Saturday, July 11, 2009

Youth Without Youth

"Youth Without Youth" (Francis Ford Coppola, 2007) There are two Francis Ford Coppola's: the good director, who made the first two "Godfather" movies, "The Conversation," "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," and "The Outsiders," and the bad one, who made "Dracula," "Peggy Sue Got Married," "Apocalypse Now," and "Rumble Fish." The good Coppola maintains a strict storyline, and finds interesting ways to chronicle it with a rich sub-text. The bad one sees the weakness in his story and rather than improve it, obfuscates and hides it behind film-making technique and effects. Both directors are on display in "Youth After Youth."

It's an interesting story that takes a while to get going, like a good novel. Dominic Matei (
Tim Roth) is an elderly scholar of language, not yet gifted, frustrated that time is growing short and his life's work has come to naught. Crossing the street, he is struck by lightning, but survives, burned to a crisp. Under the care of Dr. Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz), Matei begins to recover, growing new teeth, the burned skin sloughing off to expose a new epidermishe is young again, rejuvenated, and may even be growing younger than his appearance. Plus, he is gifted with strange electromagnetic powers, able to scan books with a touch, and able to form an odd prescience.

And he seems to have grown another soul.

Well, there's another Dominic in his mind, a wiser more assured entity, a guide, a guardian, who's not omniscient, but provides perspective. And Matei, has become something of a medical sensation for his new butterfly existence—he's come under the watchful of the growing Nazi party, trying to improve the race with horrific experiments in electricity.

"Youth After Youth" is complicated just at that point, part horror movie, part sci-fi,
part spy movie, part war film. It defies classification, which is good. But to get through that muddle, Coppola tries some desperate acts to communicate it all, and doesn't quite pull it off, with inverted dream-sequences, picture-fades within fades, reversed film exposures. It's nice to see he's having fun (and some of that could be exhilarating as his tricks in "Dracula" were), but they're not "saying" anything. They're empty grace-notes without purpose other than to evoke, rather than communicate. It's a rich banquet of cinematic tricks, but the caloric content is nill.

Where the movie takes off is in its third act, where Matei's "gifts" become relevant, and he is singularly in a position to solve a mystery of another lightning accident,
one that holds personal consequences and sacrifice. It is at that point Coppola settles down and provides a clean, uncluttered narrative, just as rich in detail, but focused on expression rather than film-tricks.

Where Coppola excels, usually, is casting, and now, with his own money and a more frugal sensibility, he can cast as he sees fit, rather than for marketability, and
Tim Roth is given a suitable starring role, where he can stretch those acting muscles. It's a multi-layered performance of quiet maturity that navigates well through the Coppola gears and is far more valuable than the digital manipulation Coppola employs.

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