At The Picture Show
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
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.
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