Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 10 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 2; Sex 4/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
The review and questions contain spoilers.
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning; the patient in spirit are better than the proud in spirit. Do not be quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools. Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. Wisdom is as good as an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun. For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom gives life to the one who possesses it.
Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, whose The Great Beauty won the 2013 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, has given us another penetrating character study. The film, sometimes bringing to mind Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (minus the grotesqueries, though there is a flame eater whose act comes right out the carnival circuit), will not appeal to most super hero fans because there is little plot to the story of two aging friends. But for those who want to see two veteran actors still at the peak of their powers, this is a film treat not to be missed.
Two friends who have known each other for almost 60 years are enjoying a vacation at a palatial spa high in the Swiss Alps. Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a famous composer who has decided to retire from the music world, despite the pleadings of an emissary from the British Queen. Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is a once revered filmmaker trying to come back from a series of flops, and so is not at all interested in retiring.
Ballinger has his personal aid with him, his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz). Because she is married to Mick’s son Julian (Ed Stoppard) two friends are also in-laws. Boyle has gathered about himself four young writers sprucing up the script of his new film. The actress whose career he fostered through the years will star in the film—indeed she is the only reason that backers have agreed to finance the project. Also at the spa and starring in the film is actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), whose main claim to fame is that he played a robot in a wildly popular sci-fi piece of junk.
Ballinger’s attempt to retire into peaceful bliss is marred by two events. Lena erupts into tears when her husband Julian, with whom she has been planning a vacation in Polynesia, informs her that he is not taking her, but in her stead his new love Paloma Faith (the singer playing a parody of herself), whom he intends to marry after getting a quickie divorce. The second unwelcome interruption is that the royal messenger (Alex MacQueen) will not give up. Prince Philip loves his best known composition “Simple Song #3,” and so the Queen wants to honor her husband’s birthday with the composer being knighted and then conducting the orchestra. In one scene when the messenger insists on knowing what are Ballinger “personal reasons’ for refusing, the composer replies that it is because he wrote it for his singer-wife, and that he does not think anyone else can perform it as well.
Lena is sitting close by during the emissary’s visit, and so is able to hear them. Her father’s heart-felt answer repairs a breach that had opened up earlier between them when, in one of several memorable scenes, she had berated her father for tlhe years of neglect because he had been obsessed with his music. Her long pent-up anger over his willful absence spews forth like flung daggers, shocking him into a new awareness. (Throughout most of the film we assume that Ballinger’s wife must be dead because we never see her. When we finally do, it is a juxtaposed scene of extraordinary power.)
The film provides a rich experience in character development, even that of characters who in other films would be considered walk-ons. The young masseuse who communicates through her skillful hands, bringing relief and pleasure to the old bodies of the two friends—we see her numerous times exercising dance-style before her TV set tuned to an exercise expert. An old couple in formal attire appear for supper in the dining room, but never talk. Ballinger and Boyle find themselves placing bets on whether or not they will. There follows two shocking scenes, one in which the woman angrily slaps her husband and leaves; the other, out in the woods, involving them engaged in wild sex as they ecstatically yell at the top of their lungs. An obese man with a tattoo of Karl Marx across his massive back is also a guest. He enjoys watching the beautiful young women in the pool, especially the newly arrived Miss Universe (as do the two friends) who calmly walks naked into the pool. In one sequence he skillfully controls a tennis ball, bouncing it high into the air off his thighs and knees. This, plus a shot of him before a line of soccer players, leads me to assume that he was once a famous player himself, because many young fans come up asking for his autograph. Another guest is a saffron-robed monk, who smiles and nods at the two friends when they pass by each other. The guys scoff at the rumor that the monk can levitate. But then…
Two other magical scenes include Ballinger coming upon a herd of cows during one of his leisurely walks into the country. He sits down as he watches the cows. They moo, the bells around their necks ringing when they move. He raises his arms and begins to conduct what we might call a “pastoral symphony,” one that incorporates the mooing and bell ringing with other sounds of nature. The second scene, so much like one in Fellini’s 8½, follows a question put to Boyle by Ballinger about how many famous actresses he has directed. The director replies 50, and later we see all of them standing in a pasture, facing him. Each is costumed, presumably in the role of the film he had directed. To these two we need to add a third, the electrifying one in which Brenda Morel has flown in from California so that she can deliver her devastating news in person to Boyle. To say that Jane Fonda scorches the screen in this encounter is an understatement! Her news leads to a hated argument that leads Boyle to make a dire decision that we had not expected.
Two more scenes worthy of mention, the second containing a spoiler, so beware if you haven’t seen the film: Paloma Faith stars in a music video in which she is riding in a car that enters an incredibly long nave of a gothic church. Ahead of her is the altar with the crucifix above it. Blocking part of the crucifix is Lena, the visual effect linking her to the Crucifixion. Just as the car careens toward the front, Lena wakes up from her nightmare. In the other scene Ballinger, dressed accordingly, stands in front of a large orchestra, the Royal couple part of the large audience looking on. An Asian singer stands ready to begin. The conductor gives the signal, and singer and orchestra perform the beautiful “Simple Song #3.” It is a song that emotionally sums up the composer’s life and his feelings toward his wife, one which we can well imagine to be a favorite of the husband of the Queen of England.
We are blessed that the film’s composer David Lang is one of great talent. Also that the director again works with cinematographer Luca Bigazzi. Many of the shots of the rugged Swiss mountains, idyllic pastures, and elegant rooms of the luxurious spa would look beautiful frames and hung upon a wall—virtually all, that is, but the lingering one in which we see at last Mrs. Ballinger. This is such a rich film exploring aging, longing, failure, friendship, memory, art and creation that I cannot recommend it too highly. It is one of those films that keeps me wanting to return to the theater. It is not a religious work, but it is one that can lead us to reflect deeply upon spiritual matters.
This review with a set of discussion questions is in the Jan. 2016 issue of Visual Parables.