Youth, Paolo Sorrentino, 2015
“It doesn’t make a difference! Men, artists, animals… plants! We’re all just extras.”
In philosophising on old age, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino delights in reminding us of the follies of the young. His aptly named new feature Youth deals in loss of life, and more deeply loss of meaning in life, but it also shows the peculiar lens through which the young view the old, and look into the future. At one particularly pertinent point, ageing film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) shows one of his screenwriting partners a view of a mountain through a telescope, and says “This is what you see when you’re young. Everything seems really close. And that’s the future.” He turns the telescope around, asking her to look through the wrong end, and remarks; “That’s what you see when you’re old. Everything seems really far away. That’s the past.”
Youth is a bifocal film, partly looking back to the past, partly allowing its characters to gaze into their future. It tells the story of retired composer and conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), holidaying with his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) and his best friend, the aforementioned Mick. While attempting to escape his past in the wide open vistas of the Swiss Alps, he is visited by an emissary from Buckingham Palace who requests that he performs his most famous composition for the Queen and Prince Philip. Fred reacts with disdain, refusing to allow this ghost of success from his past to define his present.
Similarly Mick, in making his “final testament” of a film is haunted by the ghosts of his past. But, unlike Fred, he yearns for his glory years. He pins his hopes on casting an old star from his past films in the lead role, and wishes he could remember the forgotten memories of past loves.
Fred has developed a cold pessimism in his old age, choosing rationalism over emotion, and choosing living in the present over nostalgia. One philosopher who saw the importance of pessimism was the stern German Arthur Schopenhauer. In “Studies in Pessimism”, Schopenhauer, inspired by Buddhist philosophy, reminds us that the two certainties of life are death and suffering.
He asks us to remember that life is a disappointment, and that when we reflect back on our lives in old age, the chief realisation we will have is that really it was all for naught:
“If two men who were friends in their youth meet again when they are old…their thoughts will be carried back to that earlier time when life seemed so fair as it lay out before them in the rosy light of dawn, promised so much – and then performed so little.”
Fred and Mick similarly look back on their respective lives as never quite completed. Mick tries to recreate his past, and see life as, as Schopenhauer puts it, as a “task to be done”, albeit a task that is never completed. Fred, on the other hand, has resigned himself to the fact that life holds no more charms for him. He was successful in his past, and his future holds nothing more. As his daughter reminds him to get regular check ups from his doctor, he doesn’t see the point. After all, why bother trying to hold on to youth, when it will inevitably eventually slip away.
Schopenhauer concludes his philosophy by saying that the only way that we can avoid suffering in life is set ourselves goals and then achieve them, but also remarks that really we can never set ourselves an ultimate goal and purpose. The will has no purpose, and so our satisfaction will never be reached. Furthermore, if we ever do feel satisfied, we feel empty unless we have something to work towards, and so the cycle repeats itself.
Mick’s young screenwriting team spend a long time trying to help Mick write a satisfactory ending for his upcoming film, but Mick rejects every suggestion they make. He even wants to celebrate the completion of the film before the ending has been written, simply proclaiming that they will “figure something out”. This reticence to attain his ultimate goal speaks great deals to his existential dread.
Fred’s response to his rapidly encroaching death is, however slightly different. Having been told by his doctor that he is in relatively good health, he seems to lose his pessimism and get a renewed sense of purpose. His purpose is not in attaining some goal, or creating something new, but rather in recreating the moments of beauty that once gave him joy.
Throughout the film there are numerous subconscious reminders of his past as a conductor. He fiddles with a sweet wrapper to the rhythm of his most famous piece, and conducts a field of cattle as if they were his orchestra. It is only in the films climactic final scene that we see Fred lifted out of his pessimism, simultaneously accepting that his past, his present, and his future all point to the same thing as motivator: beauty.
Schopenhauer sees the ultimate salvation of mankind in perhaps the same way. Suicide does not negate suffering, but rather changes the form the suffering takes. Ultimately, in order to fully find meaning in one’s life, one must resign oneself to the fact that no goal will ever be attained. As in Buddhism, removal of desire causes peace. In the same way, Fred leaves behind his desire to find meaning to his past or his future, and lives in the glorious beauty of the present moment.