In Switzerland, a Buckingham Palace events organizer approaches former Venice Orchestra maestro Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) to petition that he conduct a concert for Prince Philip, by request of the queen herself. But Ballinger is retired and doesn’t wish to perform his “simple” music (actually an operatic piece entitled “Simple Songs”) – for personal reasons. Rather than working, he apathetically vacations at a lavish hotel and spa, receiving massages, dining, strolling through parks, and dealing with prostate problems and intestinal cleansing.
Meanwhile, Fred’s longtime friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is directing a new movie, collaborating with youthful actors and writers, who struggle with crafting the right ending. At the same time, renowned actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) is honing a new character for a film he’ll be starring in shortly, commencing in Germany. And Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), serving as an assistant to her father, must contend with her husband Julian (Ed Stoppard) walking out on her for beddable pop star Paloma Faith (played by Faith herself).
Amid this rather ordinary familial drama (though it possesses some genuinely heartfelt revelations) are regular, hallucinatory images of reclining bodies and relaxed figures, most of which are in some state of undress (including Madalina Ghenea as Miss Universe). It’s a mixture of artistry and weirdness, but with enough unhurried contemplation that many moments lose their power and significance. To match the preoccupation with Fellini-esque pondering is constant music, either in the form of bands performing in the scenes with the actors, or an aria voice singing over montages, or classical music floating atop shots of paradisiacal landscapes, or contemporary songs unfolding as characters do mundane routines – or even daydreams in which Fred conducts woodland animals into a cacophonous medley. This use of music is equally inexplicable in the context of the plot, but pleasingly harmonious to the ears (especially the actual performance of “Simple Songs”).
“Music is all I understand.” The film also serves as an exploration and meditation on aging and accomplishments – as well as a bit of commentary on the meaning of life. And as such, a good portion of it is utterly enigmatic. But there are also some interesting notes on love and freedom and closure – though appreciating the project as a whole will be entirely dependent on viewers’ admiration of abstract ideas over standard storytelling. At least Weisz is superb as a grieving wife and the cinematography is fittingly vivid.