It's odd seeing the number of critics surprised at Francis Ford Coppola's "Dominic, c'est moi" remark regarding the protagonist of his new picture, Youth Without Youth. Have they not seen Coppola's other films? His oeuvre doesn't exactly starve for directorial stand-ins: Surely the young Michael Corleone is a neophyte entering the business and family of Hollywood, Willard is a maverick pushing the limits of his talent, Preston Tucker is a middle-aged professional still striving for personal expression in the industry. Now comes Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), a 70-year-old Romanian professor who, having spent his life tracing back the roots of language, finds himself failed, alone, suicidal. Change arrives from the heavens. Struck by a lightning bolt, Dominic undergoes a remarkable regeneration: His hair retrieves its reddish luster, new teeth push out his rotting ones, the years fall away until he's a vigorous 35-year-old with a recharged super-cerebellum. A Marvel Comics premise, indeed, and since this is 1938, Hitler becomes interested in this perplexed Übermensch; he eludes the Nazi with the aid of a kindly doctor (Bruno Ganz) but remains unable to ditch the doppelganger (also Roth) teasing him from the other side of the mirror. Life is lonely for the ageless "mutant," yet Dominic finds a mate in Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara), a lovely young tourist who, similarly thunderstruck, may be the reincarnation of his lost love, not to mention an ancient Indian princess.
There are also floral motifs, episodes in Sanskrit and Babylonian, a cameo by Shiva -- "the necessary confusion," the protagonist's double assures. "Failure, success... Such extremes, Dominic," his sweetheart tells him, though Coppola has always been an all-or-nothing gambler, and, coming a decade after his least challenging film (The Rainmaker), Youth Without Youth finds the filmmaker admirably working without a safety net. The opening credits pitch a beguiling blend of the archaic and the ultra-modern, as befits a vision of romanticism surviving the atomic age. Zoetrope experimentation bleeds into naiveté straight out of the 19th-century: The camera lies on its side so that an alluring Nazi spy's figure can fill the screen horizontally, the same Mata Hari expires with purple poesy on her lips ("You were... the honey in my dreams"), an epiphany is capped by the digitalized appearance of a rose in the snow. This would be laughable if it weren't for Coppola's lush stylistic engagement -- as a smokelike portrait of an artist's consciousness at work, Youth Without Youth is as plangent as Wong's 2046 -- and, more importantly, the crystalline emotions at play here. Roth's Dominic at one point revives a vivid physical sensation by gazing at an old photograph, and Coppola glides through this welter of dreams and memories with a comparably tangible cinematic sense. By the time the film's shape is revealed at the gathering of old men in the café, it's clear that the director sees Dominic's life, rather than his research, as the work of art that will only be completed when Death comes calling. Is Coppola Dominic, then? If that means the return of an aged artist with a new passion and serenity, then I sure hope so.
Atonement opens on a little girl's doll-house and ends on an old woman's vision, and in between shuffles from The Go-Between to Brideshead Revisited to A Very Long Engagement before settling, naturally, on Titanic. It's an adaptation of a Great Novel (Ian McEwan's, unread by me) by Joe Wright, who, having made a thoroughly stodgy version of Pride & Prejudice in 2005, is desperate here to prove he's no mere Masterpiece Theatre duster but a man of Sin-eh-mah! Thus, the veddy British 1935 opening is laid out like the preamble to a Rouben Mamoulian musical number, "cunt" is typed in screen-filling letters out of Citizen Kane, and the British evacuation at Dunkirk beach during WWII's darkest hours is staged as an ostentatious tracking shot for no better reason than for Wright to try to outdo Children of Men. But no amount of camera anticness can conceal the chilliness at the heart of the film, fastidiously disconnected from class tensions or even honest, full-bodied romantic sweep. The story is, like Youth Without Youth, the visualization of the artistic mind, here belonging to a budding writer (Saoirse Ronan as a child, Romola Garai as a young nurse, Vanessa Redgrave as an elderly novelist) whose misreading of two actions involving her aloof older sister (Keira Knightley) and the housekeeper's son (James McAvoy) trigger their tragedy. Knightley, impeccably groomed, coiffed, and lipsticked throughout, acts mostly by aiming her jaw at her co-stars, though McAvoy for the first time manages to look like more than a big kid -- just figurines in a teacup set, shipped over in boxes labeled "For your consideration."
Ack, it really must be awards season. The Kite Runner is another tale of memory, burgeoning writers, evaded class differences, and very tasteful child rape. It's also an adaptation of a much-loved book, with Khaled Hosseini's bestselling narrative about life in Afghanistan given the Marc Foster treatment: Faked compassion, bland visuals, metaphors dropped like anvils, tidy wrap-ups to send everyone home unperturbed. (With the exception of last year's pleasing Stranger Than Fiction, Foster's filmography is basically a polished ice-cream parlor offering a dozen variations of "Trite.") That the first half of the story about friends growing up in 1970s Kabul climaxes with a CGI-enhanced kite contest is enough to illustrate the picture's absurd crowd-pleasing trappings, though its middlebrow hackery goes from simply insipid to actively offensive when the now-grown protagonist returns to the Dantean hellhole that is Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, saves his pal by facing a childhood villain, and, at long last, Becomes a Man. The presence here of Homayoun Ershadi from Taste of Cherry only adds to the weird effect of a grave staple of Iranian cinema shamelessly raided for triumph-of-the-human-spirit Hollywood pap -- Abbas Kiarostami directing a Die Hard installment wouldn't have been half as surreal.
Reviewed December 23, 2007.