Confession of a Child of the Century

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday March 30, 2016

Confession of a Child of the Century

What better choice than The Libertines front man Pete Doherty to play the central character (and occasional narrator) in Sylvie Verheyde's film version of Alfred de Musset's 1836 novel "Confession of a Child of the Century?" After all, Doherty's character, Octave -- whom de Musset patterned after himself, in a semi-autobiographical treatment of his affair with the novelist Amandine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, better known by her pen name George Sand -- is given to a certain sort of slackerish anomie, an aimlessness and emotional emptiness that manifests itself in a bad breakup, a duel, and a blur of parties that include sexual encounters so drunken that they are interrupted by a bout of vomiting, mid-coitus.

Octave laments that the rut he's stuck in is "the disease of the century," but what century are we talking about? It's the 1830s, but Octave has the look of a bruised Millennial. Indeed, everything about this film feels contemporary to our own time, despite the period costumes and settings. The garb is dark and all-enrobing, the rooms are cluttered, and even the natural world seems locked in a perpetual wintry haze; if it's not snow in the ground it's fog all around, and only at the end, after a catharsis of sorts (or a breakthrough to maturity) does the sun come out.

Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Brigitte, a widow Octave meets after fleeing Paris for the countryside. Brigitte is a decade older, and at first she's wary of the age difference between them; she can appreciate a fling without needing it to be an emotional investment, or so she says in a breakup letter Octave reads in a coach. (Out the window we glimpse several galloping horses, one of the film's rare moments of out and out ham-handedness.) But the young man's passion, bleak as it may seem on the outside, has a peculiar heat of its own, and finally it works to melt both Brigitte and Octave -- but not the world around them. Alas, the desaturated colors persist, and even at the height of their happiness the film brightens into whiteness threaded with red; is this the real deal, or are these two simply going through a rebound relationship? The cinematography alone speaks volumes on this subject.

Later on, as the pair make their way to Paris in preparation for a final departure -- a grandly romantic getaway -- a flush comes over the film, with red walls and a splendid red gown. Plus ca change, however; as they say nowadays, wherever you go, there you are.

The camerawork is often done in a handheld style, and there's little effort to pretty things up. It's a deliberate and effective way to strip away the gauze of nostalgia and the brittle yellowed varnish that coats so many period pieces: We feel very much in the moment here, and the fact that these characters are so not foreign to us -- they are supposedly French, but they are speaking in English -- underscores the notion that whatever the age or the nationality, people are people, and their longings, neuroses, and bouts with boredom are pretty much always going to remain much the same. Really, sometimes you wish Prozac had been invented a couple of centuries earlier just to help pull these people out of their collective funk: "I think I like misery better than gaiety," Octave says at one point, but is it a matter of sticking with the devil you know, or not knowing what you're about?

The film has a bleary, lugubrious handsomeness about it, but it's nothing you're likely to want to watch more than once. The one special feature (other than a theatrical trailer) is a literature professor, Dr. Eric Gans, holding forth about the novel and the film. His interview looks like it was conducted via Skype, with an uncertain connection, and his observations are those of a literary sort: Musset was a good poet, though not a great one; he was evidently an okay novelist, and an outstanding playwright, though this might be down to (in Dr. Gans' view) a paucity of really good plays being written in the 19th century.

Dr. Gans goes on to talk about the title's double meaning -- "siecle" also refers to the secular, and implies a world in which men stumble along doing their best, which often isn't very good. Yada, yada, in other words. Too bad they couldn't get a proper film historian or film scholar in to take on some of these topics. At least the DVD is of such good quality that it still looks good on a Blu-ray player and HD television -- good enough that you might just need a hot cup of something to warm up.

"Confession of a Child of the Century"



Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.