By A. O. SCOTT
The New York Times
September 9, 2007
"Youth Without Youth," Francis Ford Coppola’s first film in 10 years, is about Dominic Matei, an elderly Romanian professor of linguistics who, after being struck by lightning, becomes young again. Though Matei, played by Tim Roth, retains a septuagenarian’s memories and experiences, his body, restored to 30-year-old fighting trim, is mysteriously immune to the effects of time.
The professor’s condition is presented as a medical curiosity and a metaphysical conundrum — like the novella by Mircea Eliade on which it is based, Mr. Coppola’s movie is a complex, symbol-laden meditation on the nature of chronology, language and human identity — but it also speaks to a familiar and widespread longing. What if, without losing the hard-won wisdom of age, you could go back and start again? What if you could reverse and arrest the process of growing old, securing the double blessing of a full past and a limitless future?
Seeing “Youth Without Youth” for the first time this summer, I tried to resist the impulse to imagine parallels between the filmmaker and his hero. Was Mr. Coppola trying to recapture something of his own youth in telling this story? Was Matei’s state — a predicament as well as a blessing — also, in some way, the director’s own? Did this project, a return to filmmaking after a long hiatus, represent an attempt to turn back the clock and start again?
Having been trained to be skeptical of easy biographical interpretations, I dismissed such questions as too obvious to take seriously. My high-minded, theoretically correct determination to avoid them did not last long, however. When I spoke to Mr. Coppola on the phone a few weeks later, he was quick to suggest the connection himself. “I’m really a lot like the man in the movie,” he said.
Not literally of course. The plot of “Youth Without Youth” is an otherworldly blend of moods and genres. At first Matei’s story, which begins in Bucharest in 1938, seems like a World War II-era spy thriller, complete with Nazi agents in trench coats and a femme fatale with swastikas on her garters. But the political intrigue dissipates once Matei falls in love with a young woman who seems able to travel backward in time, and the movie settles into a curious blend of romance, mystery and philosophical speculation.
In its calm, formal assurance, in the way it effortlessly tackles difficult shot sequences and narrative tangles, in its almost classical elegance and its reflective tone, “Youth Without Youth” is evidently the work of a master, a mature artist who has probably forgotten more about making movies than the entire current student body at U.C.L.A. film school will ever know. (Mr. Coppola, who is 68, received his master of fine arts degree in directing there in 1967.)
But in other ways the movie feels like the work of a much younger man. It bristles with restless, perhaps overreaching intellectual ambition, and without being overtly autobiographical, it feels intensely and earnestly personal.
All of which seems, to borrow a word that Mr. Coppola uses frequently, quite deliberate. As he sees it, “Youth Without Youth” (set to open Dec. 14) is not so much a return to form as a new beginning. “I wanted to make a movie the way a film student would,” he said.
He was introduced to Eliade’s story by the religious scholar Wendy Doniger, a childhood friend of his and the Mircea Eliade professor at the University of Chicago. With a modest bankroll provided by his successful California winery, Mr. Coppola shot “Youth Without Youth” in Romania, recruiting most of his cast and crew from that country’s flourishing pool of cinematic talent. He also limited himself to equipment that could be transported in a single specially outfitted truck, a technique he had developed when working on his thesis film, “You’re a Big Boy Now,” four decades ago.
Shooting “Youth Without Youth” was “guerrilla filmmaking, real independent filmmaking,” he said with audible enthusiasm. And throughout our conversation he took evident delight in presenting himself — one of the old lions of the New Hollywood; an Oscar and Palme d’Or winner; a man whose professional life has been a 40-year epic of triumph and catastrophe; Francis Ford Coppola, for goodness sake! — as a young upstart with a gleam in his eye and a camera on his shoulder.
“My dream is to have the career I wanted when I was 18,” he said. “When I started, I never thought I was going to be a successful Hollywood director. When I was young, I got to have the big career, and I’m hoping that now I can have the little one.”
The big career offers, among other things, an incomparable case study in some of the paradoxes that define modern American movies. Taking early note of Mr. Coppola in “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968,” Andrew Sarris remarked, rather guardedly, that he was “probably the first reasonably talented and sensibly adaptable directorial talent to emerge from a university curriculum in filmmaking.”
But even as he had pursued his academic studies, Mr. Coppola was also directing “Dementia 13” for Roger Corman, the cheapskate exploitation impresario whose production company served as a kind of unaccredited training school for budding auteurs.
As his talent flowered in the 1970s, Mr. Coppola came to embody some of the tensions inherent in the idea of the director as auteur. As Mr. Sarris had articulated it, the auteur theory was partly a means of identifying movies produced under the aegis of the old studio system as legitimate and coherent works of art. It was understood that they were also, nearly always, works done for hire. And of course the work that is likely to remain Mr. Coppola’s masterpiece, notwithstanding any changes in critical fashion, was a project he took on for money, and for Paramount, while he was trying to finish “The Conversation.”
The first two “Godfather” movies, along with “The Conversation,” will forever quiet any skepticism about whether or not Mr. Coppola is a great filmmaker. Subsequent turns in the big career, however, are often taken as cautionary tales about what happens when artistic ambitions grow too large. The long, difficult making of “Apocalypse Now” is conventionally grouped with other late-’70s New Hollywood flameouts, even though the film itself was both a critical and a commercial success.
But Mr. Coppola’s reputation was nonetheless dented, in the ’80s and ’90s, by other grandiose, ill-fated projects, notably his dreamy Las Vegas fantasia “One From the Heart” (1982) and “The Cotton Club” (1984), a period gangster epic that was sometimes more exciting to read about in magazine exposés than to watch on screen. And of course there was “The Godfather: Part III.”
But all of these films, for all their flaws, demonstrate the talent and adaptability that Mr. Sarris had noticed at the start. If none quite hangs together, each one includes some extraordinary filmmaking.
In retrospect it seems that Mr. Coppola’s sheer technical virtuosity — in particular his ability to bring large, crowded scenes into intimate dramatic focus — has been taken for granted. And his missteps have been dissected with an eagerness that distracts from a record of pretty solid accomplishment. Between “One From the Heart” and “The Cotton Club,” Mr. Coppola released “The Outsiders” and “Rumble Fish,” exquisite, modest adaptations of S. E. Hinton novels that have lost little of their power over the years. These movies also, not incidentally, demonstrate Mr. Coppola’s ability to bring out the best in actors. Have Patrick Swayze and Mickey Rourke ever been better?
Mr. Coppola’s record through the ’80s — at the moment everybody’s least favorite decade in the history of American cinema — is disappointing only when held up against his work in the ’70s. Nobody will argue that “Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986), “Gardens of Stone” (1987) and “Tucker: The Man and his Dream” (1988) are masterpieces, but they hold up pretty well. Kathleen Turner, James Caan and Jeff Bridges are all in good form, and if the movies were underappreciated in their time, it was in no small part because the man who directed them had, not so long before, made “The Conversation” and the first two “Godfather” pictures in a three-year span.
In other words, it may have been the burden of the big career that made it hard for Mr. Coppola to carve out a medium-size career as a maker of moderately ambitious, high-quality commercial movies. So after “The Rainmaker” in 1997 — another decent, well-acted, sharply directed movie with no evident aspirations to be anything more — he seemed to enter a phase of semi-retirement, devoting himself to winemaking and proud papahood. The first time I met him, in Cannes in 2001, when he was showing the expanded version of “Apocalypse Now,” he seemed at times more interested in talking about his filmmaker children, Roman and Sofia, than about his own work.
And now, as he talks about the reawakening of his teenage aspirations, he sounds like the youngest Coppola of them all. For his next film he will take his bare-bones outfit to Argentina. Without elaborating, he describes the project as autobiographical. Which is just what a talented, ambitious indie filmmaker might say.
In 1968 Mr. Sarris concluded his short entry on Francis Ford Coppola (in the section of “The American Cinema” called “Oddities, One-Shots and Newcomers”) with a prediction that was prophetic at the time and may still be: “Coppola may be heard from more decisively in the future.”