Film - Neil Vogler's Underappreciated: Youth Without Youth

Underappreciated

In a new occasional feature for Garbage File, SF and contemporary fiction author Neil Vogler highlights and champions creative works that he feels have been unjustly overlooked or underrated in our collective cultural memories...

In certain circles the more recent work of Francis Ford Coppola is waved away dismissively. Oh sure, the critics say, he gave us Apocalypse Now and The Godfather / Godfather II back in the day. But really: what has he done lately?

To those same detractors I say: Oh, nothing much. Only written, directed and financed his own experimental movies on his terms, followed his personal muse wherever it has taken him, and given us (amongst other, extremely interesting pieces of cinema) a criminally underrated modern masterpiece in Youth Without Youth.

I have an abiding love of this deeply underappreciated movie. Starring Tim Roth and released in 2007 to decidedly mixed reviews, it was the first movie FFC had made in a decade, and you can see why it took so long to gestate. The film is lavish, sensuous, fantastical, and crazy in equal measure, and it contains what I think are some of the best visuals Coppola has ever committed to celluloid. It’s also unashamedly concerned with Big Ideas and Making You Think. At every juncture it feels personal, exploratory, and heartfelt.

To those of us used to immersing ourselves in science fiction and fantasy narratives, the central premise of the movie is extremely easy to buy into: in the spring of 1938, outside the Gare du Nord in Bucharest, Romania, a 70-yr-old man who has fruitlessly devoted his life to the study of the origins of human language (Roth) is on his way to commit suicide when he is suddenly struck by lightning. Astonishingly, instead of dying, as the weeks go by in hospital he slowly regenerates into a younger version of himself, aged around 35. And that's not all; not only does he no longer age, but he seems to have inherited some unique extra-human abilities too, most of which are to do with the instant absorption and effortless understanding of huge amounts of information, and some of which allow him to unnaturally influence and manipulate objects and situations.

Hospital

The movie was written by Coppola, based on the religious historian and philosopher Mircea Eliade's book of the same name, and Coppola deserves a lot of credit for the breadth and scope of his screenplay and interpretation. Eliade's work was a slim novella, really, one of his numerous forays into fiction, and it reads as an interesting and diverting collection of ideas put together within a fictional framework rather than as any kind of satisfying narrative. In the novel Eliade throws a lot at the wall and (to the best of my recollection) doesn't really develop many of his brilliant concepts to any great extent. The result feels intriguing, but somehow unedifying. I remember thinking that reading the book felt like having a certified genius explain a long, labyrinthine dream to you - it's undeniably fascinating on a conceptual level, but try as you might you just can't get emotionally invested in the story.

Coppola's film, on the other hand, is completely different, and presents us with an embarrassment of riches. Using Eliade's novella as a jumping-off point, he takes some of the core conceits and builds a rich and wonderful world around them; he also takes some of the central ideas and runs absolutely wild, pushing some of them deep into territory only ever hinted at in the book, and fleshing out the story in ways that few people would ever have expected (and that I don’t intend to spoil). Coppola’s finished article is romantic, tragic, beautiful and bizarre, and it's a movie that can talk about soul memory and reincarnation, can give us characters speaking at least two entirely made up proto-languages, can show us a love that destroys people even as it explores and endures across lifetimes, and yet still find time to give us suspenseful and pulpy scenes with an electricity-obsessed Nazi doctor working directly for the fuhrer.

Anchoring all of this is Tim Roth’s stellar performance as both the old and newly young Dominic Matei. He convincingly presents us with a portrait of an old man who knows the scale of his ambition outmatches his lifespan, and worries that he has wasted his life. And then, when he becomes young again, he adeptly plays two versions of this same character – one that experiences things as they are happening, and is surprised and moved by his new abilities; and a doppelganger that only the first version can see, who appears to exist outside of conventional space and time and who offers a coldly rational appraisal of events as they unfold, occasionally affecting the physical world to demonstrate his power.

Tim Roth

Roth’s partner in making you buy all of the radical concepts on display in this movie is Romanian actress Alexandra Maria Lara, and she is absolutely spellbinding as at least five characters that all, at one time or another, occupy her body and consciousness. The love displayed between her character and Roth’s feels like something I’ve never seen in a film before; it slides from seeming mutually nourishing into feeling uncomfortable and exploitative, whilst at the same time managing to be somehow enduring and redemptive. There is a sense that these two are working on something bigger than both of them, but that whatever force has them in its grip is going to destroy them both in the process. They’re tools of something else and also each other; their bodies are vessels, and vessels get broken, used up, and ravaged by time.

Set in Romania, India, and Malta, the movie is beautiful to look at, and won a Best Cinematography nod at the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards. That, however, was the extent of its recognition. Since then it seems to have been forgotten about, derided, and overlooked, and that perplexes me greatly. Something this good, this ambitious, and this vital should be seen, talked about, and celebrated. That Coppola is producing work of this magnitude this late in his career is immensely pleasing, and this movie makes you realise that, unlike so many others, he really has things to say. And I highly doubt he’s done yet.

Admittedly, the film is not going to work for everybody. The Big Ideas on display and constant intellectualising are going to be hard to swallow for some viewers, and the extended scenes of characters talking in entirely fabricated languages are going to wear on some people. One or two of the scenes feel overly artificial in places, and some of the heavy metaphysical concepts that are casually bandied about will alienate a certain section of the audience. But for those that like their movies intelligent, challenging and unconventional, this movie is going to captivate you. And did I tell you there’s even an uncredited cameo appearance by a little known actor called Matt Damon?

The last thing I need to mention is the outrageously good score by Argentinean Osvaldo Golijov, which is by turns gentle, soaring, discordant, jarring, and sumptuous, and never less than enthralling. It's a superb and immersive listen in its own right, and gives the film a unique sense of shifting textures. I bought it the day after I saw the movie for the first time.

If you’ve got blockbuster fatigue and feel burned out by the glut of largely brainless, conceptually safe, four-quadrant pandering movies on offer in your local multiplex, you should do yourself a favour and seek out Youth Without Youth, because this may just be the film that makes you fall back in love with the power of the cinema all over again. Give it a chance, and thank me later.



Images - IMDb