Youth Without Youth
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Premiered at Rome October 20, 2007
In the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola was one of the most famous directors in the world, having produced a string of critically and commercially outstanding works. Since then, he’d seen varying but diminishing success leading into a ten-year hiatus from filmmaking. Youth Without Youth was his attempt at a comeback. I had never heard of it. And even after watching it, I don’t know what to think.
Adapted from the 1976 novella by Mircea Eliade, Youth Without Youth begins in 1938 Romania, where the elderly orientalist Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) leaves his provincial university for Bucharest. To his colleagues and students, he says he is going to take advantage of the capital’s more extensive libraries, but in reality he has become disillusioned with his professional and personal failures and plans to commit suicide. Arriving in the big city, however, he is struck by lightning.
Matei’s recovery causes him to become decades younger, making him a figure of fascination to Dr. Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz). When Matei begins engaging in philosophical conversations with his mirror image and evinces spontaneous (if rarely implimented) magical powers, he becomes the target of the encroaching Nazis, and is pursued to Switzerland by the demented Dr. Josef Rudolf (André Hennicke) and a nameless, seductive spy (Alexandra Pirici).
Many years after the war, a still youthful Matei, living under the name Martin Audricour and seemingly resigned to his existence as a boddhisattva, has returned to his life’s work of uncovering the origins of language when he rescues a young woman named Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara) who Matei’s mirror image reveals to be the reincarnation his long-departed 19th-century girlfriend Laura. When Veronica awakes, she is possessed by a fellow boddhisattva called Rupini, who is taking control of Veronica and regressing back to the birth of language.
This film is…difficult. Difficult to understand, if there’s anything to it in the first place; quite a lot of the film contains unsubtitled dialogue in German, French, Italian, Sanskrit, Ancient Egyptian, and a language of Matei’s own making. But also difficult to take seriously, as the production values leave something to be desired. Though most of the time the film is totally conventional-looking, there are many sequences in which cinematography suggests cheap digital cameras were used, awkward Lifetime movie editing, and a poor grasp of Adobe AfterEffects. A surprising amount of the film is shot upside-down. There’s quite a lot of terrible ADR. It almost feels as if Coppola and his cinematographer made furtive, noncommittal attempts to emulate German Expressionism, or failing that, Guy Maddin. And yet it’s somewhat watchable.
Signs This Was Made in 2007
Veronica in 1955 is somehow wearing low-rise slacks.
Swastika-embroidered lingerie. That’s in this non-exploitation movie.
How Did It Do?
Youth Without Youth grossed just $2.6 million against an undisclosed budget and earned an anemic 31% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.
Francis Ford Coppola is the Chumbawamba of directors; few filmmakers have shifted their work so radically and with such regularity. And after being reduced in the 1990s to a director-for-hire on films like Jack, there’s a temptation to assume that he lacks credibility in Hollywood. But like Chumbawamba, Coppola seems to be perfectly happy making obscure art movies for indifferent critics. We should be so lucky.
Next Time: Dan in Real Life