It’s fitting that Youth Without Youth, Francis Ford Coppola’s first directorial effort in a decade, is steeped in the idea of dreams. That’s because it often feels like one—specifically, someone else’s, a nonlinear, illogical synapse explosion that’s always fascinating to the person in whose head it detonated but not so much to those experiencing it secondhand. The film speaks of time, death, knowledge, love, duality, reincarnation, Nazis, nuclear war. It even ventures into superhero territory, for God’s sake, though in this case, Coppola’s Superman is more Nietzsche’s than DC Comics’.
The movie, which the director adapted from a novella by Romanian writer Mircea Eliade, isn’t as spectacularly unsuccessful as another recent toss-spaghetti-at-the-wall film, Southland Tales, though. Whereas that Richard Kelly disaster was tonally schizophrenic and generally ludicrous, Coppola’s epic is merely ponderous, two-plus hours of high-minded, professorial musings as rambled by a jacked-up college freshman. And to its credit, Youth Without Youth is never uninteresting.
The film’s fustiness announces itself right away, with a static, anciently styled opening-credits sequence featuring a giant rose, a European-flavored score, and gilded letters announcing the film’s “star,” Alexandra Maria Lara. Never mind that the true lead is Tim Roth—putting the man first wouldn’t be gentlemanly, after all, and Coppola clearly wants you to feel as if you’re watching the latest talkie. Then begins the inarguably engrossing story of Dominic (Roth), a lonely, 70-year-old professor in 1938 Romania who’s mocked by his bored students and so burdened by the torch he carries for the love he lost in his 20s that he’s contemplating suicide. Fate, however, has a funny way of intervening: Dominic is struck by lightning—a stunningly violent, fiery scene—but even though it knocks him into a “larval state,” it doesn’t kill him. In fact, though his teeth fall out, X-rays show that new ones are growing in. And when the doctors finally remove the bandages, Dominic looks not like a septuagenarian but a bachelor no older than 40.
He’s also got quite the mind. He’s a linguistics professor, but Dominic suddenly can now speak pretty much any known language and feels as if he understands concepts other people don’t even know they don’t know. What a relief, then, that he has a debate partner in his double, a slightly sinister-looking Roth who appears in mirrors à la the Green Goblin. Also, Dominic can read books, and later other people’s dreams, just by passing his hand over them. And in a crunch, he discovers that telekinesis is a welcome new skill as well. (Try not to laugh when Dominic is asked, in all seriousness, if he’s going to “use his powers for good or for evil.”) For all these reasons, Hitler and his doctors are eager to cozy up to him, so Dominic assumes a new identity and spends time in Switzerland while finishing his “life’s work.”
If only that were all there was to the story. But that’s just the first half—we still have to get to Veronica (Lara), a woman who regresses through centuries of lifetimes and languages after being struck by lightning herself and just might be Dominic’s old flame. And though this subplot, too, is rather riveting, its ideas never quite connect to the film as a whole, despite an overall arc that suggests a self-balancing universe. Lara is marvel here, creating stellar, often terrifying moments out of past-life scenes that could have been ridiculous. Roth is solid in a difficult role as well; his friend-or-foe doppelgänger sequences may not quite work, but that seems more the fault of the director than the actor.
Even if you tune out the philosophy, Youth Without Youth is too beautifully photographed to completely lose your attention. Shot digitally and transferred to 35 mm film, the movie alternates between cold exteriors of muted colors against white and interiors warm with flame-inspired reds and golds. Less successful is Coppola’s dalliance with askew frames, turning scenes upside-down and sideways; they visually layer the film’s reality-bending themes but are nonetheless irritating. The director has claimed that this is a very personal movie to him, and certainly one can understand how its ideas of regrets, wasted time, and personal betterment at any age might appeal to a filmmaker in the twilight of his career. It’s just too meandering and starched to let viewers catch his enthusiasm.