Youth Without Youth & r & & r & by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & had a friend in college -- a philosophy nerd like me -- who'd spend his free moments talking idly about his plans to write the definitive text in the history of philosophy. From Plato to Heidegger. He'd talk about the patterns he'd seen in the works of certain thinkers. Unconnected by time period or world-view really, these philosophers would nonetheless have a certain something -- something my friend was never able to, you know, quantify -- that he believed linked their various philosophies. He'd talk at length about this all-unifying je ne sais quoi (he spoke a little French -- seriously), trying to say everything there was to say about the nature and history of existence without really saying anything at all. I'd listen good naturedly for a bit, even engage him with questions some days. Invariably, though, I'd just stop listening, turn back to my game of FIFA and wait for him to leave the room.
Deep into act two of Youth Without Youth, Francis Ford Coppola's first film since 1997's The Rainmaker, I found myself thinking about this friend for the first time in years.
By that point, Dominic (Tim Roth), a 70-year-old linguist and compulsive researcher had been struck by lightning, found his youth restored, grown a new set of teeth, had his psyche split in two, been chased by Nazis and watched the world explode in countless nuclear detonations (not just Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but Stalingrad and Beijing as well). Along the way, Dominic realizes he intuitively understands every language, realizes he can read entire books just by running his hand over them, finds his long-lost love reincarnated in the hills of Switzerland, only to watch that love be struck by lightning, throwing her into a past life regression that may allow him to unlock the secret to all of his studies: the theoretical proto-language upon which all languages evolved. In order to get that most coveted of trophies, he might have to sacrifice his (reincarnated) love's life.
There's a trip to India in there somewhere, a lusty Aryan mistress who has swastikas embroidered into the lace of her stockings and dozens of scenes of Tim Roth either (a) speaking in languages from antiquity or (b) writing in them.
The film takes place roughly between the early 1930s and the late '60s, using filming techniques and effects from those periods to achieve a look that's one part Casablanca, one part Unbearable Lightness of Being. Coppola uses half-dissolves to create dream-like states and stop-motion trickery to make roses appear from thin air on Dominic's lap. Long shadows and dark alleyways reminiscent of The Third Man haunt him as he flees the Nazis. There's even a swatch -- one single scene that comes from out of nowhere -- of Exorcist-esque possession.
Like my friend with the desire to sew together all of philosophy's many disparate threads, Coppola has gone to great pains here to be exhaustive, to try and meld snatches of literally every existential and religious theory with every genre, camera trick and plot contrivance at his considerable disposal to create a kind of universal film of everything. What does it all amount to? In both cases, I think: intense intellectual masturbation endlessly fascinating to the maker and of very little interest to everyone else. (One night only, Thursday, 2/14, at AMC; Rated R)