Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) imagines he’s writing his great book. Pausing with friends on the snowy steps of an institution of higher learning, he’s asked to describe his project. It’s about “the origins of language,” he says, catching his breath. “Of human consciousness, even the idea of time itself. This would call for years of research.” No kidding. And with that, he’s running off t a date with his beloved, late as usual. His professor smiles as Dominic skitters away: “He’s brilliant, but…”
Full of ambition, hope, and “buts,” linguistics student Dominic is also stymied by insecurity and distractions. Little does he know, during this early flashback scene in Youth Without Youth, that he’s about to be late one too many times for a date with his fiancée, Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara), who uses the occasion to break off their engagement (“I feel that you aren’t mine that you are never here with me, that you live in another time”). Beset by guilt and anxiety, he falls in deep despair and by 1938, when he’s 70 years old, he still hasn’t finished his book. “Sometimes,” he says mournfully, “I admit to myself that it’s possible that I will never be able to finish my life’s work, my one and only book, and that in the end, without her, I will be nothing, and I will die alone.” Setting himself a deadline at last, Dominic makes plans to kill himself. And then he’s hit by lightning.
A faux Romanian folk story based on the writings of Mircea Eliade, Francis Ford Coppola’s first movie in 10 years is like that — weird, contrived, and instructive. As his life is supposed to end, Dominic’s journey is just beginning. The lightning strike leaves Dominic fried, literally, his skin red and sticky. The doctor charged with his care, Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz), can’t even guess at his patient’s age. “In this larval state,” he says, looking on Dominic’s pulpy face, “it’s hard to estimate.” The trick in Youth Without Youth is not only that Dominic recovers, but that he actually grows younger. The first sign is the return of speech. “Try to pronounce any word,” encourages Stanciulescu, leaning in toward the camera that takes Dominic’s point of view. Whereupon the patient sputters, “Envelope!” the doctor is impressed. As Dominic becomes increasingly youthful, Stanciulescu declares, “This is no longer the case of a living dead man, but something else. What exactly, we don’t know.”
The film spends some time detailing Dominic’s return to vim and vigor: his hair changes color, he puts his hands on giggling nurses, and he spends hours in bed with “the woman in room six” (Alexandra Pirici). (These scenes involve some playful sideways and upside-down frames, suggesting Dominic’s efforts to right himself, physically, sensually, temporally.) Even as he’s discussing his sexual adventures with his doctor, the woman from room six (who wears a garter adorned with a swastika) sells Dominic out to the Nazis, who have been conducting their own experiments electrifying horses and mutating bodies. All this suggests Dominic’s willful ignorance and self-destructive tendencies are still in effect.
So you don’t miss this characterization, Dominic 2.0 is equipped with a doppelganger who appears in mirrors and doorways and separate frames late at night in Dominic’s eerily blue-lit bedroom. “The enormous concentration of electricity that exploded directly above me,” Dominic explains to the double, who already knows this story, “regenerated me and amplified fabulously all my mental faculties, but this electrical discharge also made possible the emergence of a new personality, sort of double.” Duh. When they’re not rehearsing origin stories, the two Dominics share philosophical bents, their frustrations with other people and their own tetchy relationship: “Why haven’t you told the professor about me?” whines the double. The double claims to be an intermediary, “between nature and man, man and the divine, reason and eros, feminine and masculine, darkness and light, matter and spirit.”
While this litany of oppositions isn’t exactly news — and neither is the concept that Dominic’s extraordinary state allows him to traverse difference — the film finds its most compelling idea in the relationship between language and time. At its most basic, this relationship is articulated as memory — whether collective or individual, history or nightmare — Dominic recalls his past for Stanciulescu, who’s impressed by his capacity for storing so much information, so many details. He encourages Dominic to record his thoughts (“f you aren’t in the mood to write or you have too much to say,” he says, gesturing toward a dictaphone, “Use this device.”
The words tumble out of Dominic, as his life story becomes his book, or rather, his book is folded into his life. “My memory’s unbelievable,” he marvels. As he comes to see his gifts full-on, Dominic rethinks himself. “I am a mutant, like a character in a science fiction novel. I have access to knowledge unavailable to mankind, powers I don’t fully understand.” And so he decides to record everything. To do that, he first moves to Switzerland, where he hopes to remain “neutral” (here he’s briefly accosted by a creepy U.S. agent, played by Matt Damon [who starred in Coppola’s last film, The Rainmaker] and pretending to be a reporter for Life magazine).
Much as Dominic can now see the danger of knowledge — the false omnipotence of surveillance technology, the imminence of nuclear war — he yet retains a sentimental mushy center for Laura, who reappears as Veronica (another double, and also played by Lara). More an object for his affection than a character under her own power, Veronica speaks Sanskrit, among other languages, thus cuing the film’s focus on language as a measure of time. Called on to study (as well as love) her, Dominic notes her regression through language, going back through time, past unrecorded history, until she’s turned into a babbling, cringing addition to his blue-lit nighttimes.
The conventional mix of romance and exploitation that defines this relationship distracts from the movie’s potential insights into the much more profound relationship between language and time. Beset by words in the form of headlines (“Hitler dead,” “Reds Invading Korea,” “Macarthur Wants to Drop A-Bomb on China”), he turns inward, recording his history-to-be not in English, but “an artificial language of my own invention.” With this, he asserts, he can “describe paradoxical situations, impossible to express in any existing language.” This might be one way to describe Youth Without Youth, a movie conceived as a kind of insular language — convoluted, exasperating, and not so new as it might sound.