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Revaluation: Youth Without Youth

Francis Ford Coppola used to be the most-admired American auteur of his film generation - Scorsese has likely taken that position (though Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas do not, to my mind, trump The Conversation, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now). Last year, his first film for a decade was released, Youth Without Youth, based on a curious novella by the controversial once-Fascist scholar and writer, Mircia Eliade, whose memorial service was presided over by Saul Bellow.

The film was almost universally derided. As such, it was a failure, critically, and at the "Box Office". I have finally had a chance to view it (just out on DVD in the UK), and wish to alert its new potential audience that it's a wonderful picture, to be sought out. The film's critics have noted its strengths, as if they were weaknesses: the production was filmed in Eastern Europe, and features a cast of sometimes-dubbed foreign actors (many from Downfall); the sets are sometimes artificial-seeming (what else are sets?). Indeed, the film avoids naturalism, for a fantastical rambling, and often paranoid, journey into sexual desire, dreamstates, religion, Eternal Return, reincarnation, doppelgangers, the rise of Hitler and then the Cold War - no American movie has been so intellectually heady, or weird, since Altered States.

An audience seeking a coherent Hollywood form would be disappointed - otherwise, the film's long, curious, disjointed, often illogical (dreamlike), even phantasmagoric, structure, is rather enchanting, and ultimately deeply melancholy. It seemed the less commercial twin to his brilliant, flamboyant Dracula (another film about time, separated lovers, and the destructive nature of desire). In this case, the desire is for knowledge, not blood, and the aloof, arrogant professor allows societies, and those he loves, to die, around him, in his remote quest to understand "the origin of language". As such (and with the rose motif) it is a romance about the mind and the body - a romance about science and history in fact - that refers to Kane, and reminds me, most of all, of Welles' late European films about truth and fiction (often low-budget, nominally stylish espiongage stories, and ramshackle, but satisfyingly so - especially Arkadin). For those prepared to relish a supremely artificial, flawed, textured, deeply intelligent, strange, and ironic creation, Youth Without Youth, rather than disappointing, may charm, or haunt.
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