One From the Heart
Francis Ford Coppola Returns To The Art-House Filmmaking That's Always Informed His Movies
Francis Ford Coppola is in the unusual position of having tasted the heights of fame and fortune--and critical success, as well--and then spending decades as an underdog. A fellow critic spent the 1980s attacking him before realizing that dissing movies such as One From the Heart and The Outsiders was neither contrarian nor daring. Around the time of the Robin Williams vehicle Jack, you had to wonder why Coppola didn't follow the path of Woody Allen and Robert Altman and make modestly budgeted movies for Indiewood companies. After a 10-year break from filmmaking, Coppola has finally gone that route. Coppola claims that most of the budget of Youth Without Youth, officially an American-Romanian-French-Italian production, was raised from his profitable wine business.
The movie follows Dominic (Tim Roth), an elderly linguistics professor who describes himself as a failure. One stormy day in 1938, he plans suicide. Before he can follow through, he's struck by lightning. Badly burned, he survives the hit and wakes up in the hospital a changed man. His bald head is full of new hair, and new teeth push out their rotting predecessors. He's also a much smarter man; he learns Chinese in a few days. He's living in a dangerous period in which to suddenly develop superpowers, however. Both the Romanian secret police and Nazis are after him. He survives World War II by living under a pseudonym and using his mental agility to beat the casino. After the war, he becomes involved with Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara), who appears to age prematurely after a lightning strike.
Back in his post-Apocalypse Now heyday, Coppola distributed in the U.S. movies such as Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's Our Hitler, A Film From Germany and Jean-Luc Godard's Every Man for Himself. Youth Without Youth is a reminder that his taste has always had an arty, Europhile side: The Godfather trilogy drew on Luchino Visconti, Apocalypse Now on Werner Herzog. The roots of Coppola's current style were already evident in his 1992 Dracula adaptation. In Youth he wholeheartedly embraces anti-realism, constantly turning the camera upside down and using bizarre angles. The lighting is equally oddball.
The movie is an interesting, honorable failure. As messes go, it's far more enjoyable than Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, and more deserving of a cult following. If Southland Tales reeks of pulp sci-fi and E! Channel all-nighters seen through a haze of weed and mushrooms, Youth Without Youth suggests college English majors' bull sessions after a first taste of writers such as Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. Coppola's script is based on a novella by Romanian author Mircea Eliade. For all its emphasis on visual style, Youth also has a literary side, although its dialogue clunks and the primarily European cast is badly dubbed into English.
Eliade, who was a Nazi sympathizer during World War II, wrote Youth Without Youth as an old, presumably wiser man. For Coppola, its meaning could hardly be clearer. After 10 years of silence, it's a second debut. To a large extent, the director's pleasure in returning to filmmaking is palpable and enjoyable to watch, but the content of his storytelling is more disputable than the excitement behind it. Youth Without Youth is full of dialogue about philosophy, history, and language, but it never comes across as sophisticated as it would like to be. Coppola throws many ideas into his script, but not all of them are good ones. For long stretches, Youth Without Youth plays like a so-so spy thriller with blather about reincarnation and linguistic regression thrown in. Its mystical opacity coexists with a conception of character straight out of a mediocre comic book.
All the same, Youth Without Youth gives birth to a Coppola whose existence has sometimes been suspected: a hard-core art filmmaker along the lines of Alain Resnais or Raúl Ruiz. (No wonder French critics were kinder to him than Americans.) Let's hope he keeps on working and, next time around, manages to reconcile his interest in baroque style with a script worthy of his talent.