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January 11, 2008

Brain in Vain

By Mark Jenkins

Youth Without Youth
Directed by Francis Coppola

A head movie for graybeards, Francis Coppola's Youth Without Youth contemplates such brain-twisters as time, death, dreams, identity, and knowledge. Those were cardinal themes of such 1970s meltdowns as Performance or the director's own Apocalypse Now, which ruptured the world with quick cuts, violent outbursts, and shamanistic rock. But his balmy yet hushed new film quickly demonstrates that the 68-year-old Coppola is no longer moved by such techniques: It opens with a blurry timepiece montage, followed by '50s-style credits arrayed atop images of roses. This film's journey into the unknown will be guided by the signposts of old Hollywood.

Coppola's last movie, released a decade ago, was The Rainmaker, a modest improvement on its predecessor, Jack, the filmmaker's nadir. Youth Without Youth forgets those works-for-hire, recalling instead 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula, the last Coppola flick with any Coppola in it. Both movies are based on supernatural novels, and include asides about filmmaking itself. Where Dracula equated the Count's arrival in London with the advent of cinema, Youth's main technological prop is a wire recorder (an early form of the now-near-obsolete tape recorder). Yet when the film's protagonist watches a newsreel about World War II, Coppola can't resist a closeup of the projector. History emanates from unspooling film.

The moderately fractured narrative begins in 1938, when small-town Romanian professor Dominic Matei (a well-aged Tim Roth) is 70 and despairing. As flashbacks will soon reveal, Dominic was once a brilliant linguistics student with grand aspirations and a lovely fiancee (Romanian-born German actress Alexandra Maria Lara, who was Ian Curtis's lover in Control). But she broke their engagement because Dominic was so involved in his work that he seemed to be "in another time." Years later, the professor has failed to fulfill his academic goal, which is nothing less than discovering the origin of human language. On Easter Sunday, he takes a train to Bucharest, where he intends to swallow a fatal dose of poison. Before he can, however, he's hit by lightning -- and born again.

With Dominic's body fried into a "larval state," the first marvel is simply that he survives. But there's more: Under the supervision of a sympathetic doctor (a low-key Bruno Ganz), the professor grows younger, until he's about the age of, well, Tim Roth. His thin white hair becomes full and brown, and new teeth displace the rotted old ones. (Weirdly, this transformation flips the premise of the inane Jack, in which a 10-year-old finds himself in the body of middle-aged Robin Williams.) Dominic also acquires an enigmatic doppelganger, his companion for most of the rest of the tale.

Soon after the linguist's remarkable recovery, Romania allies with Nazi Germany, whose mad scientists are interested in any species of "new man." Tales of his lightning-sparked renewal circulate, and Dominic is seduced in his dreams by a Gestapo harlot whose garters are etched with swastikas. (This darkly goofy touch, which suggests Black Book's Nazi-occupation burlesque, is not typical of film's generally earnest outlook.) The former professor must escape to Switzerland, where Rainmaker star Matt Damon briefly appears to assist him. With his superhuman powers of mind, however, Dominic needs little help.

Less conspicuously but just as miraculously, Dominic's language skills have grown faster than his hair. The rewired professor learns Chinese in an instant, and apparently masters many other Eastern tongues as well. This makes him the ideal person to shepherd the subject of the movie's second lightning strike, Veronica, the double of Dominic's long-lost fiancee (played, of course, by the same actress). Found unconscious in the Swiss mountains, Veronica awakes speaking Sanskrit. She becomes Dominic's lover and study guide, as she regresses to ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and so on. Eventually, she might reveal the linguist's elusive goal: the oldest human language. Yet once again Dominic will learn that he can't retain true love while he pursuing arcane knowledge.

Youth Without Youth was scripted by Coppola from a novella by Mircea Eliade, a Romanian-born American historian of religion who also wrote fiction that indulged his interest in primeval myths and rituals. Not having read the book, I don't know if the movie's mid-century vibe comes partly from Eliade or entirely from Coppola. Partially, of course, it's the result of a limited budget. Self-financed by the director, the movie was shot mostly in Romania, with English-speaking principals but some of the lesser players dubbed from the local language. Rather than employ contemporary CGI effects, the director uses classic movie shorthand for strangeness, with heavy reliance on mirrors, upside-down camera angles, and Osvaldo Golijov's retro-modernist score.

Most likely, this low-tech uncanniness is just what Coppola wanted. From his pairing of Joseph Conrad and the Vietnam War to his disastrous attempt at a newfangled old-style studio, American Zoetrope, the filmmaker has always planted one foot in Hollywood tradition. Commercially, that's a problem: The film's buttoned-up style could alienate those viewers most congenial to its out-there themes. Beautifully composed, intellectually intriguing, but emotionally diffident, the movie might have been better if it had risked being sillier. But that would have been untrue to Coppola's nature, and the most refreshing thing about Youth Without Youth is that, after years of compromise, the great '70s auteur has finally made another film that's wholly his own.