Francis Ford Coppola has fallen on some tough times. Some tough decades, actually.
Once upon a time, he held the pole position in a pantheon of new American greats; directors who were known for the scope of their preternatural, earthy talents as much as for their tyro/wild child rebel ways in the terribly fruitful ‘70s, when the form was changing and audiences were infinitely more respectful of the concept of “the director” than they are now.
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other expressionists of this era like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese, Coppola, unlike his contemporaries, went in a decidedly more experimental, less crowd-pleasing direction, preferring to follow artistic impulses, passions, and instinct after giving his public essential cinematic lessons in classicism such as the The Godfather trilogy (the second of which he was awarded a Best Director Oscar for in 1974), the paranoid The Conversation, and the inflammatory, essential Vietnam film Apocalypse Now (which arguably should have won him Best Director Oscar number two).
In the ‘80s, Coppola made some (bizarrely) interesting, audacious choices: The Cotton Club, One from the Heart, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, and Peggy Sue Got Married all tried to find a happy middle ground or balance between art and commerce, to varying degrees of success and failure (and it should be noted that even when Coppola failed, he was still doing it in a triumphant fashion). Despite Peggy Sue’s Oscar-nominated turn for its star Kathleen Turner (the only one she has received as of yet) and Heart’s tremendous production design, the director’s films in this period are seen by critics as either fluff or overly indulgent, rather than exploratory.
One of the consistent themes of Coppola’s work has been masculinity in relation to aging. One of his only true successes in the following decade was the ultimate tale of the ravages of growing old: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A glossy, gorgeously hollow adaptation that by all rights and purposes should have catapulted him back into the ranks of his peers (who by the early ‘90s were virtually canonized by audiences and critics alike). Dracula, while showcasing Coppola’s meticulous eye for casting and his knack for visual bombast, instead would be the last filmic endeavor to properly showcase his auteur side.
His following ‘90s output consisted of dreck like the Robin Williams star vehicle Jack (which again, plays on the themes of age) and a dreadfully flat, then-in-vogue adaptation of John Grisham’s The Rainmaker. After 1997, he simply went away, preferring to remain behind the scenes as a producer on other people’s visions, including his daughter Sofia’s Lost in Translation and Marie Antionette.
Now, he has returned with the hauntingly extravagant adaptation of Romanian author-philosopher-historian Mircea Eliade’s novella Youth Without Youth—yet another enigmatic reflection on youth, aging and regret, that he produced, wrote and directed himself.
This time, the conceit happens in reverse (not unlike David Fincher’s upcoming The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). With Coppola’s Dorian Gray figure, Dominic, played by Tim Roth, we get to watch an actor who has never really found his own niche stretch his legs for once (despite decades of interesting, entertaining work with prominent directors as varied as Wim Wenders, Robert Altman and Quentin Tarantino). His character here starts out as an elderly man wandering the streets on Christmas Eve in the Bucharest snow. This strikingly captured image is quickly followed by a gorgeous title sequence filled with full-blooming, alive red roses.
In these first few minutes, it is apparent that there won’t be anything conventional happening, at least stylistically. We are immediately transported to Romania, and the director’s vision is sumptuously decadent – the lighting, the set construction, and the photography are all positively stunning. The director’s aestheticism is assured, artistic and as full-blooming and metaphorically fragrant as the blood red roses he uses to symbolize the blooming and wilting of life itself. The six-minute opening set-up is capped by Roth’s old man getting struck by lightning in yet another stunningly-captured moment.
From there, Coppola’s treatment really takes off. The random electric charge sends the old man to the local hospital, charred and at the brink of death. It seems that this trauma has stirred a world of dormant memories for him. Unfolding in elegant flashbacks with impeccable visual choices by Coppola (more vibrant and alive here than he has been in decades), Youth Without Youth most intriguingly finds the former pupil of the ‘70s becoming the master (he even references “teacher” and director Dorothy Arzner in his commentary!), and his filmic point of view seems far removed from what we have come to expect from him; refreshingly so.
A doctor (Bruno Ganz, who played Hitler in the recent Downfall) explains to the man that the lightning should have killed him, that he has broken a natural law, and is lucky to be alive. “This is no longer a case of a living dead man but of something else,” he warns. “What exactly, we still don’t know.” And so Roth’s romantic, tragic saga full of weird science, magic, and Jungian philosophy (complete with doppelgangers, duality, and shadow-selves), begins to abstrusely unfold in flashback and we see him as an academic linguist (Eliade was fluent in the five languages used in the film, and could read three others), a lover, and a charmed spy on the run from Nazis.
Coppola uses visual flourishes with a distinct, vigorous punchiness, making even some of the most innocuous scenes rapturously stylish. The scene where he ends his relationship with co-star Alexandra Maria Lara (from last year’s Joy Division biopic Control) is set amidst a delicate snowfall while the impeccable Osvaldo Golijov score swells. It is a brief moment in the scope of the film, but one that is handled effectively as this could have been a throwaway moment filled with clichés. Coppola elevates it to a tender, meaning-filled level of humanness.
As the truth begins to emerge, and Roth tells his life’s tale through narration, the actor is given a chance to cut a dashing historical figure in this epic tale – and he is every bit the suave ladies’ man. It is a tremendously appealing, attractive performance from an actor who has been typically hard to cast in traditional leading man roles and makes a perfect catalyst for the story’s impossible, fairy-tale-like yarn to unravel upon. His dream sequences hold the keys to the film’s mysteries and his fragmented thoughts cascade in innovative ways: Coppola inverts the actual frame of the film in certain scenes to convey a sense of bewilderment and surrealism, moving his camera upside down and sideways in yet another daringly fresh, unexpected style choice. “You learn more quickly, more profoundly in dreams,” says one character, and Coppola indulges us by making the audience a part of the hallucinations.
Had this paean to Decadentismo been released in Coppola’s prime directorial heyday, it would have been considered a masterpiece; but with all of the additional baggage, the film was unfairly overlooked last year when it was released in theaters. In his commentary track, Coppola talks about reincarnation and rebirth extensively, and this film is just that for him.
Why is it we treat our American masters with such disdain, as such disposable commodities? Why do we not revere such playful stylistic adventures? As Coppola points out in Youth without Youth such notions seem “simply impossible”, but it would be ridiculous to count him out after this operatically strong endeavor. A concerted effort should be made to support our great, living American directors, and Coppola is chief among that dying breed that came of age during the bountiful ‘70s that contemporary audiences have ruthlessly cast aside in favor of flashy, tech-savvy upstarts, despite such magnificent, experimental efforts as this film, and countless others.