W00T! THIS BLOGPOST CONTAINETH fPOILERII. UG UG.
Question: Is it at all possible to put on screen a concept as abstract and non-visual as the history of language - going backwards in time to the most primitive tongues and beyond? Answer: probably not. Certainly not if you're going to try and tie it to a vaguely fantastical narrative, which is what no less an auteur than Francis Ford Coppola seemingly tries to do. And it really doesn't work.
In the frankly meaninglessly titled Youth Without Youth, it's 1938 and an elderly linguistics professor (Tim Roth) is struck by lightning in the street and wakes up middle-aged. His doctor closets Roth away as a medical miracle, not wanting him to fall into the hands of the Nazis, and he continues to work at his book about the development of spoken language. After the war he meets up with a woman who talks in Sanskrit and who appears to be possessed by the spirit of an Indian mystic. But she seems to be getting older even as Roth stays young, so he really feels he has to leave her, ever though the languages she keeps lurching into are getting older and are providing him with invaluable material for his book. And then, years later, he goes home. Or does he?
What did actually happen? In all truth I have no idea and if I'd seen it at a cinema I'd assume a couple of reels had been switched around. It's utterly baffling and I genuinely don't think there's a point to it. It feels like a free-writing exercise, where you start writing and keep going without editing or refining; when I did that in the past I wrote pages and pages of stuff before realising what it was actually about. In those pages, there may have been good individual lines or scenes or characters, but they're surrounded by acres of utter bunk. And in Youth Without Youth there are a few interesting ideas but they're submerged in the reams of incomprehensible waffle.
More damagingly, it isn't even interesting incomprehensible waffle. It's monumentally dull incomprehensible waffle. And it goes on for two hours not making a blind bit of sense and - Spoiler Alert - finally has one of those annoying endings in which everything we've seen might not have even happened. I've never been a fan of movies that "didn't really happen" or "it's all in his/her head" or "it was all a dream", because it means the writer doesn't necessarily have to abide by logic or plausibility. In this instance there's no logic, there's no plausibility and you come away from it not just annoyed at having wasted two hours, but angry because it's from Francis Ford Coppola! I know you can't get The Godfather every time but it should still be some kind of coherent. Terrible.