***½/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A
starring Tim Roth, Alexandra Maria Lara, Bruno Ganz, André M. Hennicke
screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola, based on the novella by Mircea Eliade
directed by Francis Ford Coppola
by Walter Chaw Set in just-antebellum Europe, Francis Ford Coppola's Golden Age superhero fantasy Youth Without Youth finds mild-mannered ancients professor Dominic (Tim Roth) transmogrified by a bolt of lightning into a being who appears to not only have regained his youthful appearance, but also developed the ability to alter physical objects with his mind. Dominic is in 1938 Romania when 1.21 jigawatts of electricity send him back to the future, able to absorb entire volumes with a single touch, learn dead languages in his sleep, and have contentious conversations with himself reflected in mirrors literal and figurative. It's a superhero movie in the same sense as Kasi Lemmons's sorely underestimated The Caveman's Valentine: based on a literary source, it's itself intensely literate, sprinkling Mandarin and Sanskrit in with, late in the game, a language of our hero's own devising to which he devotes reels of obsessive notes. All that's missing is a purpose for our hero--something remedied as the picture moves forward past WWII and Dominic encounters Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara) en route to her own collision with cosmic destiny.
The cruel irony of a film about regaining lost youth is this idea that while youth may be wasted on the young, experience proves corrosive to the same--meaning you're only young once because you're only this ignorant/innocent once; age has nothing to do with years, but with burdens, thus once you're finally equipped to appreciate things, those things have already fled. Youth Without Youth is a tragedy, a dark fantasy that essays the unbearable gravity of knowledge by making it the curse of an enlightened individual doomed to his immortality. The obvious comparison in Coppola's portfolio is his Bram Stoker's Dracula, complete with the return of the repressed in the body of an immortal inamorata. But I'm more interested in the picture's similitarities to Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain--in its pain, in its melancholy, and, ultimately, in its remarkable courage to its own self be true.
With elements of Rudy Rucker's White Light in its conclusion, a path arrived at through a contemplation of Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi's recollection of dreaming he was a yellow butterfly and waking to wonder if he is a man who dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming it is a man, Youth Without Youth speaks to the notion that any gift is a curse if the goal is uncovering Eden. (Doesn't the Christian God similarly confer a "gift" that renders Paradise fleeting?) A theme common in the best films of 2007, the gold standard, the sterling mean, is that returning to a prelapsarian state is an Icarean pursuit at best--that the only means to Paradise is bliss, and that if you're broken enough to want it, it doesn't exist for you anymore. More, that once you accept it as a concept, this very act of sober, philosophical contemplation makes its enjoyment impossible. If you're smart enough to want to know, you're too smart to know.
Applied to film theory, it's post-modernism (at least insomuch as we can view the discussion of film as impossible now without foreknowledge of the rest of western civilization); and when Veronica regresses in a horror-movie way to Sanskrit and a prayerful incantation of "Shanti Shanti Shanti," you're led to three echoes: of the last six syllables of T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland", the fragments of culture shored against the ruins of the Mod; of the goal of fakirs and Rubaiyats immemorial to uncover the Ur- of civilized thought; and, curiously, of the twin references to the same chant in Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men. Two films in two years--this last cozy in the company of pictures like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, Into the Wild and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford--that, from a mélange of genres and pop cultural slaw, produce documents of resonant currency. A film about being lost in time (it ends at the kind of quantum cigar and whiskey club where you might run into Kilgore Trout), Youth Without Youth is very much a film of this era, its director returning after a ten-year absence from the cinema with a peculiar little masterpiece about things unrecoverable in time.
Coppola's most helplessly romantic--and Romanticist--picture since The Outsiders, Youth Without Youth is another vanished-world epic, filmed with lavish concern for canonical, illusory detail. It's a documentary of opulent, unearthly delights, none of which, you get the sense, exist in any serious sense outside the film. Coppola revels in newspaper iconography as print media collapses while adapting the styles of dead eras of filmmaking (in the sensationally old-fashioned opening titles, in a grainy reel shot handheld in India) and war melodramas, the latter serving mainly to bolster the effect that the picture is a product of all our knowledge and experience. It can be no accident that the great Bruno Ganz is asked to portray Dominic's guardian angel, a kindly Romanian doctor at odds with Romania's Nazi scientists, when he'd so memorably portrayed Hitler in Downfall. (Lara, meanwhile, played Hitler's secretary in same.) Images interposed over Dominic's bandaged form recall the amniotic fluid-bath from the Coppola-produced Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (as does a glimpse of a Nazi lab filled with Tesla coils and crackling discharges) and announce that at this point in his career, Coppola's begun to delve into the mysticism of his Kurtz, reading Eliot's "Hollow Men" in the middle of a Jamesian jungle. If Dominic is a superhero, his model is Percy Shelly and his arch-enemy is Coppola's backwards-looking obsession with melancholy for everything that's lost in the tragic, headlong journey to obsolescence and the fickle impersistence of memory.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Bill here, horning in with the Blu-ray specs for Youth Without Youth, which is simply one of the most beautiful things I've yet beheld on the format. Shot with the Sony HDC-F950, the picture achieves a look that is neither film nor video but some kind of lush dream realm in-between. The 2.35:1, 1080p transfer has an appropriately electric clarity (impressively, sans edge-enhancement) that is mesmerizing and does not cheapen the image like you might expect, and though the CGI loses some of its expressionistic quality in SD, it seems all of a piece here in HiDef. Saturation is three-strip Technicolor intense but meticulously controlled.
The attendant 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio is similarly precise. Profoundly loud at reference volume, Walter Murch's mix comes as close to putting us inside a movie as I can imagine or remember--which, given the nature of Youth Without Youth, means you feel as though you're ricocheting around a particularly surreal pinball machine. In addition to the extras discussed below, Blu-ray propaganda, HD previews for Persepolis, Steep, The Lives of Others, Black Book, The Jane Austen Book Club, and Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Youth Without Youth's otherwise-elided end-credits scroll round out the disc. (Nothing comes after the Old Hollywood "The End" in the movie proper.) If you don't currently have the luxury of screening Youth Without Youth on BD, you may find it's worth the wait.-Ed.
Coppola provides a feature-length yakker that showcases his chatty, informal intelligence as well as his grasp--at least where this film is concerned--of the themes and references he's very consciously trying to weave into the tapestry. I have (I think) a pretty well-documented aversion to artists who try too hard to have something to say; the exception and the corollary, of course, is that when an artist is able to be aware of what he's doing and do it anyway, well, then, there you have it, this intimidating text. Too much to compare Youth Without Youth to Fellini? I wonder how it would play sutured, in the fashion of Coppola's own The Godfather: The Complete Epic, to La Dolce Vita. When Coppola refers to "sense memory" and "amino acids" and comparative religion in his free-wheeling, fair-ranging rap, you either buy in and go for the ride or you opt out for the flat, formula stuff you rail against out the other corner of your mouth.
The lone standard-def feature on the aforementioned BD, "The Making of Youth Without Youth" (9 mins.) rehashes much of Coppola's musings, adding in Roth, Lara, and Ganz for a depressingly conventional B-roll/junket-speak cocktail. I would have appreciated more insight into that legendary Coppola rehearsal process, but I did enjoy a moment between director and star that sees Coppola supine on a couch, bouncing a line reading. Take it away, Sigmund. Altogether too much time is spent, sadly, on rehash; bringing in Matt Damon for a few soundbites when Damon appears in the film for about two minutes brings the aims of the piece into stark relief. "The Music for Youth Without Youth" (26 mins.) is interesting for how closely it shows Coppola collaborating with composer Osvaldo Golijov (he's sitting right next to him), and you can only applaud the decision to have editor Walter Murch--himself almost better remembered in my mind as a genius-level sound designer--comment on the alchemy behind fusing image with sound. In his typically edifying way, Murch describes the process in which everything is "jigsawed all together" and refers to a film as some organic puzzle that could perhaps have worked no other way. Golijov reveals that he's not a movie composer (his score is brilliant, by the by, discordant and lush in equal, dissonant measure), while inexplicable bits where Coppola interacts with the orchestra show a certain deference to this aspect of the work that is, by itself, telling. A side-by-side comparison of a scene with its original and revised scoring is a mini-workshop on how music colours story.
Finally, the perhaps-inevitable "The Make-Up of Youth Without Youth" (18 mins.) draws too much attention to the frankly-mediocre make-up effects in the picture. The piece is still valuable on the whole, though, thanks to footage of a legend on set that's fun for the cinephile. A note about the CGI roses that form the centre of the film's romantic allegory (gather ye rosebuds, indeed): they look dreadful, although I wonder if that's not part of the retro-appeal of the pic? Youth Without Youth is great--you want to forgive it Coppola's career-long penchant for occasional, puzzling lapses into amateurishness. Originally published: June 10, 2008.