Francis Ford Coppola is in the unusual position of having tasted the heights of fame and fortune — and critical success — and then spending decades as an underdog. Around the time of the Robin Williams vehicle, Jack, you had to wonder why Coppola didn't follow the path of Woody Allen and Robert Altman and make modestly budgeted movies for "Indiewood" companies. Now, after a 10-year break from filmmaking, Coppola has finally gone that route — Coppola says that most of Youth Without Youth's budget was raised from his profitable wine business. It's listed as an American-Romanian-French-Italian production.
The movie concerns Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), an elderly linguistics professor who describes himself as a failure. One stormy day in 1938, he plans his own suicide, but is struck by lightning before he can follow through. Badly burned, he survives the hit and wakes up in the hospital a changed man. He has changed in many ways: His bald head is full of new hair, and new teeth push out their rotting predecessors. He's also a much smarter man; he learns Chinese in a few days. He's living in a dangerous period too; both the Romanian secret police and Nazis are after him. But he survives World War II by living under a pseudonym, using his mental agility to beat the casino. After the war, he becomes involved with Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara), who appears to age prematurely after a lightning strike.
Back in his post-Apocalypse Now heyday, Coppola distributed movies such as Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's Our Hitler, A Film From Germany and Jean-Luc Godard's Every Man For Himself in the United States. Youth Without Youth is a reminder that his taste has always had an artful, Europhile side: The Godfather trilogy drew on Luchino Visconti, Apocalypse Now on Werner Herzog. The roots of Coppola's current style were already evident in his Dracula. In Youth he wholeheartedly embraces anti-realism, constantly turning the camera upside down and using bizarre angles. The lighting is equally oddball.
The movie is an interesting, honorable failure. As messes go, it's far more enjoyable to watch than Richard Kelly's Southland Tales and more deserving of a cult following. If Southland Tales reeks of a pulp sci-fi and E! Channel all-nighter seen through a haze of weed and mushrooms, Youth Without Youth suggests college English majors' bull sessions after a first taste of writers such as Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. Coppola's script is based on a novella by Romanian author Mircea Eliade. For all its emphasis on visual style, it sports a literary side, although its dialogue clunks and the primarily Euro cast is badly dubbed into English.
Eliade, who was a Nazi sympathizer during World War II, wrote Youth Without Youth as an old, presumably wiser man. For Coppola, its meaning could hardly be clearer. After 10 years of silence, it's a second debut. To a large extent, Coppola's pleasure in returning to filmmaking is palpable and enjoyable to watch, but the content of his storytelling is more disputable than the excitement behind it. Youth is full of dialogue about philosophy, history and language, but it never comes across as sophisticated as it wants to be. Coppola throws many ideas into his script, but not all of them are good. For long stretches, Youth plays like a so-so spy thriller with blather about reincarnation and linguistic regression thrown in. Its mystical murkiness coexists with a conception of character straight out of a mediocre comic book.
All the same, Youth Without Youth gives birth to a Coppola whose existence has sometimes been suspected: a hardcore art-filmmaker along the lines of Alain Resnais or Raul Ruiz. (No wonder French critics were kinder to him than Americans.) Let's hope he keeps on working and, next time around, manages to reconcile his interest in baroque style with a script worthy of his talent.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.