Youth Without Youth [DVD]
Director : Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay : Francis Ford Coppola (based on the novel by Mircea Eliade)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Tim Roth (Dominic Matei), Alexandra Maria Lara (Veronica / Laura), Bruno Ganz (Professor Stanciulescu), André Hennicke (Josef Rudolf), Marcel Iures (Prof. Giuseppe Tucci), Adrian Pintea (Pandit), Alexandra Pirici (Woman in Room 6), Florin Piersic Jr. (Dr. Gavrila), Zoltan Butuc (Dr. Chirila), Adriana Titieni (Anetta)
For his first time behind the camera in a decade, Francis Ford Coppola has chosen to strike out and follow his own path, self-financing Youth Without Youth, a deeply personal epic that interweaves 20th-century history, fantasy, and philosophy. Shot entirely in Romania and with a largely European cast, it is essentially Coppola throwing down the gauntlet to those who would try to pigeonhole him as either a wayward, self-indulgent genius or a sold-out director-for-hire. The film’s detractors will likely see it as evidence of the former, given that its strange, sometimes convoluted narrative and experimental aesthetics play as a purposeful nose-thumbing to the mainstream. Given that his last two films were the Robin Williams comedy Jack (1996) and the John Grisham thriller The Rainmaker (1997)--films that, for all intents and purposes, any competent director could have helmed just as well--it seems imperative that Coppola reclaim his voice. In this sense, Youth Without Youth is a striking success, even if it is best described as an intriguing failure.
The story opens in the 1930s and introduces the protagonist, Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), a 70-year-old Romanian linguistics scholar who has been toiling for decades to write his Great Work, an enormous tome about the history of language and human consciousness. Sad and suicidal, he is crossing the street when he is struck by lightning, an event that should have killed him, but instead rejuvenates him. Despite his body being fried, to the astonishment of everyone (including Dominic), he not only quickly recovers, but his body reverts back several decades so that he is physically 35 years old again (plus his mental faculties, already impressive, are greatly improved and he develops supernatural powers). Roth’s performance is consistently impressive, thoroughly convincing as an old man in bodies both young and old who slowly come to grips with his fantastical scenario.
In essence, the narrative, which Coppola adapted from a novel by the Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade, is two stories connected by Dominic’s character. The first story involves his adjustment to his new youth and the help he receives from a kindly doctor (Bruno Ganz), who gives him a new identity and helps him evade the Nazis, who want to capture and study him for their own diabolical purposes. The first hour, then, plays like a fantastical geopolitical thriller, and the ease with which Coppola introduces a potentially absurd plot device (rejuvenation and supernatural powers through a massive jolt of electricity) and then carries it through as an integral part of the narrative is strong evidence that his filmmaking prowess is still very much intact. He also manages to pull off the idea that Dominic’s identity has somehow split in two, resulting in scenes of multiple Dominics that are first suggested by the disjuncture between Dominic and his reflection in the mirror.
Unfortunately, the second half of the film does not work nearly as well once Coppola attempts to transition from a taught thriller into mushy love-across-time territory with the introduction of Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara), who appears to be the reincarnation of Dominic’s former fiancée Veronica (also played by Lara), who left him because he was obsessed with his work. We are supposed to believe in an all-consuming love between these characters, but it wasn’t well-established early on and therefore has a hollow ring.
Coppola also veers into more overtly philosophical territory as, in addition to being Veronica reincarnated, Laura also appears to be the reincarnation of a thousands-years-old Buddhist nun, which is revealed when she is also struck by lightning, after which she frequently lapses into trances in which she speaks in increasingly ancient languages. This is like Dominic’s dream come true because it offers him the possibility of hearing language that predates history and thus allow him to finish his Great Work. In a twist of cruel irony, though, Laura starts growing rapidly older, which means that Dominic may once again lose his love at the expense of his intellectual obsession. I admit, the film pretty much lost me at this point because, to sustain its murky, almost purposefully impenetrable philosophical headiness, it really needed to sell the passion between Dominic and Laura, but instead their romances plays like a necessary plot device.
Despite these narrative bumps, Youth Without Youth is a consistently gorgeous film, shot in rich hues and beautiful widescreen compositions by the relative newcomer Mihai Malaimare Jr., who seems to have a genuine feel for how to evoke the rich look of old-fashioned Hollywood epics without making it feel either stodgy or ironic. The film opens with an ambitious sequence that turns the entire narrative-to-come into a series of fluid abstractions, which establishes the film’s slightly surreal tone and prepares us for just about everything. Coppola experiments here and there with different visual devices, including upside-down imagery to mark the beginning of fantasy and dream sequences, an approach that would seem to be annoying but actually works extremely well.
For his entire career, Coppola has bounced back and forth between being a fiercely independent auteur and a thoroughly mainstream director-for-hire. Those who remember him primarily from the 1970s, when he seemed an unassailable auteur with films like The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), and The Conversation (1974), forget that he made a number of personal, financially disappointing films in the 1960s. Yet, Coppola has proved to be perpetually resilient; even Apocalypse Now, which was three years in the making and very nearly bankrupted him and his reputation, only served to underscore what an intense, driven artist he was, willing to risk all to achieve his vision. Youth Without Youth is very much in that vein, and even if it isn’t the masterpiece many of Coppola’s admirers were hoping it would be, it is strong evidence that he is finding his voice again and still has much to offer the cinema.
|Youth Without Youth DVD|
|Distributor||Sony Pictures Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||May 13, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|However you may feel about Coppola’s accomplishment in terms of narrative and theme, it is impossible to deny that Youth Without Youth is a gorgeous film, which is beautifully represented in this disc’s high-definition anamorphic transfer. The film’s visual palette ranges widely, but every scene features intense, deeply saturated hues, whether it be amber interiors that are reminiscent of The Godfather, to the night scenes that are done entirely in shades of blue and black, to the splashes of intense red in the symbolic roses. The image is sharp, clear, and extremely well-detailed. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is likewise excellent; in fact, it was much more aggressive and active than I had expected, although I should have given the fact that Coppola’s long-time associate Walter Murch was partially responsible. From the abstract opening shots, which envelop us in a world of ticking clocks, it is clear that this is going to be an enveloping soundtrack, one that uses the surround channels with intensity.|
|I have yet to be disappointed by one of Francis Ford Coppola’s audio commentaries, and this one is no different. Given the challenging and personal nature of the film, it is particularly enjoyable to listen to him ruminate on his ideas and intentions, explaining his thought processes and reflecting on the production (which was often very, very cold). Even if parts of the film don’t really work, the commentary assures us that Coppola was always striving for something interesting and challenging and refusing to settle for what others might expect. Also included on the disc are a trio of featurettes: “Behind the Scenes of Youth Without Youth” (9 min.) is a straightforward making-of featurette that includes interviews with Coppola and members of the cast; “The Music of Youth Without Youth (27 min.) is a surprisingly lengthy and in-depth look at scoring the film that includes interviews with composer Osvaldo Golijov and editor Walter Murch, among others; and “Youth Without Youth: The Make-Up” (18 min.) included interviews with make-up designers Peter King and Jeremy Woodhead, as well as the actors on whom they worked their magic.|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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