Everything is futile in Francis Ford Coppola’s first movie in over a decade, Youth Without Youth, a sort of Indiana Jones meets pulp Proust. Or perhaps think popcorn art-house. Tim Roth plays Dominic Matei, a lonely 70-year old Romanian on the verge of committing suicide—over a lost love, now dead, over the incompletion of his life’s work on the origin of human language—when he is struck by lighting, made young again, and given strange powers of body and mind. But that’s not it, not really. Coppola adapted the script from writings by author Mircea Eliade, but what the film most resembles are films like Fellini Satyricon (Fellini, Italy, 1969) and Woyjeck (Herzog, West Germany, 1979), works adapted from fragments which visibly bear all the gaps and inadequacies envisioning an incomplete work would entail. Also Coppola was perhaps funneling 1950s and 1960s Orson Welles, those strange films of his made through odd international co-productions and over-dubbed to the very end of the film stock, so that every scene is a bit ragged and hodge-podge, cobbled together, and the final product seems a slew of these creaky episodes grafted awkwardly onto one another with most of their seams showing. That’s not quite how Youth Without Youth looks; in fact, its autumnal hues are glossy, it favors liquidly dissolves, and has other such often lovely, supple surfaces. But it certainly is the way Coppola has structured and directed his film: as a series of barely tied together episodes, scenes, and montages, following the path through Europe of Dominic in all its forms of love, time, artistic morality (and mortality), and vague espionage.
Dreams, schizophrenic doublings, and vague sexual threats from the Nazis form the first portion of the film after Dominic is struck by lightning. Bruno Ganz shows up as his doctor, fascinated not so much by his remarkable youthfulness but more interested in Dominic’s young body as a new repository for memory, dreams, and lived experiences, identity and consciousness blended together by the fizz of the lightning bolt. A girl in swastika garters haunts Dominic’s dreams and perhaps real life, but Coppola dwells not on the baroque combination of fantasies and memories (many of Alexandra Maria Lara as a long gone, long dead lover from the 1880s) and instead uses Swastika Garters to take the film down noir pathways. Flirtations with a style, a theme—the merging of life, memories, and dreams during rehabilitation, using flashbacks and doublings, upside down images, and mirrors—are dropped for the next episode, featuring dark shadows and nefarious Nazi scientists. In this segment, Dominic’s powers have segued from indistinguishably blurring between mental states and the real thing to secret agent spy skills, backroom offers, whispering promises of greatness (that of America, of Hitler), and finally Dominic’s own superhero powers. Every line of the film, and particularly this section, seems dubbed, recorded later over ambiguously shot scenes, ambiguous in that their drama and portent are barely suggested by what is actually on-screen, and instead are grounded, barely, by Coppola’s lines, recorded some time later, voices recorded at the time clearly clashing with these later accents and intimations.
Tim Roth bumps back into Alexandra Maria Lara, reincarnated or just reminiscent of his past love, in Switzerland in the 1950s, herself consumed by a similar lightening-revelation: her soul crossing over with that of an Indian Buddhist mystic thousands of years earlier. The movie tromps to India to re-live the experience, to Malta for a lovers’ getaway, and the film goes on and on but nothing ever seems to happen. What is this work that Dominic is so vaguely spending all his time on, that Lara’s regressive reincarnations are helping him finally complete at a brutal cost? What are Dominic’s feelings for the return of his lost love, of his suicidal tendencies allayed by endless time like a vampire living through the ages, as all that he knew falls behind him in the past? The film has no idea. The tone is all over the place, one moment indulging in pure cornball pulp images—a Nazi scientist practically cackling over his mad laboratory, Dominic finding a color illustrated Mein Kampf under his lovers’ bed during dream-sex—and in the next sequence stumbling through awkward and obvious dialog on the metaphysics of time and transmutability of the soul. It seems noodling, like Coppola was sort of making it up, figuring it out as he went along, and later taped it together through the omnipresent score, the dialog looping, and Walter Murch’s editing.
It is, of course, devoted to love, as Coppola’s last masterpiece, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) was, but where that film clearly giddily believed in its pulp romance storyline and actors, its silent-film stylistic pastiche, this film tries everything at least once and never takes any of its ideas of love and time to a level of real commitment, be it pretentious or pop. A good point of comparison would be the equally ambitious and equally themed The Fountain, and whatever one may fault Darren Aronofky, he directed that film with devotion and took it about as far as anyone could take a plot of time traveling love. Youth Without Youth could perhaps be characterized by that most wonderful line of Dracula’s in Coppola’s 1992 film, “I’ve crossed oceans of time to find you,” as Mina and her Transylvanian prince share absinthe, their blood literally quickens on screen, and Coppola dreamily makes their time-crossing dreams seen through gauze, drugs, and the supernatural a wholly real thing in all its flagrant melodrama and cinematic artificiality. But that level of commitment is not to be seen in Youth Without Youth, with the possible exceptions of a distorted opening sequence of warped visuals of clocks and skulls, the old-school title credits, and Coppola’s incredibly inspired idea of simply shooting dream sequences upside down (what an effect that makes!). The film makes it impossible to believe in Dominic’s love, in his work, in his age, and, ultimately, in Dominic himself
Yet it is the pure futility on evidence in the film that makes it work in its own intriguing way. Yes the film is painfully incomplete, uncertain, and unsteady, but then again so is Dominic. His far too vague quest for—who knows what? Like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now and that production itself, going up the river without really knowing the destination or the purpose of the journey—something about capturing lost time, controlling time and mind states, wrestling with knowledge and love in the face of passing time, is clearly as futile as is the film’s ability to express these ideas. This is perhaps totally inadvertent; the film is an odd, unexpected success as expressing futility both in the drama and in construction, but ironically it exhibits futility when trying to express anything inside this drama and construction, the lost and re-found love, the new powers of youth and the unexplainable, the globe-trotting intrigue and immutability of this bizarre life and that of fantasies. A failure it is without a doubt, but perhaps the best kind of failure, where, in its failure it becomes just as fascinating as a success.