This movie didn't make Judge Clark Douglas scratch his head in confusion. He just has an itch.
Our review of Youth Without Youth, published May 5th, 2008, is also available.
Time is just an envelope.
"Where shall I put the third rose?"
Facts of the Case
The year is 1938, the place is Romania, and the man is Dominic (Tim Roth, Pulp Fiction), who is in the final chapter of his life. He is 70 years old and feels that there is nothing left to live for. He determines to just end it all and commit suicide, but fate sends him on another path. Dominic is struck by a bolt of lightning, which he somehow survives. He is taken to a hospital, where his doctor (Bruno Ganz, Downfall) becomes astonished by Dominic's recovery. Dominic's hair and skin regenerate, a batch of new teeth replace his old ones, and soon Dominic finds that he has the body of a 40-year-old man. This gives him a new shot a life, a chance to do things he never had the opportunity to do.
Ah, but Dominic's tale grows increasingly complicated. The Nazis (it's always the Nazis, isn't it?) are after the secret to Dominic's regeneration, and want to capture him in order to experiment on him. Additionally, Dominic begins experiencing more internal problems when his villainous doppelganger turns up and attempts to lure Dominic to a darker view of life. Dominic's regeneration process also continues to be a source of astonishment, as Dominic suddenly discovers that he has the ability to know all the information contained within a book by simply passing his hand over it.
Like Dominic's body, the plot never stops evolving. Things get even more complex when Dominic meets a young girl who looks precisely like the lost love of his youth. That girl's name was Laura, but this girl's name is Veronica. Shortly after the two have met, Veronica is struck by lightning, and begins her own strange evolution. Rather than growing younger, she grows rapidly older, and begins to embark on an unconscious journey that fascinates Dominic. Veronica's body seems to be a regular pit stop for souls from ancient civilizations, and as she falls under some form of possession night after night, she begins to speak strange languages. The words get older and older, until it becomes quite clear that Veronica is potentially going to take Dominic to the very origins of human speech…but at what cost?
Prior to Youth Without Youth, director Francis Ford Coppola had not directed a feature film since 1997's The Rainmaker. Many had written Coppola off, as the director's post-Apocalypse Now films seemed to lack much inspiration. Coppola claimed that he had gotten a second wind while directing Youth Without Youth and that he was really feeling excited about getting backing to making films again. The project was fairly low-budget, very experimental, and quite complex, and Coppola relished the challenge. For cinema buffs, Youth Without Youth was one of the year's most anticipated films, but it was soundly spanked by critics upon its release. Many of the complaints sounded similar…
"The movie is one soporific, depressed, deadeningly vague scene after another."—Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
"It's merely nutty, a picture that appears to have been made by an individual who has fallen off the edge of reason. Watching it was a misery."—Stephanie Zacharek, Salon
"Most certainly a personal work—so personal, in fact, that I can't imagine anyone but Coppola being able to sit through it."—Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald
"I understood two words of Youth Without Youth: The End"—Kyle Smith, New York Post
"…a confusing slog through metaphysical murkiness."—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
So, is the film really as bad as everyone says it is, or is Coppola really on to something remarkable here? In my own opinion, neither. The film is not as dull, mind-numbingly confusing, or bewilderingly complex as critics would have you believe. On the other hand, it is also not as deep and profound as Coppola would have you believe. In fact, despite claims that this film is a wild departure for Coppola, it actually feels like very familiar material for the director. Some viewers may recall his 1986 film Peggy Sue Got Married, about a 42-year-old woman who travels back in time and re-inhabits her 17-year-old body. This is not entirely new territory for the director; he has played with these themes before. Even more than Peggy Sue Got Married, the film thematically resembles what is probably the very worst effort of Coppola's career: Jack.
Jack was a film starring Robin Williams, about a 10-year-old boy who had some sort of rare, made-up-for-the-film disease that caused him to age four times faster than normal children. Thus, this 10-year-old was stuck inside the body of a 40-year-old man. Youth Without Youth would have been a good title for that movie, too. The style and tone of the two films are different, but they feel very much like mirror images of each other. They are both about men who look and feel 40 years old, but neither of them is anywhere near 40. They both use this condition to examine the complications of romance for these characters. They offer the promise of being an in-depth and fascinating character study, but both are easily sidetracked into unnecessary scenes. That's only the tip of the iceberg. The connections between these films (and to a lesser degree, Peggy Sue Got Married) could go on forever, and even serve as the formation for an interesting book. However, the only point I'm trying to get at is that this story is not a new one, only the way Coppola has directed it.
Peggy Sue Got Married was warm, funny, and deeply human. Jack was odd, off-putting, and very amateurish. For Youth Without Youth, Coppola has chosen "arty, elegant, and pretentious." This has its pros and cons, but I like the film for what it is. The story does tend to wander around aimlessly at times, and the dialogue often feels like desperately vague writing trying to pass for remarkably complex writing. However, Coppola stages this whole show with such class and fascination. His steady, hypnotic cinematography provides so many compelling images. They are often little more than pieces of none-too-subtle symbolism or distractions that wander down dead-end rabbit trails, but in a film with such a strained plot, it's actually not a bad thing. When the story is working, we are engaged by it. When the story is not working, we are engaged by everything else Coppola is doing. The film is easily as fascinating to look at as it is to listen to.
Part of that comes from the performance of Tim Roth, who is one of cinema's most underappreciated actors. What a face he has. Roth is capable of quietly expressing such a wealth of feelings and motivations, the slightest twitch or glance can mean so much. He is the perfect actor for this role; he successfully manages to capture the idea of a 70-year-old man inside a much younger body without ever resorting to goofy physical behavior that screams, "I am really not this young!" Roth's adjustments are very subtle ones; it's a shame his performance was overlooked for most of the major awards. His work here equals Daniel Day-Lewis' turn in There Will Be Blood, but Day-Lewis had the benefit of a loud character and a much better film.
The rest of the cast fares well enough, though none approaches Roth's level of greatness. Bruno Ganz is a terrific actor, though his turn here will never be counted among his greatest achievements. Alexandre Maria Lara is superb as a frightened young woman who doesn't understand what is happening to her, but she does struggle to conjure up a convincing performance during some of the scenes of possession. Perhaps the best supporting turn comes not from an actor, but from the composer, Osvaldo Golijov. His music is ever-so-carefully inserted into each scene; he manages to find precisely the right tone for each moment. The highlight is a deep love theme that accurately suggests a romantic pining that has risen up from the depths of time. It's so difficult for music to sell a scene all by itself, but Golijov does precisely that on more than one occasion.
Perhaps that is why the special features devote only eight minutes to discussing the making of the movie and even less to the makeup, but 26 minutes to discussing the music. "The Music of Youth Without Youth" is a really wonderful bonus item, it offers a truly in-depth look at what goes into a recording session for a score. Most music featurettes tend to be very trivial and offer a few quick statements like, "his themes really enhance the emotion." Things like set design, makeup, costumes, and other technical elements frequently get a lot of attention, but music is often short-changed in the special features department. I'm really glad to have something like this here, especially for such a deserving score. In fact, this featurette contains the most touching moment on the entire disc. Coppola announces that his new granddaughter has just entered the world, and a handful of the orchestra players respond with an impromptu version of the cheerful wedding music from The Godfather. Coppola pulls out his cell phone, phones mother and baby, and wanders around the room holding the phone up next to various instruments. It's the kind of candid behind-the-scenes moment that marks high-quality special features. Also quite terrific is Coppola's audio commentary, which has very few dull moments. Coppola does his best to explain the how and why of everything in the plot, though some of this only confirms that there simply isn't more to this movie than we suspect. Nonetheless, it's an essential track for film buffs; Coppola is in top form here.
This film is very easy on the eyes, lovely to look at, and the Blu-ray transfer is just wonderful. The bronze color scheme is highlighted wonderfully here, and the remarkable level of detail is a big boost to all of the subtle visual elements Coppola includes in the film. In terms of audio, the sound mix successfully attempts to aid the scenes featuring Roth and his doppelganger, with dialogue shifting left and right between your speakers. The very carefully constructed score also sounds superb, with lush strings or a tiny cimbalom hit all being placed in just the right spot. A strong recording was essential for this score, and that's just what it received.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is a film with a lot of good ideas, but these ideas don't really seem to be connected to each other or even to a single broad philosophy. Coppola intends certain scenes to be very vague and open to interpretation, but this contrasts poorly with scenes that take a more straightforward approach. Rather than maintaining a subtle sense of mystery from start to finish, Coppola tries to hide the more obvious bits by clouding them in mystifying dialogue. As far as I'm concerned, the film would have been a lot better if Coppola hadn't been afraid to just lay everything on the table. It isn't a crime to help the audience out a little bit, especially when they only way to figure certain things out is to climb inside the director's head. There are no great revelations to be gleaned from peeling this film apart piece by piece, so why bother making viewers work so hard to keep up with a fairly standard-issue gimmicky plot?
By no means am I encouraging Coppola to turn Youth Without Youth into brain-dead entertainment, but this film could have been considerably more accessible without losing an ounce of its credibility. Coppola insists that the film needs to be seen more than once. I have watched it more than once. While certain inconsequential details may become clear on a second viewing, the film's most head-scratching element (namely, whatever the connection is between Good Dominic/Bad Dominic/Laura/Veronica) simply isn't going to become clear. Believe me, I have run my mind around this issue for hours, and can find no real solution other than that Coppola is providing answers without knowing what the questions are. If you think you've got it figured out, you have a mind that is superior to mine; feel free to e-mail me with your theories.
If you can appreciate style over substance, I would recommend checking out Youth Without Youth. What we see is undeniably the work of a great, unique filmmaker who has a lot of ideas and a lot of passion. Technically, the film is nothing short of superb, with great music, great performances, great cinematography, great set design, great costumes, great makeup, great…well, a lot of great things. But this glittering ball has a hollow center, and it's a shame that such obvious inspiration was not put into a better story. If you see the film (and if you're a Coppola fan, of course you're going to), it's best to take it at face value and not try to dig too deep for hidden meanings or remarkable revelations. Much like its protagonist, Youth Without Youth is a weak and frail story hiding inside a vital, fascinating body.
The writer is guilty, the producer is released on parole, and the director is
free to go. Too bad they are all the same person.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Francis Ford Coppola
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