I don't know what to make of Youth Without Youth. I said as much to a colleague when we walked out of the screening, and several days later, I feel exactly the same.
Youth Without Youth is the new film by Francis Ford Coppola. It's the first he's made in a decade, and there is naturally going to be some interest in what the man who helmed The Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now has chosen to make for his return to the cinema. It's a self-financed picture, to boot. Coppola used money he made from his vineyards to fund Youth Without Youth, and I admire the hell out of him for that. To take such a risk and put it all on the line, being of his age and stature, is gutsy.
Even so, his movie confounds me.
Tim Roth stars as Dominic, a brilliant theorist and philosopher living in Europe in the early part of the 20th Century. His life's work has been a history of time, language, and various metaphysical/scientific things far enough beyond human understanding that Coppola, who wrote the screenplay based on a novella by Romanian author Mercia Eliade, doesn't have to explain it in full (not that he likely could, and besides, we wouldn't understand it anyway). At age 70, Dominic is nearing the completion of this masterwork, but as old age takes hold, he begins to wonder if his lack of personal connections hasn't made him a failure after all. As a young man, he was engaged to be married to Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara), but he chose his obsessions over his love, and her memory has haunted him ever since (she died shortly thereafter, giving birth to another man's child). It's 1938 now, and on a trip to Budapest, Dominic is struck by lightning crossing the street. This changes his life irrevocably.
Defying all odds, Dominic survives the electrocution. He awakes in a hospital bed, covered in bandages, being attended by Professor Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz), a man with as much compassion for his patients as he has a passion for science. At first, Dominic can't speak, he is in constant pain, and he even loses all of his teeth; over a course of weeks, however, not only do his faculties return, but his wounds heal and his teeth grow back. Once the bandages are off, it is discovered that Dominic is no longer a man in his seventies, but he has regressed to become a man in his thirties. With the aid of Stanciulescu, he discards his old identity, escapes the Nazis who want to study his miraculous regenerative powers, and jumps with both feet back into his studies. Lacking any responsibility or obligations, and discovering that his mind now processes information at an incredible, almost supernatural pace, he can enter new realms of knowledge he has never even dreamed of.
From here, Coppola takes us on an epic journey across the decades. Dominic has now become immortal, it would seem, and his mental powers are only starting to reveal themselves. Of course, there is a price for this: his personality has split. Tim Roth has many scenes where he must engage in protracted conversations with himself. To show the dueling personalities--one more confident and selfish, one more human--Coppola employs a variety of simple tricks, including alternating camera angles and mirrors. Roth also changes his posture and voice in small, concrete ways, so that there is never any doubt which side is speaking.
And yet, it's not very convincing, just as so much of Youth Without Youth isn't convincing. It's hard to put a finger on why, but the narrative never really gels. Almost from the get-go, Coppola steps wrong. The scene showing Dominic being hit by lightning is the first of many moments that don't come off, the effect of his body lighting up looks fake and feels unnecessary. Perhaps it's wrong to put any of the cards on the table so blatantly when so much of Youth Without Youth is about the mystery of Dominic's condition and the past(s) that haunt him. Maybe opening in the hospital bed would have been a stronger way to lead us into the story, excising the prologue and engaging us in uncovering Dominic's identity.
Or maybe it's just that, overall, Coppola has bitten off more than he can chew. Even at two hours, Youth Without Youth feels like it's not enough. Whether it's because Coppola really needed more room to tackle the full story or he just chose the wrong elements to show, it's hard to say. The filmmaking itself is masterful, maintaining a dreamy tone while keeping us grounded in world history, traversing the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. At the outset, Coppola's direction and the subject matter reminded me a little of Powell & Pressburger, a filmmaking tradition the elegant, old-fashioned title sequence evoked quite effectively. As the movie progressed, I was reminded less of the Archers and more of the difficult epics Bernardo Bertolucci made in the 1970s.
Perhaps that is the key. Coppola should have made his film to be seen in two halves, a la Bertolucci's 1900. The post-War story already feels disconnected from Dominic's accident and his establishment of a new life. While traveling, he encounters Veronica, a doppelganger for his lost love Laura. She is once again played by Alexandra Maria Lara, who was also recently seen as Ian Curtis' alluring mistress in Anton Corbijn's Control. She's a wonderful actress, and her soft manner works well in tandem with Roth's quiet intensity. Another freak accident in a lightning storm unlocks Veronica's past lives, and Dominic tries to help her understand what is happening to her. As they fall in love, he realizes that her regressions are the key to his research, taking him farther back in time to the origins of language and spirituality. As with all quests for knowledge, just as Dominic learned when he devoted his first life to his research, there is a price to be paid for any quest, and Dominic must accept a bitter irony and once again make a choice.
Unfortunately, I never felt like the two halves, the pre-War and post-War narratives, ever really connected. It's almost like Coppola has given us the first and third books in a trilogy and either neglected the second or dropped the crucial epilogue that might make it all make sense. The shift in focus is dramatic, with all that came before Veronica's appearance practically disappearing completely. As a viewer, I felt lost. Here I spent all that time trying to piece together what was happening to Dominic, and then all of that didn't matter as the concern suddenly became what was happening to Veronica. I suppose the first half was representative of the selfish part of Dominic's personality, and the second half was his more empathic side, but at some point greedy Dom needed to reach out of the mirror and shake hands with sensitive Dom and come to some kind of agreement.
Once again, I don't know. Not since seeing David Lynch's Inland Empire have I been so unsure about a film and my reactions to it. I'd like to give Francis Ford Coppola the benefit of the doubt. He's made complex, difficult movies before, and it's entirely possible that seeing Youth Without Youth again, armed with a basic understanding of what I am in for, everything will be illuminated. Yet, I can't say I am all that eager to give it a try. Right now, my appreciation of the excellent filmmaking that went into Youth Without Youth is just that, appreciation.
And that's a long way from actual enjoyment.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.