Blood & Wine
by Nick Pinkerton

Youth Without Youth
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, U.S./Romania, Sony Pictures Classics

If early reports are any indication, Youth Without Youth seems destined to be received with polite curiosity at best, as critics scramble to secure a fresh synonym for “muddled.” The confusion is understandable. The movie operates under an eccentric narrative logic that’s usually called, for lack of anything better, “dreamlike.” (Not less than three times while watching it I was on the verge of giving in to a very pleasant slumber, but that’s fine—I liked the “going under” lull.) Really Youth Without Youth is only like a dream in that it comes off tediously when you’re trying to describe it to someone else. So: the film opens in Romania, 1938, when Professor of Linguistics Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), the end of his days in plain sight, feels himself tilting toward suicidal despair—his body is failing, and his overambitious life’s work, a comprehensive study of the origins of language, seems destined to go incomplete. A second chance is opened up when the Professor, crossing the street one fine day, is snatched into the air by a spurt of lightning and scorched crisp. The result is that Matei, when his swaddling of bandages is peeled off, is neither maimed nor crippled, but revealed as a man for all practical purposes 40 years his own junior, his body regenerated and with the full stores of his mind intact. Under the tutelage of his physician (Bruno Ganz), he becomes aware that his accident has gifted him with a full complement of intellectual superpowers—he needs but wave his hand over a book to know its contents, for example. (I take a certain pleasure from the fact that a movie has been made for people who think this is “Cool,” e.g., Me.)

Matei’s story, decoupaged with memories and hallucinations, winds through number of compartmentalized incidents—there’s some Graham Greene-esque wartime espionage involving Nazi occult science and a seductress spy, a spiritual excursion to Nepal, and so on. What exactly is happening with the Professor’s agonized-over masterpiece is unclear—it has something to do with tape recording the spells experienced by his fiancée, Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara), a girl who survived an electrical mishap not unlike his own, and as a result experiences atavistic lapses during which she fluently channels ancient Babylonian, Sumerian, etc. It should be noted that this young woman’s also the spitting image of a girl who broke an engagement to Matei around the fin-de-siècle—circles within circles…

The root of the endeavor is a 1976 novella by the Bucharest-born academic and Jung-influenced theorist Mircea Eliade, Tinereţe fără tinereţe, a text basically out of circulation before Coppola picked it as a project. A few days before seeing the movie, I’d listened to the director doing a promotional radio appearance; maybe he’d been spoiled never having to had to develop a concise “pitch” for this project to conciliate investors, but he went on about his film’s themes for a goodly while in a looping, disjointed way, without ever making a great deal of sense—I had no idea what I was in for.

Now I’ve seen it, and I’m not much more clear. Youth Without Youth isn’t intended to conciliate anyone. It’s a billowing, shapeless thing, ever flirting with disaster, but it passes my “Is It Art?” litmus test just fine: upon leaving the theater, the objects of the world seemed briefly rejuvenated, closer, more real. Bless the guiltless profligacy of it all—having been silent for a decade now, F.F.C. decamped for Romania and, with his vineyard dividends behind him, produced precisely the movie he wanted to make (inasmuch as his talent allowed). Indulgent? You fucking bet. Coppola, big and fleshy, a notorious Hollywood sybarite in his younger years, reborn as a well-to-do vintner, remains one of the screen’s great, wallowing sensualists. I suspect filmmaking, for him, has always been a natural extension of what I’ll call for lack of a better term “love of life.” The movies have never done food quite well enough, but here is the noteworthy exception—The Godfather, I’m not the first to note, is one of the great film feasts. The lavishness has been curtailed since his days of greatest available bankroll (and folly); by all accounts this film was modestly budgeted, shot on HD with a well-drilled, native-hired crew, entirely on Balkan soil. But the result is still deep-dish, extravagant moviemaking, laid out in courses, with composer Osvaldo Golijov playing expert saucier. There are so many great subtractive directors, those whose genius is clearing up, paring away; Coppola is great when piling it on.

The prime pleasure we’ve missed in his absence is sharing Coppola’s immersion and intoxication with every place and period he sets out to film; Youth Without Youth stops at various way stations between 1895 and 1969, and is equally comfortable with and open to the beauty of all (whatever one thinks of the director’s The Outsiders/Rumble Fish diptych, just how many filmmakers could’ve found so much extraterrestrial grandiosity in the neighborhoods of Tulsa? His own daughter, for one example, could only condescend to the quaintly “weird” in Tokyo and Versailles). Looking back, by the way, I don’t think there’s a single unpretty interior in the film—even the hospital walls are done in rich cream, far from antiseptic.

The governing tone here is an admixture of classical nostalgia and futurism. The very beautiful opening sequence recalls the title card of a Forties Technicolor fantasia; the women are coiffured and lacquered to an immaculate Old Hollywood finish. It sometimes abstractly recalls an rare-blooming hothouse flower of studio mysticism a la Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, and when Matei finds Veronica, delirious and beaten by waves amidst the black rocks of “Malta” (in fact, the shores of the Black Sea), one might extrapolate a nod to Dieterle/Selznick’s time-bender Portrait of Jennie (or is it Caspar David Friedrich? Or a smut-sophisticate Oui photo shoot?) If the décor is classical, the construction is anything but—the storytelling is engaged in constant, unexpected ducks, weaves, and lateral shifts, while the camera pivots and barrel-rolls like a flight simulator. Roth spends much of the movie acting against himself—that is, the doppelganger who appears to him after the accident—and logographic symbolism is engraved everywhere, without a convenient Rosetta stone in sight. I’ll put it somewhere in the limbo between brilliance and a wreck—and the final scene is too perfect to even talk about.