Michael Caine, looking natty in a blue jacket, open-neck shirt and trademark oversized specs, is talking to the Cannes press about the Queen, and the day in 2000 when he became Sir Michael Caine for his contributions to British cinema.
"She doesn't say much but when she knighted me she said, 'I have a feeling you have been doing what you have been doing for a very long time.' I almost said: 'And so have you.' But then I thought: 'Keep your mouth shut, Michael, you're about to lose your knighthood … or get beheaded."
Caine is 82. The last time he came to Cannes was 49 years ago, in 1966 for the movie Alfie, a quintessentail Swinging Sixties London film, which won a jury prize. Caine, in the title role as a compulsive womanizer, appeared in a photo at the time surrounded by models, backsides to the camera, with the film's title written on their buttocks.
"It won a prize and I didn't," recalled Caine. "So I never came back. I'm not going all that way for nothing."
What brought him back, he says, was his role in Paolo Sorrentino's new film, Youth. "I loved this part. I would have done it for nothing, but I didn't tell the producers that."
Sorrentino, the Italian director who won the best foreign film Oscar last year for The Great Beauty, has created a tender, bubbly movie that has some of the melancholy and surreal whimsy that recalls Sorrentino's countryman Federico Fellini. Caine plays Fred, a retired composer and conductor, holidaying in a Swiss spa, who gets invited to visit the Queen to play for Prince Philip's birthday, but he doesn't want to go. The role is a beautiful showcase for Caine's wryly sensitive disposition, and a welcome reminder that he can do much more than serve as a trusted advisor to the stars of Batman and Interstellar.
He leads an ensemble cast of the other characters in the spa-hotel, who include Fred's daughter assistant (Rachel Weisz), a dissatisfied hipster movie star (Paul Dano), a Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) who skinny-dips in the hot tub and an obese former South American soccer star. Also, there's his best friend, a filmmaker named Mick (Harvey Keitel), and Jane Fonda, who shows up as an aging Hollywood actress en route to the Cannes film festival, where the actress is a familiar visitor.
Sorrentino, speaking in Italian, said he hoped his dispels fears about the "only subject of interest to anyone: how much time we have left."
For his part, Caine seemed amused by the questions about getting older: "The only alternative to playing elderly people is playing dead people. So I picked elderly people. It's a better idea."
Some years ago, he returned a script to a producer, complaining that a part was too small. The producer wrote back, explaining that he hadn't wanted Caine for the lover role but for the larger role of a father.
"I then realized that I wasn't going to get the girl anymore, but I would get the parts. I got a couple of Academy Awards after that, so it was okay," Caine said.
He also shrugged off questions about the "vulnerability" of appearing partially dressed in several scenes. "It's the only body I've got. People who are not old should know: This is what's going to happen, so don't get too smart about it."
Dano's character plays an actor who is dogged by his most successful film role, as a robot named Mr. Q. When the cast were asked whether they were bothered by being associated with certain roles, Fonda said she remained conflicted about her starring role in the 1968 cult sci-fi film Barbarella, while Caine said his role as Alfie "was a very long time ago, in every way."
"You know for the kids I am Alfred, Batman's butler. Twelve year olds come up to me in the street and ask for my autograph, but they don't know my real name."
When he describes his feelings about the movie's R-rated European poster, you can still hear the Cockney twang of a regretful Alfie, half a century later:
"Us two old guys in swimming pool looking at a beautiful girl with no clothes. That is youth. We're looking at what we've lost and never going to get again. It's a very sad poster. It makes me cry."