Old friends Fred (Michael Caine) and Mick (Harvey Keitel) are on vacation in an elegant hotel at the foot of the Swiss Alps. Fred, a composer and conductor, is now retired. Mick, a film director, is still working. They look with curiosity and tenderness on their children's confused lives, Mick's enthusiastic young writers, and the other hotel guests. While Mick scrambles to finish the screenplay for what he imagines will be his last important film, Fred has no intention of resuming his musical career. But someone who is almost impossible to refuse, wants at all costs to hear him conduct again.
Review by Louise Keller:
It is the scale and sheer audacity of Paolo Sorrentino's seductive drama that elevates it into a class of its own. It's remote yet accessible; realistic yet surreal; aloof yet personal. Set in a Swiss health resort where picturesque snowy peaks tower over the luxurious spa, it is as though Sorrentino conducts the characters in the same way as his famous conductor protagonist Fred (Michael Caine) conducts the orchestra. The film is bold, poetic, grand and at times self-indulgent as it assumes the perspective of its two elderly central characters and reflects on life today, the impact of yesterday and where it might lead tomorrow. Cinematic and visually extraordinary, the film bears some semblance to Sorrentino's acclaimed The Great Beauty, namely by its distinctive leisurely tempo, gorgeous imagery and incongruous characters that punctuate the narrative throughout.
Music plays a huge part, beginning in the opening sequence in which a singer performs on a revolving platform. The camera lingers in close up and the song goes on a little longer than we expect, but one thing is clear - Sorrentino is about to tell his story in his own unique way and on his own terms. The fantasy sequences are stunning - as surreal as any dream - with the juxtaposition of many elements involving water and fire. There's a lovely scene involving cuckoo clocks making sounds as though they were part of a cuckoo orchestra. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Caine forms the heart of the narrative - Fred is the melancholy conductor who refuses an invitation by the royal family to conduct his most famous composition called Simple Stories for 'personal reasons'. Caine There are recriminations from Fred's daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz, excellent) in which she accuses him of giving his all to music, rather than to her and her mother. The scene in which Lena and Fred are lying side by side in a spa treatment room, while Lena spits out her anguish about her mother and her father's treatment of her, is powerful indeed. Fred's long relationship with his old film director friend Mick (Harvey Keitel, entertaining), who claims he knows everything there is to know about love, is key and the two men have ongoing entertaining exchanges about the trivial and the meaningful. The expression on the men's faces when a nude, voluptuous Miss Universe joins them in the spa without a goosebump of self-consciousness, is classic. Paul Dano is an interesting presence as an actor, known for one key role as a robot.
There's a diverse assortment of characters at the spa - from the Buddhist monk rumoured to be able to levitate, the elderly couple at dinner who never speak to each other, the obese Italian opera singer with a huge self-portrait tattooed on his back and the masseuse who has nothing to say but understands people by the touch of her hands. The piece de resistance belongs to a grotesquely over-made up Jane Fonda, reminiscent of an ageing Gloria Swanson-type from Hollywood Boulevard, who descends on the Spa to drop a bombshell on Mick. Fonda's Brenda Morel is a mix of terrifying, pathetic and amusing.
Like a film that zooms in and out of close ups, I was engaged and not so engaged at varying times. But there is no denying the power of the film's conclusion when all the story strands come together with emotional ballast. Music once again plays the key role, allowing the film to soar high above the beautiful Swiss Alps into an indescribable realm.
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CAST: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Mark Kozelek, Robert Seethaler, Alex McQueen
PRODUCER: Carlotta Calori, Francesca Cima, Nicola Giuliano
DIRECTOR: Paolo Sorrentino
SCRIPT: Paolo Sorrentino
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Luca Bigazzi
EDITOR: Cristiano Travaglioli
MUSIC: David Lang
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: StudioCanal
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: December 26, 2015 (advance screenings week prior)