Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Youth Without Youth

Illustration for article titled Youth Without Youth

In Hearts Of Darkness, a first-rate documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola says that he comes into a movie with a question and that the process of making it will hopefully provide an answer. The idea of filmmaking as an inquiry rather than a statement isn't a common one, but Apocalypse Now wouldn't be the same movie had Coppola not gone upriver and allowed his experiences to leave a mark on the finished product. Coppola has brought that same high-wire aesthetic to Youth Without Youth, his first film in 10 years and easily his most radical, but his renewed sense of discovery comes with a fatal lack of clarity, as if he finished without successfully paddling his way through a sea of abstraction. It's somehow both incomprehensible and not experimental enough; the more Coppola hangs onto his stilted narrative, the less vibrant his free-wheeling ideas become.

Before drifting off into semi-retirement in the mid-to-late '90s—during which he's labored periodically over a mammoth project called Megalopolis—Coppola was preoccupied with time, indulging the fantasy and tragedy of eternal youth in films like Bram Stoker's Dracula and Jack. Picking up where he left off, Coppola turns to a novella by Mircea Eliade, a Romanian philosopher and religious historian who occasionally channeled his ideas into fiction. In Youth Without Youth, Tim Roth stars as the Eliade-like figure of a 70-year-old linguistics professor in 1938 Romania on the eve of WWII. Lonely and with little to live for, he intends to commit suicide, but nature intervenes with a lightning bolt that magically rejuvenates him, leaving him 30 years younger. The extra time, as well as the supernatural ability to absorb whole texts with a touch, allows him to continue life's work pursuing the origins of language. It also gives him the chance to reignite a romance with his long-lost love (Alexandra Maria Lara), who may hold the key to his research.

Inspired by his daughter Sofia's ability to shoot Lost In Translation on-the-fly in a foreign country, Coppola set off for a similar adventure in Eastern Europe, but he can't quite kill the ornate formalist behind the Godfather movies and Dracula. Youth Without Youth feels labored and clunky, dogged by Europudding accents and concepts that never take flight, like a metaphysical double that haunts Roth like Mr. Hyde or a woman who mysteriously turns into a chanting pre-historical medium. Still, in the context of Coppola's life and career, the film has a searching intelligence and ambition that can't be entirely dismissed; with his own money and nobody looking over his shoulder, Coppola has gone uprriver again in an effort to reinvent himself and cinema in the process. He ultimately fails, but he can't be faulted for trying.