As long-awaited comebacks go, the return of Francis Ford Coppola isn't, perhaps, right up there with Led Zeppelin's. But supposing the band's reunion concert had consisted entirely of a two-hour "Stairway to Heaven" scored for Dixieland jazz band and glockenspiel it still wouldn't have been half as disappointing as Youth Without Youth. This is Coppola's first film since his 1997 John Grisham adaptation The Rainmaker, and he'd presumably been itching to do something a bit more personal. Youth Without Youth is personal, all right one of those pet projects that directors occasionally nurture, and that, if they're lucky, their advisers discreetly persuade them to stifle at birth.
Adapted from a novella by Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade, Youth Without Youth is an outr metaphysical folly that instantly shoots towards the top of the list of Shockingly Bad Films By Previously Great Directors. Beginning in 1938, it's the story of Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), a 70-year-old professor and flawed genius (as a colleague puts it, "Brilliant! Brilliant! But..."). After a life of pondering the big questions consciousness, the origins of language, Time Itself, don't you know Dominic is struck by lightning in Bucharest and singed to a crisp, English Patient style. When the bandages come off, he's miraculously grown a whole new set of teeth and physically reverted to his youthful self. He's also acquired a sinister, possibly imaginary doppelgänger who periodically turns up to sneer at him, causing Dominic, reasonably enough, to protest, "I can't believe in the objective reality of the person with whom I'm conversing."
Turning Übermensch overnight, Matei can not only read books simply by glancing at them, but is also irresistible to beautiful Nazi spies such as the alluring Woman in Room 6, who wears a discreet swastika in her suspender belt. (You won't find this even in Agent Provocateur.) Fleeing across Europe, as the years fly by in thunderous crashes of headline newsprint, Dominic encounters Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara), apparently the reincarnation of his pre-war lost love; he falls for her the minute he finds her muttering Sanskrit in a Swiss cave.
Veronica, it appears, is regressing through the history of human language itself, occasioning a brief scholarly dispute between Dominic and his Double: "This is Sumerian" "No, it's Babylonian." The polyglot professor rises to the occasion, and painstakingly transcribes Veronica's Ancient Egyptian babbling, in hieroglyphics, no less: a delicate business, because it's so easy to misquote someone if you draw the jackals' heads wrong.
Whatever ancient tongue Coppola's script was translated from, it's certainly a clunker in English, a great big presentation jar of extra-size gobstoppers. ("You have become the most valuable human specimen existing today on the face of the earth. Come have your chicken!"). The acting is almost uniformly terrible, which isn't entirely the fault of the bemused, largely Romanian cast, but Coppola should have known not to cast Bruno Ganz as a kindly doctor: Ganz is a phenomenon in German but a liability in English, and here sounds as if he's acting through a mouthful of old socks.
Alexandra Maria Lara is equally pallid in English and Sanskrit, and Tim Roth well, his acting is far from bad, but he has an unfailing capacity for sucking the joy out of any film. His presence is always so sullen, so haughtily sour, that you simply can't warm to him, even when he's playing the embodiment of the Human Condition itself.
The film's not entirely awful: there are some lovely 1940s-style opening credits with blossoming roses, and the whole enterprise, shot by Mihai Malaimare Jnr on high-definition video, has a certain nutty experimental swagger. The general tone of unreality suggests a big-budget pastiche of Raul Ruiz, but the overall effect is mesmerically ponderous, and at times teeth-gratingly kitsch, especially when composer Osvaldo Golijov ladles on the goulash.
Coppola clearly felt that a story about rejuvenation would get his own juices flowing: he has said he wanted to make this movie "the way a film student would". Points for trying, but if we want callow, embarrassingly earnest over-budgeted films about the imponderable mysteries of the epoch, there are enough young film-makers queuing up to make those, and we still haven't quite recovered from Southland Tales.
Sincere as this film is, it's one from the heart but not from the head at least, not from a fully functioning part of the head. Youth Without Youth isn't what you'd hope to see from the maker of The Godfather, the peerlessly controlled The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, for goodness' sake. The horror, the horror.