10 February 2008

Youth Without Youth

I’m starting to think that Francis Ford Coppola wants to be immortal. Two of his last three films, though they span over a decade, deal with the trouble of aging. The peculiar “Jack” starring Robin Williams depicted a boy who ages at several times the normal rate, and so becomes a boy trapped in a middle-aged man’s body. Now, with “Youth Without Youth,” his commentary on aging becomes even stranger, and incredibly convoluted.
The director of “The Godfather” brings us the story of Dominic, played by Tim Roth, a professor who we first see at age 70 in 1938. He is struck by lightning and suffers terrible burns, but when the doctors remove the bandages, he looks no more than 35 or 40 years old. The doctors are baffled, but the appearance of Dominic’s strange doppelganger, seen only to him, seems to hint that Dominic knows more than he is telling.
With the renewed youth come strange powers, none of which are explicitly explained. He can sometimes see the future, read books without opening them, or read minds. His abilities and reverse aging make him the target of a mad Nazi scientist who is doing experiments with electricity to change human evolution.
The aforementioned story takes the first half of the film. Throughout, Dominic keeps trying to finish his “life’s work,” which is a study of the origin of language and human consciousness. This study comes into the foreground in the second half of the film, which seems to be another film entirely.
That hour shows Dominic encountering a woman who randomly starts spouting ancient languages. She keeps regressing back to older and older tongues, and Dominic thinks she will eventually arrive at the first language. He is excited to complete his research, but when she begins to age at a rapid rate, he knows he cannot sacrifice her for his work.
I have given a great deal of plot synopsis, which I normally don’t like to do, but I feel that doing so for this film is a personal achievement in itself. The film’s editing and cinematography make following the narrative difficult, with two Dominics often wandering the same frame, or flashing back to different parts of Dominic’s life, which, since he aged backwards, are difficult to distinguish.
I could easily call the film a mess, and it probably is. Yet Coppola still has that kind of directorial confidence that makes me still wonder if there was something I didn’t see, if there was something he was hiding from me. I almost feel stupid that I didn’t “get it,” but then again maybe it’s not meant to be “got.” Either way, I can’t say it was a very satisfying cinematic experience.
If the story I told confused you, then the ending won’t help. I am always very annoyed by films that end with the doubt that everything that happened before may not have actually occurred. Indeed, we are not even sure when the ending happens in the long, complicated chronology. If Coppola meant to give us a grand statement on human consciousness or existence, then I have to say he has failed. There may be something to this film, but I just don’t think I have the patience to try to revisit it again.

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