After the release of 1997’s THE RAINMAKER, director Francis Ford Coppola’s next move was the most surprising of an already-unconventional career: he took a ten-year hiatus. Like his counterpart Terrence Malick, Coppola all but disappeared from the film scene for a ridiculously extended period of time, and many assumed he was simply retired. It had been a brutal two decades for Coppola, who saw the infallible image given to him by his quartet of masterpieces in the 1970’s battered to near-death by a string of flops and audience-alienating indulgences in the 80’s and 90’s. The man certainly deserved a break, but when he came back, he came back with his priorities realigned and his creativity refreshed.
I have written before about how Coppola used the considerable wealth he had garnered from his directorial triumphs to diversify into other endeavors, most notably his lifestyle brand, Francis Ford Coppola Presents. During his decade-long sabbatical, the aging Coppola tended to his business endeavors– the most profitable of which was his winery. Frustrated by the studio meddling that comes with studio financing, Coppola was probably unsure how to proceed forward with his bold, experimental style in an industry that had become too “safe” for radical artists like him.
Perhaps it was his intention all along, but the answer to his artistic woes were right under his nose– swishing around in his glass as the aroma of fermented grapes invaded his nostrils. He could get around the tampering of clueless studio executives by robbing them of their leverage; that is to say, he could regain creative control by financing his films with the considerable profits from his wine business.
An unexpected result of this decision was a radical shift of direction in Coppola’s career. Coppola was taking a firm step away from the studio method of filmmaking that he had practically re-energized single-handedly with THE GODFATHER (1972), and was striking out on his own as a maverick filmmaker, answerable to no one. Budgets would be a mere fraction of what he was used to, but this also meant he was much lighter on his feet and possessed more leverage to assert total creative control. By unavailing himself from the tools of complacency brought about by bountiful resources, Coppola was able to approach filmmaking with the energy and experimentalism of a hungry film student.
Coppola’s first project under this new philosophy, 2007’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH, marked his return to cinema after ten years in the woods. An adaption of the novel by Romanian author Mircea Eliade, the nonlinear, surreal nature of the story provided plenty of room for experimentation. The film concerns an old man living in pre-WW2 Romania named Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) who is suddenly zapped by a bolt of lightning in the town square. Instead of being fried to death, Dominic finds himself alive and well, much to his doctors’ bewilderment. Astonishingly, he appears nearly thirty years younger when the bandages come off, blessed with the virility and energy that comes with youth. Given a second lease on life, he toils through the middle decades of the twentieth century, trying to answer the mystery of his condition. He soon comes into contact with a beautiful woman named Veronica (Alexandra Lara), who he takes as a research subject and lover when she is similarly transformed by a freak occurrence of nature. Instead of aging, she becomes possessed by primitive forces during her sleep, each night babbling in a different language that reaches back further and further into mankind’s past and the origins of speech. However, his extended presence has negative consequences for her—namely, she ages exponentially while Dominic remains the same age. Dominic finds himself torn between letting her suffer further for the potential discovery of our linguistic origins, or sacrifice love and happiness so that she may be young and healthy.
It’s all very heady stuff, and the cast demonstrates a firm grasp on the intricate subject matter. Tim Roth gives one of his best performances as Dominic, both as a reflective, somber elderly man under pounds of prosthetic makeup, and as the sprightly, intellectual younger version of the character. The time rift experienced by Dominic also fractures his identity, manifested in a malevolent double that appears only in mirrors but has an agenda all its own. Roth effortlessly transitions between both sides of his identity, making for an engrossing and disturbing performance.
Interestingly, Roth is the only recognizable actor in Coppola’s cast. The lovely Alexandra Lara holds her own against veteran Hollywood talent as Roth’s lover, Veronica. Her descent in the dark interior jungle of man’s origins is frightening and captivating, and she naturally spouts off dozens of primitive languages without stumbling once. It is a truly impressive performance.
While the remainder of the cast does a fine job, the most noteworthy supporting performance belongs to a cameo—Matt Damon, in his second Coppola appearance following his starring turn in THE RAINMAKER. Damon appears only in one scene (he seems to do this a lot for respected directors like Gus Vant Sant or Steven Soderbergh), but his shady American intelligence agent does a great job of illuminating the broader context of the times, and the secrecy-shrouded backroom dealings of The Cold War.
YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is notable in Coppola’s filmography for being his first feature shot on the high definition digital format, instead of the traditional celluloid film. Digital filmmaking was still in its nascent stages in 2007, but Coppola saw its potential for creating striking-looking cinema on a smaller budget. His work with a new format is reflected in his hiring of a new cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare Jr., who shot the film using Sony’s F950 camera (which no doubt had been recommended to Coppola by his colleague George Lucas after using it on 2005’s STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH). The HD image is striking, creating one of the best-looking early examples of the format’s capabilities. Using the traditional anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio as a canvas, Coppola and Malaimare make a seamless transition into the digital realm with a handsome, filmic image. The cinematography evokes a cross between Coppola’s aesthetic for THE GODFATHER and BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992)— that is, dark shadows and an earth-toned, amber wash is interspersed with bright colors and expressionistic compositions. Camerawork is mostly of the reserved, traditional variety—except when the camera itself is turned on its side or upended entirely. High-key, expressionistic lighting reflects Coppola’s baroque, dreamlike tone, while also becoming a subtle visual signifier when the whimsical morphs into the nightmarish. All in all, YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is a stunning looking film that shows off the lush beauty that a then-fledgling format was capable of.
The film’s music is provided by Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov, who gives the musical palette an Old World, romantic flavor. Golijov is not specifically a film composer by trade, but his relative inexperience makes for a fresh, dynamic sound. The film’s overarching theme of time is reflected through the use of arrhythmic percussion and chimes similar to the grinding of intricate machinery. Golijov strikes a good balance between traditional, romantic orchestration and ambient, enigmatic tones that propel the film’s sense of mystery and wonder. Also reflecting the midcentury European setting is the inclusion of a handful of popular songs from the era (think Edith Piaf, even though I don’t believe any of her songs specifically make an appearance).
While a number of Coppola’s key creative personnel are new (Malaimare Jr and Production Designer Calin Papura), YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH benefits from the participation of veteran colleagues like longtime producer Fred Roos, editor Walter Murch, and son Roman on second unit directing duties. And for the first time in a long while, this actually feels like a Coppola film—his signature crossfades, double exposures, and other layering techniques create a rich tapestry that eschews the harsh lines of the traditional editing language. Indeed, language itself is one of YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH’s most prominent themes, so it only stands to reason that Coppola would use the story as a springboard for the further exploration of unconventional storytelling techniques that have distinguished his career.
YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH channels a charming Euro Art Deco aesthetic, right down to the opening titles that resemble those old, colorful olive oil posters you see in Italian restaurants. For a film that’s so distinctly unfamiliar in its telling, an Old World mise-en-scene is a comforting inclusion that also gives the film a great deal of class. However, it was not enough to win over a wide audience upon release. It failed to make back its meager production budget, and critics experienced mixed reactions running the gamut between lavish praise and hateful scorn.
I had seen the film once before sometime after graduating college, and I wasn’t exactly taken with it. Ironically, it took a second viewing years later for me to realize how subconsciously profound an influence it was on me in determining the aesthetic of my own 2009 feature, SO LONG, LONESOME. The nonlinear presentation of chronology, the juxtaposition of bright and saturated colors with drab, toned-down images, and unconventional framing techniques all rubbed off on me as ways to convey a heightened reality in tune with the metaphysical. The film’s enchanted, lived-in aesthetic also could have feasibly served as a reference for a thematically similar work, David Fincher’s THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008).
YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is a challenging film, no doubt. It requires your undivided attention and multiple viewings in order to truly appreciate its mysteries. While watching the film for the purposes of The Directors Series, I realized that I had not given the film enough of my attention the first time around, hence my original lukewarm reception to it. This time, I found myself more engrossed by the intricate storyline, and connected more with its potent musings on age and the ravages of time. I certainly wouldn’t recommend this film to just anyone, but those with the necessary patience will find YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH a richly rewarding experience.
For his grand return to filmmaking after a prolonged absence, Coppola’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH marks the beginning of a bold, experimental phase for the seasoned director. His productivity will no doubt decline, whether it’s due to a leisurely development schedule or his own advancing age, but I find it heartening to see a director of Coppola’s stature getting back in touch with his roots as an indie maverick. His best years might surely be behind him, and his new work may turn off a great deal of his fans, but Coppola has consistently and unabashedly followed his heart where his art is concerned and the results are never boring. YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is not unlike renewing one’s marriage vows, in that Coppola is dedicating himself anew to his life’s passion with vigor.
In doing so, Coppola has rediscovered his own youth, and has successfully channeled it into an ambitious, challenging film unlike anything he’s done before. He may have been away for a while, but don’t count him out yet.
YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Sony Pictures.
Produced by: Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Roos
Written by: Francis Ford Coppola
Director of Photography: Mihai Malaimare Jr
Production Designer: Calin Papura
Edited by: Walter Murch
Original Music by: Osvaldo Golijov