A lot rides on Youth Without Youth, Francis Ford Coppola's twentieth feature film and his first after a ten-year absence from the director's chair. His last film was The Rainmaker (1997), an above average John Grisham thriller iced with good performances, although it was an unremarkable film for a man who once earned comparisons with a wunderkind like Orson Welles. I wish I could report that Youth Without Youth is a "comeback" of immense proportions and that Coppola had restored himself as a kind of genius auteur, but the film is far more difficult than that. In some ways, it's as unremarkable as The Rainmaker, but in other ways, it's far too astonishing and complex to be easily dismissed.

Coppola has always caused trouble for auteur critics. Obviously he made two of the greatest films of all time with The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), and though I'm alone in this, I love The Godfather Part III (1990) equally. Also, we could easily add The Conversation (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979) to the list of all-time greats. After that, it appears he took a fall, but continued to make interesting films. With a little coaxing, his canon can be divided up into a few neat categories. The masterworks have a kind of reckless intelligence, an uncanny mix of chaos and control. It could be argued that Rumble Fish (1983) and The Cotton Club (1984) belong in this category as well.


At other times, especially after the ordeal of Apocalypse Now, the "control" aspect took over, and certain of his films come across as chilly and distant: One from the Heart (1982), Gardens of Stone (1987), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and Youth Without Youth. Other than that, there has been a series of "jobs for hire," some of which bear the Coppola stamp and others that do not: Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), Jack (1996) and The Rainmaker. Finally, I think it's not too controversial to suggest that if Coppola had died before making The Godfather, his body of work would have resulted in nothing more than a footnote.

The good news is that Youth Without Youth does fit into the Coppola canon, and its first hour at least contains some truly dazzling stuff. Tim Roth stars as Dominic Matei, a scholar circa 1938 who has devoted his life to learning the origins of language. Traveling to Romania, the aged scholar decides to kill himself, but is instead struck by lightning. After some time in a clinic, it's evident that his body has been restored to that of a 40 year-old man; this includes a new set of teeth! Professor Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz) wishes to study Dominic's condition, but also realizes the danger of letting the Nazis get their mitts on him.

Meanwhile, Dominic assumes a new identity and continues his studies. He often speaks to a doppelganger, a mirror image of himself that dispenses advice, and he remembers his great, lost love, Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara, also in this year's Control). But he also discovers that he has supernatural powers, such as the facility to read, write and understand multiple languages, and to absorb an entire book in just seconds, as well as other, more mysterious abilities. Years later, Dominic runs into Veronica (Lara again), the exact double of Laura. But before he can make his move, she gets into a car accident and begins channeling a 17th century Indian woman. Dominic and Veronica fall in love and run off to Malta, where they frolic, but Veronica continues to regress into the past, speaking all manner of ancient languages. If she keeps regressing, Dominic can finish his work. But at what cost?

The ending is a bit more existential and is open to interpretation. It's clear that Coppola is playing with certain themes, most obviously doubling and mirror images. Dominic is often seen as two, and his true love appears in two forms. Even the title has the double word "youth." It could be said that a person has two "selves," a younger self and an older self, and that Coppola is reconciling the distance between the two. It must be tough to have such an early success and then suffer the feeling that you've never matched it (Welles must have suffered the same thing). There have been reports of a kind of renewed energy on the set, and even Tim Roth has said that working on the film has recharged his own filmmaking batteries.

But none of this explains the film's overwhelming coldness and its troubling narrative leaps and bounds; we believe, perhaps, that a man can revert to a youthful body, and that eventually he'll meet the double of his true love, but it's perhaps too big of a stretch to bring in the language thing. The film does grow less and less logically structured as it goes on, so maybe the coincidence is nothing. Here's what I do know: like Welles, Coppola's less-appreciated films tend to improve over time and multiple viewings. I saw a print of the restored One from the Heart in early 2004 and found it quite astounding, an amazing piece of work. But at the same time, I'm not sure I want to see Youth Without Youth again. Recalling it now, I think of a film lacking in energy, pulse and life-blood. But I have too much respect for Coppola to let that stop me. Perhaps a few more years will do the trick, when I'm older and wiser.