Francis Ford Coppola spent much of the past decade working on his dream project Megalopolis. Having failed to bring it to fruition, he now delivers Youth Without Youth, a dreamy, impressionistic indie in which “genius” Romanian professor Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) struggles mightily to complete his life’s one great work, a book on “the origin of language and human consciousness.” The parallels between creator and creation are clear, but Coppola’s first effort since 1997’s The Rainmaker nonetheless finds the director still woefully adrift, casting about for inspiration in a herky-jerky fashion that results in embarrassment more often than triumph. Based on a novella by Mircea Eliade, whose writing focused on the philosophy of religion and myths, the film is a deliberately oblique rumination on transmigration, the cruel nature of time, and the folly of ego, all topics addressed in such a clunky and/or silly fashion that it’s hard to comprehend exactly what the filmmaker is going for. Part period piece, science fiction fantasy, metaphysical head-trip, and homage to classic Italian cinema (via its sweeping score, its rear projection effects, and its old-school credit sequence), it’s a heady swirl of genres, tones, and theories that—like the opening montage, full of spinning clock hands and gears, strands of hair, heavy breathing, and a skull in a hand—is predominantly awkward and misguided.
Planning to commit suicide in 1938 Romania on the eve of WWII, 70-year-old Matei is suddenly struck by lightning, a freak occurrence with an even freakier outcome: Matei awakens to find himself 40 again. This astounds his doctor, Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz), who attempts to keep his miraculous patient out of the hands of the Nazis, who seek to harness his fountain-of-youth faculties for nefarious means. Things get wackier once Matei discovers that he also has all sorts of supernatural abilities—he can read a book without opening it, and he can force a Nazi villain to shoot himself—as well as a Hyde-ish double, who represents his more scientific and greedy half and compels Matei to complete his inquiry into the “proto-language,” which existed at “the inarticulate moment of the beginning.” It’s a wacko pulpy premise that Coppola treats with reflective somberness, and this is his gravest mistake, as the seriousness of tone and the increasing ludicrousness of his material never mesh. This problem becomes more pronounced once Matei rediscovers his long-lost (and now deceased) love, Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara), in the person of Veronica (also Lara), who suffers a similar lightening-bolt attack and consequently transforms into a rapidly aging, foreign language-muttering medium for an ancient Indian woman named Raffini who’s traveling back in time.
Though shot on a low budget in Romania and Bulgaria, Youth Without Youth—photographed and scored by Mihai Malaimare Jr. and Osvaldo Golijov, respectively—is aesthetically luxurious, with Coppola’s widescreen compositions boasting an entrancing richness and tenderness. Tackling issues of memory, time, and the relationship between dreams and reality, the director treats his material as if it were Last Year at Marienbad, yet his story’s particulars are too goofy and too incompatible to result in something haunting or beguiling. Accordingly, what he winds up with is mere ungainly inscrutability. Sizzling electricity flashes accompany Matei’s paranormal powers and Veronica reenacts The Exorcist by sweating and speaking ancient languages while in bed, merely two of many bizarre narrative elements that leave Roth stranded, valiantly but unsuccessfully trying to retain a glimmer of affecting humanity in Matei. Coppola so doggedly seeks to create a level of romantic/spiritual contemplativeness via formal experimentation that his reckless abandon—the plethora of repeated motifs, the oblique references, the deliberate artifice—does generate a modicum of intrigue and admiration. However, given his general failure to synthesize his ideas into either a compelling dramatic whole or an impressionistic conceptual treatise, the film principally stands as a great director’s blast-off into crazy.