Do film directors really walk around peering at the world through the frame of their joined hands? They do it often enough in the movies—but that’s where it counts, because the rectangle of fingers resides inside the larger frame of the film itself, turning the character into a camera and his experience into a movie within the movie. The final shot of Paolo Sorrentino’s commanding philosophical drama Youth shows an elderly filmmaker making a viewfinder with his hands in just this fashion, and it’s appropriate to a film that, while dwelling primarily on the discontents of old age, also considers the creative problems of movie people and, more specifically, the friction between their work and their own sense of self.

These are pretty high-class problems, but then, one can hardly accuse Sorrentino of having the common touch. His international hit Il Divo (2008) dealt with Italy’s political elites (in the administrations of long-serving prime minister Giulio Andreotti), and his Oscar-winning The Great Beauty (2013) dealt with the country’s cultural elites (in the social circle of a happily corrupt celebrity journalist). Youth considers the inner lives of artistic elites: at a posh resort hotel in the Swiss Alps, retired composer and symphony conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is courted by an emissary of Queen Elizabeth to perform again; meanwhile, his old pal, a now-lionized filmmaker named Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), brainstorms with his crew of young screenwriters to finish the script for a self-described “testament,” to be titled Life’s Last Day. Two movie stars figure in the action as well: Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), a creatively conflicted actor preparing for an upcoming role, and Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda), a fire-breathing old screen siren and Hollywood survivor who’s agreed to star in Mick’s cinematic swan song.

Film is a medium that consecrates memory, which makes it an especially apt metaphor in a movie about two old men. As Mick and Fred admit to each other, their memories are starting to fail them—Mick can’t even remember if he slept with the young beauty Fred was in love with 60 years earlier—and Mick quite naturally expresses this anxiety through a viewfinder. On an observation deck at the hotel, he asks one of his charges to look through a telescope at a distant mountain. “This is what you see when you’re young,” he says of the magnified image. “Everything seems really close. That’s the future. And now . . . ” He swings the device around so that she’s looking through the other end, their companions reduced to insects. “That’s what you see when you’re old. Everything seems really far away. That’s the past.”

For Mick, death seems really close, but that doesn’t mean he can bring it into focus. Laced throughout the narrative are scenes of him and his four scribes spitballing lines for the deathbed scene that will conclude Life’s Last Day. Sorrentino finds some solid laughs in their fumbling attempts, which often play as a parody of Hollywood writing-by-committee; there’s no way these egghead writers, a generation younger than Mick, could possibly hit on the right line, because what he’s after is nothing less than his own last words. A medium close-up shows their heads clustered together as they lie on a carpet tossing lines around. “I should have devoted myself to you and to our love instead of wasting my life trying to become the king of insurance policies,” one suggests. “Not even morphine can help me now,” says another. When Mick takes a stab at it, he focuses not on the dying man but on the wife at his bedside, who regrets all the years she gave him.

Jimmy Tree, the intelligent and discerning young actor who befriends both Fred and Mick at the hotel, suffers from a similar confusion, though instead of translating his life to the screen he’s trying to figure out what his screen work means to his life. Patterned on Robert Downey Jr., Jimmy has become a celebrity playing a robot called Mr. Q in a worldwide blockbuster, and the crush of people who know him only for this frivolous role is beginning to get to him. His roles allow him to connect with strangers, a power he craves as an artist, but the best known of them has become an identity he can’t escape. Brenda Morel, the brittle screen goddess who roars into the hotel for a meeting with Mick, has about 40 years on Jimmy, and she’s figured out what her screen work means to her life—nothing. Sitting in the hotel lobby with Mick, she announces she’s quitting his film to do a Mexican TV series, pronouncing his last three films to be “shit” and his artistic vision to be hopelessly constricted. “All you know how to see is your own death,” she declares (which seems pretty ironic given Mick’s difficulty in scripting just that). Her heartless exit line—”Life goes on, even without all that cinema bullshit”—seems like a challenge not only to him but to Youth itself.

Cinema may be bullshit, but Sorrentino glories in it. Youth is full of vivid images that speak to a preoccupation with spectacle and spectators: The opening shot shows a woman belting out a buoyant dance tune as part of the hotel’s nightly outdoor entertainment, a camera fixed on her as the revolving bandstand turns the background of dancing guests into a rotation of blurry forms. A lurid music video starring the English pop diva Paloma Faith turns out to be the nightmare of Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), whose husband has run off with Faith (playing herself). And one evening, in the hotel dining room, Lena joins her father and Mick in their long-running surveillance of an old married couple, whose wordless and apparently miserable relationship plays out like a series of silent-movie tableaux. In a shocking moment, some unknown offense prompts the wife to stand up, brutally slap her husband in the face, and stalk off, leaving him the center of attention in the room as he tries to compose himself and finish his soup.

All three of Sorrentino’s movie people reach a crisis point. Brenda Morel, ruing her harsh words to Mick, melts down aboard a flight to Cannes, her makeup smeared and the blond wig sliding off her head as the flight attendants pin her to the floor. (Fonda isn’t onscreen for long, but her vinegary performance is destined for a best supporting actress nod). Jimmy Tree, having revealed that his upcoming role was no less than Adolf Hitler, announces his decision to quit the movie and focus his future energies on stories about desire, “because that’s what makes us alive.” What will become of Mick and Life’s Last Day? Who knows, but as he gazes through his framed hands at us, they seem less like a viewfinder than like a portal to that desire.  v