Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
January 2008

Fountain of 'Youth' eludes Coppola

The master returns from sabbatical with fresh new ideas, but a flimsy vessel to express them

Youth Without Youth
Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Tim Roth, Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Andre Hennicke, Alexandra Pirici and Marcel Iures
Rated R / 2 hours, 4 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

This is how every review of Youth Without Youth will open: Francis Ford Coppola used to be the best filmmaker in the world, blah blah blah. He took a bunch of years off, he hasn't made a movie in 10 years, blah blah blah. Now, he's back behind the camera, only his new movie is a huge turd. It's confusing, it's muddled, I don't get it!!

You get the point. This is what you will see when you read anything on Youth Without Youth.

This is the opposite of thought.

It's true, that this is hardly his finest hour as a director. It's confusing, muddled, strangely un-cinematic and very well might be complete mumbo-jumbo. Few, if any, will be able to completely comprehend it upon first viewing - and I count myself among that group. And I don't expect further viewings to be all that illuminating, either.

However, there is something to be said for a filmmaker doing exactly what he wants, and making a film that no other filmmaker in the world would even attempt. And to contradict seemingly popular thought, Youth Without Youth is not one of the worst movies of the year.

It's certainly not very good, we can all agree on that. But Coppola's not just going through the motions here. He didn't just step onto a project as a director-for-hire. He's not just taking a job for the money. The filmmaking here, as always, is remarkably assured. I would argue that if you took most of the scenes in the film completely individually and out of context, you would assume you were looking at a good film.

It just doesn't congeal together as well as Coppola thinks it does. Or at all. Indeed, with the closing scenes - particularly the appearance of one object in the final shot - informs us without doubt that Coppola has a precise vision for what he's trying to accomplish. Even if it doesn't come across nearly as vital or meaningful as Coppola wants it to. To dismiss the film for its silliness, heavy-handedness or too-abstractly-philosophical nature is understandable; to dismiss the film as just some mindless heap is absurd.

But at this point in his checkered but legendary career, what's he got left to prove? After all the things he's covered over the years, he is now, in his return, apparently attempting to plumb subject matter that appeals to him personally.

It just so happens that this time, his efforts have largely failed. Youth Without Youth is a failure, but Coppola doesn't deserve contempt for it.

He's done gangsters, Vietnam, capitalism, Corporate America, paranoia, romance, time travel, you name it. And now, he's moved on to transmigration of the soul.

.....

OK, so it's not a natural progression. Still, the film opens in fairly intriguing fashion before regressing into a confused mass of information and ideas that becomes all too frustrating to sift through.

The film opens with a 70-year-old professor, Dominic (Tim Roth), struggling to complete his life's work, when he's suddenly struck by lightning. He miraculously survives, nursed back to health by a kindly doctor, Professor Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz). Only when he comes to and starts to heal, he no longer looks like a 70-year-old man. He's young, spry, with the face and energy of a 35-year-old.

Needless to say, he becomes the new hysteria in the medical and scientific communities. And then he has to hide from Nazis.

Wait, what?

Yes. He has to hide from Nazis. And then he meets the beautiful Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara), who is identical to Dominic's old, lost love. Laura, like Dominic, seems to have undergone a transmigratory experience of her own.

All this happens over about three decades - time periods seem to weave in and out, Dominic (in secret) continues with his life's work, he gets into trouble, he has metaphysical powers beyond that of any human. How this all connects - or whether or not it does connect - is up for debate.

Unfortunately, after an enticing first act, the ideas seem to collide with one another in ways that are more dramatically dull than they are thought-provoking. Coppola's handicap seems to be that he's expressing things that are almost entirely intellectual. The cinematography and art direction are Oscar-worthy (in fact, this film is among my favorites in those two categories for all of 2007), but they are among the only elements that bring the story into the world of cinema. In other ways, it seems like reading speculative science or philosophy. And after two hours of trying to see it cinematically, it has become a chore.

Youth Without Youth is so intellectual and introspective that it's nearly impossible to create great drama out of it. Despite its failures, I have more admiration in the attempt than have other critics. The film is far from a success, rife with flaws - but there's something there. I'm just not sure I know exactly what it is. The great Francis Ford Coppola couldn't make much of it - but if anyone could, it would be him. If his desire to tackle new ideas and new forms of filmmaking leads to a good film or two in the coming years, this will have been worth it.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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