Youth Without Youth marked Francis Ford Coppola’s return to the director’s chair for the first time in a decade, Critics and fans were interested to say the least, to see what he had cooked up during his self-imposed exile from filmmaking. As he often promised in his career (though he rarely fulfilled such promises) this was to be a personal film, made outside the studios with a largely unknown cast.
Though he fulfilled said promise, the results were hardly worth the effort, Youth Without Youth is best described as a curious misfire, not terrible… but not particularly good either. It’s ironic really, throughout his career Coppola always maintained he was a personal filmmaker constrained by the studios, yet in this film, with far more freedom at his disposable, he gives the impression that the studio is the place where he actually works best.
Traces of the old Coppola are still visible- in the strong (if bold) casting (his skill with actors at least hasn’t faded much), unusual setting, and classical storytelling decisions (these existing techniques are responsible for most of the film’s strengths), but largely this marks a fresh start for the Director. That may well have been his goal, but it doesn’t really work.
Loosely adapted from the novella of the same name by Mircea Eliade Youth Without Youth poses an interesting central concept. What would you do if you were involved in a freak accident and woke up decades younger? Would you rethink your career? Live out Childhood Fantasises? Or perhaps let loose on the town for a few nights? The answer is apparently none of these things.
Following a confusing, overlong (and possibly pointless) opening montage the film starts properly on the eve of World War 2, its 1938 Romania and 70 year old Linguistics Professor Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) is struggling to deal with his advancing years, and the knowledge of what he has done with those that have proceeded. Pining after his former love, Laura, and regretful that his research into the origins of human language has remained uncompleted he decides to travel to Bucharest with the intention of committing suicide.
Following this conventional (if somewhat grim) opening things take a turn for the strange. Shortly after arrival in the city Matei is struck by a lightning bolt, taken to hospital he hovers precariously on the point of death, before miraculously recovering, and regenerating into a younger version of himself. Let out of hospital by the astonished staff he arrives back in the city as it is occupied by Nazi troops. Narrowly avoiding questioning Matei is drawn into a complex web of wartime espionage, made more dangerous by a series of bizarre visions and dreams which now plague his day to day life.
As the years advance once more Matei finds himself with a second chance at completing his research. But things aren’t quite that simple, his visions grow in intensity and a chance meeting with a girl known as Veronica changes his life even more dramatically…
It’s certainly an unusual plot, which had the chance to be as interesting as it is different, but when the most memorable thing about the opening few minutes is the title design, you know your film’s in trouble. The opening titles, whilst unusual set the time period and tone of the film quite well, and for a few short moments it seems the film is going somewhere stimulating …then the plot starts.
The confusing nature of the opening montage is sadly matched all too often in the film. The plot is not only intricate it’s often hard to follow, the film flashes backwards and forwards several times in the course of the narrative, whilst many secondary characters appear erratically and feature seemingly randomly, with the unfortunate result, that in his quest to make the film more memorable, Coppola makes it more forgettable, at points it feels like even he’s unsure of where the film’s heading.
Having not read the novella it’s hard to comment on how the setting and plot are balanced in the original story, but in the film at least it doesn’t quite work. The unlikely fantastical catalyst for the plot (the lightning bolt) and the imaginative dream sequences, sit very unsteadily with the inclusion of Nazi Soldiers, as does the shadow of Nuclear War which hangs over the later stages of the film. These different plot elements would work well by themselves in a film (or at least be easier to utilise in a plot) but when they are put together they cancel each other out- tension is removed and the film becomes less believable. If this film were a dessert, then Coppola could be accused of over egging the pudding.
Admittedly some viewers may enjoy unravelling such a puzzling narrative, and the manner in which it is told, for those that don’t, rest assured (most of) the plot is tied together by the film’s resolution (even if it’s still not entirely clear why Matei is hit by a lightning bolt…). Even so Coppola never quite justifies why the narrative needed to be so complex, it is likely that many viewers will simply become bored trying to figure out where the story is going before it gets there.
Coppola described the film as a venture into ‘Experimental’ film making, and like all experiments only parts work as well as they could have. The plot is certainly very different from standard Hollywood fare (and for that reason alone may endear itself to some viewers), and a few scenes stay in the memory, but due to its confusing structure, and often self-indulgent nature, this experiment largely fails to get exciting results.
Although such a complex plot merited a substantial length to play out, the film is over long, its 124 minutes feel much lengthier, many scenes come across as irrelevant to the central plot, and in some cases accidental. It bloats the film unnecessarily and removes even more dramatic tension from the film, sadly the film isn’t just confusing, for such a distinctive plot, it’s often surprisingly boring. A tighter edit, and less deviations from the central plot would have done this film many favours.
This is a film with many flaws, but as already stated, there are things, that whilst not exactly recommending it, play to Coppola’s strengths and make elements of the film enjoyable to watch. Tim Roth, not perhaps the obvious choice for a Romanian Professor, is very believable as the protagonist, charismatic, but suitably underplaying the central role he has a significant amount of screen time in the film, and a very emotional storyline to draw from, many of his scenes are enjoyable to watch for his performance alone (few other actors could play a scene swathed entirely in bandages so convincingly), and he has fun with the rest of the cast.
The cast is rounded out by a variety of largely unfamiliar European actors, who don’t bring Roth’s baggage with them, but match him with their performances: likeable, well directed and believable in equal measure. Although some of the cast aren’t given very much to do in the narrative, the believable performances, and convincing chemistry between the cast go a good way to make the film more accessible. A certain Middle Aged friend of Ben Affleck pops up for a surprise cameo as well…
Though working with a far smaller budget than he is used to Coppola directs the film with a great deal of care and skill, the film is well shot and lit all through (there are some very imaginative visual decisions to keep a look out for), whilst his regular editor Walter Murch proves far from rusty in his capacity. Admittedly, it’s never really ‘cinematic’ but that doesn’t appear to be Coppola’s intention.
Coppola isn’t quite as successful with the script, as mentioned there is a lot of plot to cram in, and the film does take its time unfolding. The script often relies on voiceover or long pauses for characters to give across or absorb information, and more than a few scenes are overly talky. On the other hand the dialogue is sharply written, and the few main characters well defined.
The film was largely shot on real European Locations, and it shows, the production design and location work is convincing and quite impressive for the budget, the film builds on these things for mood and dramatic effect. Even if the plots a little hard to follow and somewhat slow paced, the film is visually and technically quite well made, and in these respects at least, rarely boring. An unusual but appropriate musical score by Osvaldo Golijov is underused in the film.
The film builds to a rather sudden, very divisive ending.
In conclusion Youth Without Youth is certainly a bold comeback from Coppola, and not an entirely unwelcome one, but his technical skill and inventive ideas can’t disguise the bloated, confused narrative, nor the uneven way it is constructed, and for such a complex story such issues are lethal.
In the end this film will remain annoying, mediocre or just plain boring for a great percentage of the audience, although there will certainly be viewers who will look at the film’s flaws from a different angle, and find its strange nature easier to deal with, or actually a positive.
By all means watch this film and get your own opinions, but do your research beforehand and come in with an open mind.
As for the purpose? As one character says in the film ‘What Exactly…we still don’t know’
4/10 Paul Ashwell