"I know that recently I've come out to speak to people, and usually they're playing the theme from The Godfather," said Francis Ford Coppola, greeting the capacity crowd that gathered Monday at the Paris Theater for the Museum of the Moving Image's preview of his new film Youth Without Youth. "Or Wagner [from Apocalypse Now], which really makes me think that yes, those movies -- The Godfather, certainly -- were collections of talented people, and I'm so pleased that those films are remembered."
Here Coppola slumped a bit and elided a wince before continuing. "But I beg the audience to allow me to go on into new areas and find new ways to express myself."
Be our guest, Francis. Of course, the whole point of Youth Without Youth (opening Dec. 12 in New York) -- beyond its mind-cramping interpretation of writings by Romanian philosopher and historian Mircea Eliade -- is that Coppola needed neither permission nor outside backing for his first release in 10 years. ("I'd like to see a show of hands: Who has ever had a bottle of wine from Coppola Vineyards?" he asked the crowd, prompting hundreds of enthusiastic replies. "You are all executive producers of this film!") Legitimately independent and utterly impenetrable, Youth follows the travails of 70-year-old linguist Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), whose life's search for the source of human language is interrupted by a broken engagement, a lightning strike that restores him to his 35-year-old self, Nazis chasing him as the planet's most coveted specimen, the return of his lost love (Alexandra Maria Lara) in the form of another lighting-addled atavist who relapses into Sanskrit and Sumerian when not aging at a rate of a year per day. Do they share a curse, or is it all just a dream? Moreover, as the first hour's exposition folds into the second hour's metaphysics, do you get it? Do you even care?
For his part, Roth met his director halfway. "I didn't get it," he said in a post-screening discussion with Lara and long-time Coppola editor Walter Murch. "But I really think film is a director's medium, and in my initial foray into this, I decided to place that aspect of it -- the conscious and subconscious -- in the hands of Francis. He read all the books, and I hadn't. I had to really make sure with my arc that I was getting what he wanted of that day done. It was way, way, way too much information and way too difficult for me to understand or for me to take that on day in, day out. So I stopped doing it and would just talk to Francis very specifically about what was happening in this specific conversation or dialogue or monologue."
Coppola has held the company line all along, responding to Youth's cool reception at the recent Rome Film Festival by insisting that a second, third or even more glances will aid nonplussed viewers. Indeed, Youth will have its defenders, just as cult appreciation for Coppola's 1981 folly One From the Heart inches closer each year to surmounting its chaotic, insolvent legend. But I've seen it twice now and actually liked it less after Monday's screening. Sure, as unalloyed passion projects go, it's not unrecommendable by any means: A perennially cagy, clever physical performer, Roth hangs in nobly as the tormented Matei; whatever confidence his restored youth initially supplies has nothing on his simmering futility. Framed and scored like a '40s melodrama, and still as Ozu, Youth channels Coppola's influences more intimately than cynically.
The overriding inspiration, however, is Eliade, and Coppola's glee at adapting to his "new," independent, uncompromising style reflects his source's own emphatic idealism. "He used to write these really intriguing, Borges-like stories based on the myths and parables he learned in his more serious work," Coppola said. "When I read this, I thought, 'My God, every three pages something amazing happens. It's like stories grew out of stories grew out of stories. I had a wonderful experience reading it, and I thought that if I could transfer what Eliade wrote -- if I could understand what he's talking about -- I would be a much better person."
Of course you give the guy the benefit of the doubt; you surrender to the experience with the expectation -- or at least the hope -- that it will translate. But for viewers, translating Youth Without Youth requires a dispassionate investment in theories that defy the abstractions of romance, politics or memory; basically, it requires the abandonment of known cinematic modes. An appealing challenge on its face, except that among the principal ironies of a film so resolutely about the vagaries of language, you'll find that the consummate craftsman Coppola paraphrases more than he explores. Why exactly is Matei's love doomed, for example? She leaves, he leaves, his work threatens them both. Ultimately, though, they can't communicate. The audience suffocates in that vacuum as well.
Whatever. Depressing as they are, Coppola's missteps admittedly invite more intrigue, discussion and reinterpretation than most of his contemporaries' mere adequacies. (Charlie Wilson's War, Mike Nichols? I mean, really?) I suppose you could call him an apologist for himself, but not only does Coppola apparently know this -- he's counting on it.
"Films do a have a tendency to live a long time, and sometimes they even change the audiences so that [viewers] 10 years from now are affected by more unusual films," he said. "In fact, I can remember in my own career reading the reviews of the first Godfather film. Even our friends here at Variety gave it a terrible review. [Variety co-sponsors the Moving Image screening series. -- Ed.] I won't even talk about Apocalypse Now. Pity the reviewer who has to make a fast judgment call that night and come out with a review of something that took maybe three years to make. So it's understandable.
"But certainly at this stage of my life -- I'm 68 years old -- I want to be a young independent filmmaker," Coppola continued, winding down his introduction. "I want to write all my movies, and I want them to be about unusual subject matter. I hate to say it, but I want people to enjoy it just as when I cook dinner, I want people to enjoy the meal and not say, 'Well, I have to go home and think about whether I like it or not.' I want you to enjoy it."
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