Thursday, June 5, 2008

"What Do We Do With Time?": Youth Without Youth (2007)

Youth Without Youth, Francis Ford Coppola’s return to the screen following a ten-year absence, is a film overflowing with ideas, questions, and paradoxes. Ostensibly the story of an elderly academic who, after being struck by lightning, inexplicably begins to age in reverse, the film is a strange and often delightful patchwork of the historical drama, sci-fi thriller, philosophical treatise, and even the superhero movie. The trick of the film is that Coppola-- whose uneven career post-Apocalypse Now makes it easy to forget just how good he really is-- manages to balance and interweave these disparate elements so well that the story rarely feels excessive or weighed down. After we become accustomed to its strange rhythms and deliberate pacing, it establishes itself as a welcome and quite remarkable addition to a career that already includes quite a few substantial achievements.

Based on the novel by Romanian philosopher and professor Mircea Eliade, the film spans nearly forty years in the life of Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), an elderly scholar of language in pre-WWII Romania. At the film’s opening, Matei is contemplating suicide following the death of the love of his life and several failures in his studies in linguistics. After he is struck by lightning, he suddenly begins to age in reverse. But the changes aren’t just superficial. Along with his newfound youth, Matei receives an amazing increase in his cognitive powers that includes a memory “unbelievable” in its retention, the ability to intuit the knowledge contained in books without reading them, and telekinesis. In a nice touch, he is even forced to invent a new language in order to encompass the complexity of his thoughts. These amazing abilities attract the attention of doctors across Europe-- as well as the Gestapo and Nazi practitioners of eugenics-- so Matei soon finds himself on the run, eventually settling in exile in Sweden, where he tries to lay low while perfecting his theories on the origin of language.

Like Anthony Hopkins’ 2007 directorial debut Slipstream (which would make a nice--if not overly perplexing--double feature with this film), Youth Without Youth is at its heart an Old Man’s Movie. It is preoccupied with questions of memory, dreams, time, and death-- ideas that, while certainly universal, frequently haunt a person at the end of their life. But what makes the film exceptional (after all, what really good film doesn’t consider these themes?) is the style and technique that Coppola uses to approach them. While the ideas in Youth Without Youth may reflect his age, his unusual plot structure, shot choices, and amazing use of color seem more akin to the style of an audacious film student than a sixty-nine-year-old veteran of the medium. Coppola has said in interviews that the film was a return to his maverick, low-budget roots--it was even shot in Hi-Def video and edited with Final Cut Pro--and this guerilla approach seems to be just the jumpstart his career needed. Youth Without Youth feels vibrant and alive in a way that his work hasn’t felt since the 70s. For a film that is so heavy with theories and ideas, it never feels overly talky or static in the way that his last film, 1997’s under-appreciated The Rainmaker, often did, and it manages to keep finding ways of surprising its audience.

For example, the film is filled with inventive ways of relating its dense plot. Among them is a doppelganger that manifests in mirrors and dreams to consult Matei on his theories and help him avoid trouble, as in one scene where he manages to use his mental strength to make a Nazi force his own gun on himself. These multiple Tim Roth’s are a surprisingly effective plot device-- a kind of narration without narration that allows us to see how Matei reasons out problems and contemplates his highbrow ideas in a way that is kinetic and unpretentious. It allows Coppola to play the script and its often bizarre twists as straight as possible, a smart move that keeps the film from collapsing under the weight of its peculiarity.

One such twist occurs midway through the film, when Matei, now decades past his accident and still looking like a young man, comes across Veronica, a woman who recalls the long dead love of his youth. Soon afterwards, Veronica is also struck by lightning, a shock that leads to her speaking perfect sanskrit-- an ability doctors discover she has gained by taking on the spirit of a seventh century Indian woman named Rupini. Dominic begins to fall in love with Rupini/Veronica as her bizarre possessions begin to regress further back in time to a place he hopes will reveal some kind of unknown proto-language, the key to his life’s work. But he realizes too that these regressions are taking a toll on her physically: in a kind of reversal of Matei’s youth and mental evolution, Veronica’s movement through time causes her to age rapidly, so that she may die before she ever reaches the beginning he desires. As her condition worsens, Dominic is forced to choose between completing his life’s work and recapturing the lost love of his youth.

Coppola’s devil-may-care attitude to plotting in the film will lose many viewers. He allows the narrative to run on like a dynamo, gaining speed and complexity as the twists pile on top of one another. For its two-hour length, Youth Without Youth has a great deal of plot, and it’s a tribute to Coppola’s brashness that he is unafraid to keep letting things happen. In fact, it’s rather amazing that the film is a short as it is: Coppola supposedly shot over 170 hours of footage on location in Eastern Europe before whittling the film down to its current length with the help of longtime collaborator Walter Murch.

For such a unique, uncharacteristic accomplishment, it’s surprising that Youth Without Youth didn’t receive more attention upon its release last year. In fact, it received rather tepid reviews from the major critics and was generally ignored in the discussion of the year’s achievements. Which is a shame. For me it ranks just below The Conversation, The Godfather films, and Apocalypse Now on Coppola’s movie resume, and I think a rather convincing argument could be made that Youth Without Youth is his most personal film. It’s certainly not for everyone, but for those who give it the time and contemplation it deserves, it proves to be rather affecting. It's an unusual film where nothing is ever quite as it seems, and years down the road, after he’s gone, I would wager it will be remembered as one of the key parts of Coppola's film legacy.


I think it’s worth mentioning that there is a bizarre resemblance between Youth Without Youth and 1996’s Jack, Coppola’s terrible Robin Williams vehicle about a boy whose body ages four times faster than it’s supposed to. It’s sort of amazing that the same director could make two such radically different films-- story-wise and quality-wise-- from such similar concepts.

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