Francis Ford Coppola has been quietly touting “Youth Without Youth,” his first film in a decade, as a return to his independent roots, an experimental project for which he once again became a “student of cinema.” It’s a nice thought, one thematically linked to the film in its evocation of regeneration, as well as a possible self defense for such a foolhardy endeavor — yet for all Coppola’s possibly false modesty, the delightful fact remains that “Youth Without Youth” could only be the work of a seasoned master. In fact, opaque and challenging though it may be, and even if it was shot cheaply and on the fly in Romania, Coppola’s new film isn’t so unlike many of the director’s other works in terms of its radical visionary charms. Even at his admittedly small moments, Coppola can’t help but think big, and “Youth Without Youth” is nothing if not an eloquent expression of the director’s grandiose dreams for a philosophy of cinema, inextricable, of course, from time, consciousness, and memory.
One can’t help but wonder, with Mike Newell‘s woebegone “Love in the Time of Cholera” currently disappearing from theaters, what Coppola might be able to do with Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s prose: like that author’s work, this film hovers outside of time, while remaining beholden to a maddeningly destructive linearity. Coppola, his longtime editor Walter Murch, and his first-time collaborators, cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., and composer Osvaldo Golijov, expand time and also stay within its fixed boundaries, creating an overwhelming tapestry of images, sounds, and feelings that comes closer to what Raul Ruiz achieved with his ephiphanic Proust retelling “Time Regained” than anything in recent American cinema.
The film begins with dreamlike images of stretched, ticking clocks visually harmonized with women’s faces shimmering on the pages of books like pools of water; no mere dream sequence, this opening sets the tone for a controlled-chaos descent into its main character’s concretized philosophical musings. Soon we meet Tim Roth‘s hermetic 72-year-old Dominic Matei, an aging linguistics professor mourning over his unfinished book and life’s work studying Chinese languages. It’s December 1938, and he’s traveling to a small cafe in Budapest, with the intention of swallowing poison. Summarily struck by a lightning bolt, Matei then finds himself, after coming out of his bandages, or what his doctor (Bruno Ganz) calls a “larval state,” magically regenerated to a physical age of around 40. His metaphysical abnormality makes him something of a prize for both the medical establishment and Nazi scientists, and he eventually retreats into a contained, academic mode–furthering his studies and falling in love with the statuesque Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara), whose identity and language appear to be as malleable as Matei’s age.
Though it might read on paper as a fantastical, decade-tripping adventure, “Youth Without Youth,” adapted from a novella by Romanian philosopher and author (and fascist sympathizer) Mircea Eliade, is more like a stream-of-conscious outpouring of postmodern anxieties. Coppola stifles narrative satisfaction, racing over plot points in discombobulated voice over and dubbing many actors; there are no obvious big moments, dare the film break its luxurious spell, and Coppola’s less interested in human behavior than major paradigm shifts, an alienating approach for an audience used to seeing themselves in character surrogates.
Even its classical Hollywood romance and noir elements are so well woven in that they never come across as extraneous referents; much like Matei grows the ability to absorb knowledge from entire books with one flick of the wrist, Coppola seems to intake a century’s worth of cinema and philosophy by some sort of elemental osmosis. It would be disingenuous to infer that “Youth Without Youth” holds together in any sort of conventionally coherent manner, but it’s so structurally and emotionally unified that even its wildest logic leaps — such as when Veronica, perhaps metaphorically inhabiting Matei’s philosophical headspace, begins having amnesiac lapses in which she speaks not only Egyptian but also eventually ancient Babylonian in a regression towards an elusive proto-language — make for invigorating, haunting passages.
Lest anyone think the man has lost his mind, Coppola hasn’t veered too far off the track, as his career shows a consistent interest in seeking out new film languages — “Jack” and “The Rainmaker” not withstanding, though the former also featured a protagonist who both defied and was enslaved to the laws of aging. From “Apocalypse Now” to “One from the Heart,” and to his awkwardly grand, if thrillingly mounted “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Coppola has moved ever closer to narrative film as a time-collapsing collage (as Gary Oldman‘s vampiric Prince Vlad swooned to his eternal love: “I’ve crossed oceans of time to find you.”). Often, “Youth Without Youth” may feel like a random assemblage of senses, moods, and Coppola’s latest notebook scrawls, but then he’ll bring it all back into focus, never more succinctly than in the stunning final ten minutes, a wonderful tonic after such a heady stew. More than a bit rarefied, but wonderfully outside of trends, “Youth” is a gorgeous search for lost time.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]