To say that Francis Ford Coppola has been going through a creative dry spell doesn’t do justice to dry spells. It’s stunning to think that in the course of seven heady years a generation ago, Coppola put out The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather: Part II, and Apocalypse Now. Much has been made of the latter film’s near-masterpiece quality, and the way the film (and his subsequent career) got away from Coppola a little, much like Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz didn’t so much lose his grip on sanity as he watched it float lazily out of his grasp. But to think that the same man who shepherded those touchstones of American film in the mid- to late-20th century would also give us the abysmal Jack , as well as a punch-up on Supernova — it’s enough to make you lose faith in mankind and movies alike. It’s been a cinematically fallow decade for Coppola since his last film, The Rainmaker, and his latest, Youth Without Youth, is clearly meant to remind us all that Coppola was once a formidable storytelling talent. And indeed, there are fragments of the film that work well, and serve as a realization that once, a long time ago, Coppola had a voice and a vision and the sheer bravado to carry it all off. But if he was once Col. Kurtz, forever mumbling and sweaty in the jungle while the world changed around him, he’s since become Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard, journeying upstream into the mouth of madness for no other reason than that of blind ambition and boredom. There are ideas and pieces of Youth Without Youth that feel like something absolutely brand new, as if Coppola finally made it to the new world he’d been charting in his mind the whole time, but most of the film is willfully impregnable, clunkily told, and stubbornly ambiguous. In attempting to adapt a novella by Romanian author Mircea Eliade, Coppola has taken the kind of structurally gooey metaphysics that work best on the page and given them ungainly life on the screen. Youth Without Youth is an often curious and daring film, but that isn’t enough to make it a success.
Summing up the premise, which Coppola unspools with Lynchian irregularity, is at best a difficult task, but here goes. Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), a 70-year-old Romanian professor, relocates to Bucharest in 1938 in an attempt to complete his life’s work, a meditation on the history of language and human civilization. Crossing the street in a rainstorm, he’s struck by a blast of lightning, but he survives, and in fact begins to make a miraculous recovery at the hospital: He regrows his teeth, and his bald head regenerates a field of thick brown hair, making him appear half his actual age. Both rejuvenated and resurrected, Dominic attempts to continue his study of language with the help of the head doctor (Bruno Ganz), only to wind up a target for Nazis who wish to figure out how Dominic survived the lightning and somehow regained his youth, in the hopes that the Third Reich can harness such technology for the Fuhrer. And this is where the film begins to drift out to sea and into the waters of metaphysics and impressionism, bobbing along contentedly with almost no thought to momentum or consequence. Dominic discovers that he now has the ability to merely pass his hand over a book to absorb its contents, as well as predict the future a little (which helps with his occasional gambling) and to control the physical will of others. “I am a strange superman of the future,” Dominic mutters, “(with) powers I don’t fully understand.” He masters so many languages that he actually creates his own just to express his feelings about the paradoxes of existence. To make matters even muddier, there’s also Dominic’s double, a projection of himself with whom he converses about the meaning of objective reality. The double appears occasionally around corners or in mirrors, whispering to Dominic like a more refined Tyler Durden, but with the same essential m.o.: To control the “real” Dominic and guide him on his quest for intellectual and spiritual enlightenment.
Dominic lives through the next few decades without aging, and Coppola pushes through the narrative in these weird little tangential bursts that occasionally come back to what should be the focus and drive behind the whole thing: Dominic’s lost love of his youth, Laura (Alexandria Maria Lara), who dumped him when he began to value his linguistic studies more than his time with her. After years spent drifting through life in different villages throughout the continent — I would attempt to recap what happens, but if Coppola can’t be bothered to worry about making it memorable, neither will I — Dominic meets Veronica (also played by Lara), who he believes to be the reincarnation of his own Laura. Through mystical circumstances beyond his control, it becomes clear that Dominic’s pursuit of his doubly life-long ambition to unravel the mysteries of the origin of conscious communication will come at a high cost, and maybe even force him to lose his love all over again. There is so much meat here, whether in the elegant structure of star-crossed lovers forced to alternately reject each other across time or the way the film exists in a hyper-fantasy world not quite like any other, but Coppola woefully loses his way in the tall grass, only occasionally snagging onto something emotive and truthful.
It’s not that the film is ugly to behold. Coppola’s classics showed brilliant use of color and light, and with longtime editor Walter Murch again in his corner, Coppola turns out some genuinely beautiful shots. Among the many brief cutaways to the natural world surrounding Dominic is one of the waves lapping the shore of the Mediterranean at sunset, and it’s so casually gorgeous that for a moment it feels like no one else ever filmed dusk on the water until this very moment. But an eye for filmic beauty isn’t enough to make Coppola’s screenplay any more tolerable. Dominic’s meandering talks with his projected double about the double’s objective existence and the loopholes of empiricism feel achingly like Coppola didn’t quite get the notes before the philosophy final and is just attempting to wing it. It’s a lot easier to play this on the page, where an author can draft their thoughts on the reader’s mind, than to try and represent it in film. Lacking a coherent way to add dramatic urgency to a plot about a guy who may or may not be dreaming himself into the future, Coppola simply ups the obfuscation, painting himself happily into a corner with an increasingly dense film that looks great and feels phony. Some may laud Coppola for finally turning his back on studio financing and simply trekking upriver with nothing but a camera and a desire to please himself at the expense of all others, but to do so would be to confuse ambition with skill, and curiosity with insight. Youth Without Youth is an interesting film only in light of what it could have been. After growing bored with the language he already knows, Coppola seems to be doing his best to speak in a new dialect, but he’s forgetting that it’s harder to say something when everyone will understand you. Anyone can babble incoherently for two hours, but to make a film that identifies itself, makes itself known to the viewer, is honest about what it is and where it wants to go and what it means to get there, and to want to — that would have been a true risk. And that would have been something to see.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.It's Not Smart Like It Is in Books
Film | December 17, 2007 | Comments ()