“Youth Without Youth” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Gun violence, sexual congress, female nudity, metaphysics.
So warns the caption to Manohla Dargis’s review in the New York Times. Now may be the perfect moment, then, to admit that the thought of semi-legions watching a professor of the history of religions act out a professor of the history of religions’ speculations on reincarnation, cognition, Nazis, and preternatural teeth fills you with a pleasure more electric than the disdain that is its inevitable accompaniment. Yes indeed, I would hasten a guess that for many of us, there is a not-too-buried fantasy of being wrenched (no, no, yes, yes) into the public forum, footnotes flapping, epigraphs primping, microphone shoved in face, hair hastily mussed, audience primed (The rose, what of the third rose?), and . . . you’re on camera 2! “Well of course Eliade, ahem, Eliade is, you know, a bit of a duffer, a popularizer, well sure that is the point, yes, I suppose the film does convey something of what he thought, the novels along with . . . I mean his ideas were always a bit . . . and you know he had a dark past of his own . . . What? Yes comparative myth, religion, the origin of language, but it is all a little, shall we say, jejune, and probably a little distasteful, too, just the sort of thing one might expect (and it’s too bad, really) to make it to . . . But even then Coppola doesn’t quite get . . . well thank you for having me on.”
It all goes poorly, this multiplex metaphysicizing. And what can one expect? Coppola means to bring no academics out of hiding. In Youth Without Youth, he has produced a work of sovereign obfuscation on his very own, daring the intellectually well-heeled to compete with this reverent take on the dreamy, sweaty, and thoroughly incoherent world of our perennial Romanian bête noir of the South Side. Admirers (including most prominently Coppola himself) will call it a meditation on time, love, consciousness, Orientalist banditry; critics a murky mess of monstrous myopia. My own view? Bloated, presumptuous, frequently brain-freezing but also colorful, amusing, and intermittently—as if in a dream, I am fated to admit—thought-provoking, Coppola’s film at the very least clearly causes an acute case of adjectivitis, from which I will now attempt to cure myself, as the protagonist Dominic Matei does his despair and suicidal temptation through the miracle of electromagnetic revelation: “soon it will be learned that someone, a man of unknown origin, was struck by lightening and after ten weeks appeared perfectly healthy and young again. Let’s hope the rest will not be found out.”
But of course we find out plenty (and remain, like Matei, only temporarily cured of extravagant descriptives). We find out, for example, that Eliade’s protagonist has a prodigious ambition: not only to master Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, and Japanese before the end of his twenties, not only to attain the superpowers of DC Comics’ infamous reincarnating Hawkgirl (“I am a strange superman of the future”), not only to impersonate Angels, head off Archangels, fight for God, surmount time, attain the “inarticulate moment of the beginning,” the “proto-language,” the real, and, not incidentally, stop—or fail to stop—the Nazis before Romania is lost (Dominic the freedom fighter manqué, stuck on the delectable curlicue of that familiar insignia adorning the buxom Nazette’s garter), not to mention—stay with me here—the bomb, celebrity culture, and the death of seriousness; no. Our knight is not satisfied with his Archimedean day job but wants to go further. It turns out—yes, a dream—it can all be done after hours (“I continued to study in my sleep, mastering Chinese and other languages . . .”). Which, speaking personally, is something of a relief. If for Eliade there is no convincing way of securing the world from unreality, at least we’ll have enough time to meet our deadlines, if not even squeeze in the odd mission to Gotham City.
And oh what a glorious unreality it is—by which I refer not to the film, with its silicone platitudes, but to the question of whose film it is. Whose artistic brow is this bauble meant to furrow, and in what time, what register, with what darts? Coppola’s lovechild comes at an auspicious moment in Eliade reception. On the one hand, Eliade has probably never been as unfashionable as he is now, his oeuvre in the comparative history of everything running full-on against every delicate historical sensibility modestly veiled before the archive of truths. Professor Matei, with his Chinese and his Babylonian, his saints, magi, and bodhisattvas, is a cartoon, if for some a little too close to home to be all that funny. To be sure, Matei has his real-life defenders, those, like J. Z. Smith, who are prepared to admire the sweat on Eliade’s brow, who cede, as Smith gingerly does, “the descriptive endeavor,” if not the alien theology that is its inexorable accompaniment; or those, like Jeffrey Kripal (in his own post on this movie), for whom Eliade speaks for evolutionary mutants and occult intellectuals everywhere. Usually, however, there is more fractiousness involved (no search committees or journal editors named). On the other hand, might not Youth Without Youth be just the effortless Smithian reading that is, for Smith himself, such a strain? Does not this noisy celebration of the fragmentary, this dismemberment, even, of Matei’s desire for that “old passion,” the final “regression” by which one’s “life work will be complete,” show us an Eliade in total control of the descriptive precisely as a conduit to the righteous dogma (for his age and ours) that nothing is as it seems? Would not Eliade’s theology of unreality, then, his labor in the mines of the dreamtime, not finally, like Hamlet’s seeming, provide a standpoint for the viewer to say no to him, and thus a standpoint for him to smile back at us and say, with no little justification, “my life’s work is complete”?
So, at least, it seems to me. In this sense Coppola has done us a service. For if Matei exhibits all the Casaubon bathos of which mid-twentieth century history of religions was capable, his twenty-first century cinematic avatar provides a reminder that this atavism is Eliade’s own metaphysical double. It is Eliade who spans both the squirm-inducing, unreadable past (“time, Dominic, we are running out of time”) and the garish but inescapable present (“the recovery is amazing”). It is he who is both deceived about the key to all mythologies and who deceives us in turn, whose lightening bolt in the rain to us is precisely that he is young beyond his years. Age: 70, but “with the sexual organs of a man of 40. Fully functional. Technically youthful.” In Coppola’s hands, he might be Casaubon and Eliot both, and thus never more fully our contemporary muse. “Can I believe in the objective reality of the person to whom I am conversing?” asks Matei, of the person to whom he is conversing. Well, yes. But again, this is not to dispel the fear that the real and the unreal, the one and the double, cannot be distinguished. It is simply to notice that this fear is internal to the structure of the double authorship here (the author as himself); it is internal, namely, to the claim Matei makes on us that he cannot wake up from Eliade’s dream except to show the dream itself, and the historian of religions whom he is impersonating in it, to be objectively, and depressingly, banal.
Does Coppola appreciate this sly logic of protagonist and progenitor? Undoubtedly not. His foray into metaphysics at the movies is too predictably oriented towards the dizzying joy of abandoning sense, as if the barefoot stomping alone is what makes the wine. Still, amidst the Jungian babbling and overwrought editing, the heated “so” and despairing “not-so,” Eliade is strangely rejuvenated. One of the film’s most memorable conceits has the newly and miraculously youthful Matei’s teeth being pushed out by new ones, as if, in angelic regard for what history abandons, he reverses Walter Benjamin’s dyspeptic prognosis and finds therein the renewal of life in the wreckage of the suicidal old master. “We have to know more about you, who you are, what is your real age,” his doctors demand, our questions, I think, for Eliade—technically youthful, fully functional. But libraries are limited, complains Matei, the teeth are coming in too fast, and we cannot escape the Nazis, it would seem, no matter what our age, or his.
So Dominic Matei, I say: “tell the professor what he wants to know: that you need a new identity”; that you need (is the camera still rolling?) the third rose, this our Eliadean rose.