Dominic is a seventy year old linguistics professor in 1938 Romania whose sole ambition is to produce a text on the origin of language. On a walk home, he is struck by lightning and burnt from head to toe. In hospital, under a full body cocoon of gauze, Dominic's aging starts to reverse: sprouting new teeth, a new head of hair, tighter skin, upright posture. (Kind of like that dude from Hellraiser... except he doesn't have to eat people.) Meanwhile, he encounters the doppelganger of the woman he once loved, but then lost, due to obsessive loyalty to his work. This woman, Veronica, speaks in possessions of ancient Hebrew and Arabic dialects and thus ends up aiding Dominic in his work. However, with each possession, her age progresses.
If all of that sounds convoluted, it is. It very, very, very much is. Youth Without Youth is impenetrable at times, like David Lynch at his most unguardingly instinctual. My guess is that Coppola was aware of this during production, and that he gave zero consideration towards the audience that would see it.
Youth Without Youth is more than a labor of love, it's a self-serving, cathartic line in the sand. Rumor has it that Coppola first screened it for friends after the 2007 Academy Awards. (You know... the one where he, Spielberg, and Lucas presented the Best Picture award together???). I would love to have been a fly in that screening room. It probably went something like that scene in Contempt where Jack Palance hurls film reels across the room like a discus... and George Lucas was Jack Palance.
No doubt, many times during Youth it feels as if Coppola has fallen so deep down his own personal worm hole that you can't do anything but wait for him to grub his way out. As a child, the director spent much of his time indoors because of an illness. He entertained himself with puppets and a movie camera. That disassociation indeed played a role in shaping his public persona and lends suspicion to why so many of his films have centered on adolescence and/or adults with an adolescent sense of self.
So, yeah, you might say that Youth Without Youth is nothing more than a clean slate comfort film, a selfish puppet show for the good of the goose. But, sometimes liking a director (or any artist for that matter...) isn't about a film-by-film report card, but about enjoying the entire ride.