As filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola gets on in years—it’s been 10 since he last took credit for directing a movie—we’re allowed to wonder about his legacy. Will future generations look back on Coppola, now 68, as one of American cinema’s old masters? Or will they think he made a few essential contributions and then just became old?
That he doesn’t seem to give a damn is both blessing and curse in Youth Without Youth. This peculiar, convoluted head-trip of a movie is by all accounts a personal project, adapted by Coppola himself from Romanian philosopher and religious historian Mircea Eliade’s novella, self-financed for the relative bucket-drop of $5 million, and loosed in the world (through limited Sony Pictures Classics distribution) like a ’zine snuck into random mailboxes and thumbtacked to cafe bulletin boards. Assuming you’re so inclined, wondering what the hell to make of it is part of the charm.
In Bucharest, on the eve of World War II, elderly linguistics professor Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) is feeling exhausted and glum. Having driven the love of his life away in order to write a book about the origins of language (but never finishing it), he considers himself a failure. He’s decided to end it all. Then he gets struck by lightning.
Dominic wakes up in a hospital, scorched from head to toe, unable to communicate with the doctor (Bruno Ganz) hovering and puzzling over him but feeling otherwise OK. Actually, with a little time, he’s healing marvelously: spitting out rotten old teeth and growing fresh new ones, getting stronger, smarter and younger.
As he puts it, the lightning “regenerated me and amplified fabulously all my mental faculties.” Yes, that’s how he usually talks, and he’s not alone. It is perhaps thematically appropriate to point out the gap between Eliade’s seasoned intellect and his callow fiction style; the dialogue here, arcane and a bit geeked-up to begin with, seems to have been translated gawkily, further leeched of naturalism by actors whose good instincts it confounds, and then, on some occasions, redubbed in post-production. It heightens that “Wait, what?” effect inspired by the movie’s title and occasional upside-down or sideways camera angles, which might mean Coppola intended it all along.
Dominic’s other symptoms include a malevolent, possibly imaginary doppelganger, and he becomes a person of interest to a Mengelesque Nazi who’d like to experiment on him. (For the record, Eliade was a lot friendlier to fascism than Coppola is.) Dominic gets away to Switzerland and meets a radiant young woman (Alexandra Maria Lara), apparently herself a doppelganger for his lost love, and, in short order, also the victim of a lightning strike—whereupon she assumes the persona of a seventh-century Indian woman and speaks Sanskrit. No problemo, as they say in another language Dominic surely knows; he’s a linguist, remember? Not to mention some sort of superman.
Lara and especially Roth take full ownership of their material, which is impressive given so many lingering questions about what exactly it is (it helps when Dominic eventually makes up his own language, as if to free himself from the stilted English dialogue), and a complicated relationship ensues—complete with globe-trotting, metaphysical head-scratching and a seesaw of hope and foreboding. Actually, that’s about like any relationship. Maybe this movie isn’t so convoluted after all.
Coppola has wondered what to do with a surplus of youth before—witness Peggy Sue Got Married, Bram Stoker’s Dracula or, if you can bear to remember it, Jack. But in this case, it’s less nostalgia than dramatic preoccupation. Youth Without Youth practically begs for some stuffy, obsessive, overlong film-journal treatise picking it apart. It doesn’t beg for an audience—whether because Coppola’s too proud or too self-actualized isn’t entirely clear, and that’s partly what makes the thing so maddening and mesmerizing.
The movie’s solemnity and awkwardness, its febrile obedience to its own dream-rules (as opposed to audience expectations of coherence), its fussily beautiful composition and its ambition to treat film like a mode of literary philosophy—all of this makes its director seem less like a household Hollywood name than a striving grad student. Young again, you might say.