There will always be a place in any sane heart for the man behind the Godfather films (well, the first two anyway). Even so, it isn't a glorious time to be Francis Ford Coppola right now. Sure, his wine business is making cash registers sing, but his pictures haven't enjoyed equivalent favour for many years. If The Godfather was remade today, it wouldn't be a horse's head that the Mafia used to frighten its enemies - it would be a DVD of Jack, Coppola's wretched touchy-feely comedy starring Robin Williams.
But this is a director who is at his fiercest when the odds are against him. Most of Hollywood was praying for The Godfather and Apocalypse Now to fail. And when he was still reeling from the ridicule that greeted his synthetic One from the Heart, Coppola made the refreshing, Cocteau-esque Rumble Fish. While watching his first film in a decade, Youth Without Youth (which opens on 14 December), I couldn't help recalling the amused speech that Tom Waits gives in Rumble Fish: "Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item." Well, Youth Without Youth is a funny thing, too - unintentionally so - and a very peculiar item to boot.
It begins in Bucharest, 1938, where an elderly linguistics professor, Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), is hit by lightning. In hospital, he begins to experience reverse ageing, and is soon declared "clinically youthful". Dominic also discovers he can now absorb the contents of any book simply by looking at the cover, something most of us experience only when presented with a new Tony Parsons novel. And he begins conversing with an imaginary double who engages him in philosophical volleys so stilted, they give you some idea of what it would be like to discuss the Israeli peace process with David and Victoria Beckham.
Dominic's doctor, Professor Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz), tries to warn his patient of the potential dangers should Nazi Germany get hold of him. What he actually says is: "You have become the most valuable human specimen on the face of the earth. Now, come have your chicken," which certainly puts things in perspective. After sleeping with a woman who has a swastika on her garter belt - almost as big a turn-off, in my experience, as socks in bed - Dominic flees to Geneva. There, he encounters Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara), who gets struck by lightning before regaining consciousness and believing herself to be a 7th-century Indian scholar named Rupini.
She and Dominic are evidently made for one another, and not only because they have a combined age of around 1,400 years and can both receive the World Service in their frontal lobes. Dominic has been trying all his life to locate the origins of language, and now here he is, getting frisky with a woman who wakes up every night raving in ancient tongues. "One more regression and she'll reach the proto-language!" he exclaims, clearly realising that he couldn't have asked for more if he'd placed a personals ad that read: "Man with freak ageing disorder seeks woman with catwalk looks. Must have GSOH and be fluent in Sanskrit."
Any return by Coppola to personal film-making is to be applauded, even if that applause has to compete with incredulous laughter. In case you hadn't gathered already, this is an intensely silly film, but its silliness is bound up with the good stuff - the lushness and idealism, the cinematic grandeur. Many fantastical things happen in the picture, but Coppola and his visionary editor-cum-sound designer Walter Murch keep faith with old-school techniques. As with the director's visually ravishing Dracula (1992), special effects are staged within the camera; the sudden appearance of roses about Dominic's person, for example, is achieved simply by halting filming, placing the flowers in the relevant places, then starting the camera again. Primitive, yes, but curiously bewitching.
If I seem to be cutting the film too much slack because of its director's CV, I should point out that it is also overlong, archly performed and falls far short of the profundity to which it aspires. But it has something - spirit, romanticism, riskiness. Youth Without Youth reminds you that it would be a sad thing indeed to have cinema without Coppola.
Pick of the week
Southland Tales (15)
dir: Richard Kelly
This science-fiction satire from the Donnie Darko director is confusing and infuriating, but always original.
The Golden Compass (12A)
dir: Chris Weitz
Move over, Harry Potter: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials hits the screen.
Silent Light (15)
dir: Carlos Reygadas
Haunting drama from the director of Japón and Battle in Heaven.