Since Apocalypse Now, Coppola has gravitated towards frustrated auteurs for his protagonists, and he doubles down on this tendency for his latest three films – a loose trilogy about authors whose genius remains unrecognised by the world around them. The first of these films, Youth Without Youth, is easily the worst film of his career – a bloated, pretentious, obnoxious character study of Dominic Matei, a 70-year old professor of linguistics, played by Tim Roth, who is struck by lightning while crossing the street in Bucharest, in 1938. Matei wakes up in hospital, where Professor Stanciulescu, played by Bruno Ganz, informs that he has transformed into a much younger man. Over time, Matei discovers that he has gained psychic powers, and that he doesn’t seem to be aging, allowing him to finally execute his magnum opus – a grand history of the entire linguistic and literary corpus of the human race.
With The Rainmaker, his previous film, Coppola achieved something he’d only glimpsed intermittently since Apocalypse Now – a well-crafted, mainstream film – but the experience seems to have left him unsettled, since he stayed away from the industry for ten years before returning for Youth Without Youth. Unfortunately, this American Zoetrope feature is his worst bid to return to his heyday yet, since every scene and every moment shrivels under Matei’s one obsessive fear: “Sometimes I am afraid that I won’t be able to finish my life’s work, my one and only book.” Matei, unlike Coppola, is able to relive his youth and start again as an artist, turning Youth Without Youth into a kind of wish-fulfilment, as well as a “philosophical” companion to Jack, reversing its fears about premature aging. To that end, Coppola opts for a magical realist style that he continues into his next feature, the Argentinian Tetro, to depict Matei as “no longer a case of a live dead man, but something else – we still don’t know what.”
It’s perhaps predictable that Matei is a hack – a pretentious, sub-Proustian ponderer who Coppola never bothers to make interesting in the slightest. This is also Coppola’s hackiest film, often recalling the Cinema du Look of the 1980s, but in an impoverished and bathetic way. Neither a compelling character study nor a compelling evocation of memory, Youth Without Youth is closer to Rumble Fish than any other film in Coppola’s back catalogue, since he seems to be trying to make each scene as “arty” as possible without any real regard for how the whole fits together. That said, there’s none of the slick 80s style of Rumble Fish here, and the organic ensemble vibe is completely absent, since there’s no room in Youth With Youth for anyone but Matei, or Coppola himself, since Matei effectively acts as his auteurist surrogate.
On top of all that, Youth Without Youth marks a new “writerly” period in Coppola’s career – an odd move, given that his best films were either improvised or composed in collaboration with other screenwriters. Excess writerliness is a liability for any film about a writer, but Coppola takes it to a new level of pretension here, adopting a sub-modernist lexicon as he piles on one empty “experimental” touch after another. No surprise, then, that this is also the most lurid, banal, sophomoric vision of auteurism imaginable, pretty much consisting of Matei’s need for young attractive women to continually reassure him that he’s still a genius. In one of the more interesting plot twists, the Third Reich tries to capture Matei as a specimen of eternal youth, turning him into a fugitive even as the logic of the film speaks to the fascism of his own artistic enterprise, since there’s something totalitarian, or at least totalizing, about the length he will go to to ensure auteurist control – and to ensure that others know about it.
In that sense, Matei often feels modelled on Ezra Pound, brokering the ubermensch of fascist ideology for artistic power. Long sequences here play like The Cantos adapted for the big screen, from the free-flowing voiceovers filled with arcane citations, to the Chinese ideograms superimposed over the screen at random intervals. The more Coppola tries to invoke high modernism, the more this looks like The Idiot’s Guide to Arthouse Cinema, packed full of every experimental cliché in the book. I can’t think of a film I’ve seen when the ponderous hand of the self-ascribed auteur was more evident, especially during the long scenes when Matei talks to the camera about the nature of time, dreams, and the double – or worse, the even more interminable scenes when Matei talks to his own double about the nature of the double; the logical conclusion of Coppola’s more solipsistic auteurist tendencies.
These direct addresses and length monologues are clearly meant to seem avant-garde – at one point, for example, Matei records an extended account of his life while resting his dictaphone on a first edition of Finnegan’s Wake. But they mainly just feel phony, a power bid from Matei-Coppola, and a desperate effort to present the auteur as superhero – a “strange superman of the future” with “access to knowledge unavailable to mankind.” Most of the second half of Youth Without Youth is dedicated to this arcane knowledge, which centres on Matei’s treatise on the origin of language. As an eternally young modernist scholar, Matei quickly becomes the apex of the modernist auteur, processing any book in front of him at a glance, and speaking with authority on any subject, until his presence, and the film’s atmosphere, becomes unbearably hubristic, especially clocking in at over two hours in length.
The result is a case study in the modernist polyglot douchebag – an old man who knows everything, has travelled everywhere, and is endlessly attractive to younger women. For all the big talk, Matei’s auteurism consists of simply being the smartest and most attractive person in the room – and his efforts to cultivate that auteurism play like a modernist ubermensch trying to hide his skills from a fascist state that he clearly identifies with. In other words, Youth Without Youth is Eat Pray Love for old white dudes, and becomes almost unwatchable in its third act, partly because Coppola doubles down even more on “techniques” – inane upside-down shots, stupid Dutch angles and labored saturations that mirror the supposed genius and “experimentation” of Matei’s own modernist literary style.
Since Matei has mastered every language, this solipsism ends with him composing a language of his own, which he speaks to camera for a good five minutes, before turning to his latest muse, Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara), who he turns into a conduit for the most ancient languages on the planet. As Veronica moves back through Latin and Greek, and starts speaking in Egyptian hieroglyphics and ancient cuneiform scripts, Coppola also seems to be trying to restore his own primal relation to film language, unmediated by the baggage of his career and aspirations. Like Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, Coppola here is trying to move “closer and closer to the inarticulate moment of the beginning,” in order to distil his original, vital relation to film images, thereby fusing prehistoric man with “post-historic man.”
Yet the moment Veronica has served her purpose, and grown older, Matei leaves her once again, choosing a younger woman, which isn’t predictable or difficult, since every young blonde woman seems to desire him. Despite the title, Matei hooks up with young women wherever and whenever he wants, all of whom seem oblivious to his ineptitude, even when they’re made privy to his interminable “conversations” with his double. Amidst all his anxiety about losing sight of his auteurist heyday, Youth Without Youth is the point where it feels like the Emperor really has no clothes as far as (much of) Coppola’s later work is concerned – the idiotic conclusion of the cult of auteurism that has fixated American cinema, and Coppola in particular, ever since the rise of New Hollywood. Auteurism here becomes an inherently inane prospect, not least because this is one of Coppola’s most derivative films, brokering the frisson of the Romanian New Wave which was peaking around this time (although never acknowledging its real innovations) while also ripping off Wings of Desire in the way it positions Ganz. Sometimes it’s fascinating to watch an unwatchable film by a great director, but that’s not the case here, since this is ultimately unbearable because of all the blather, blandness and platitudinous insistence that what we are watching is Coppola’s masterpiece.