

Directed by Andrew Haigh

Well, if there is any film more opposite to Paolo Sorrentino’s films, then this must be it. Or is it? As both films deal with the past, and with aging. Both are set in quiet places where people live out their routine lives (albeit Sorrentino’s cast in a super posh hotel, but dull all the same). In 45 Years Kate and Geoff Mercer are planning their 45th wedding anniversary party. They are retired and live in beautiful but flat and bleak Norfolk, in the east of England. Geoff is working class; a former union steward. Kate was the local school’s headmistress, and even the postman, a former student, is still in awe of her. There are lovely details of their days: breakfasts together, taking walks with the dog, sneaking cigarettes out by the back shed. But, in the same role as the Queen’s messenger in Youth, a letter from Switzerland arrives one morning and turns their quiet life upside down.

Ever since I saw Tom Courtenay in the 1960s film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (as a teenager with my best friend Bev in the late 1970s) I’ve longed to see him in another role as interesting and well written. And this is it! Geoff (Courtenay) receives news that the perfectly-preserved body of his first love, Katya (sounds just like Kate, right?) has been discovered in a ravine, where she fell to her death while on holiday with Geoff in 1962. Geoff has to reveal to his wife Kate (played with a wonderful severity by Charlotte Rampling) that he has been contacted because the Swiss believe that Geoff is Katya’s next-of-kin: he admits to Kate in a chilling scene that he and Katya had pretended to be married while on holiday so that they could share the same hotel room.

The film’s stress mounts as the party date gets closer, with both Geoff and Kate, but especially Kate, reexamining their lives, and marriage, and all of its secrets, even after 45 years.

Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay

Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay

When I began writing this blog I laughed to myself, thinking how different these two films are. But now I’m not so sure. Have you seen either of these films? What did you think?