Wednesday 5 December 2012

The libertine: "Confession of a Child of the Century"

Sylvie Verheyde's Confession of a Child of the Century is one of those conceptual period pieces sunk by novelty casting, leaving us to watch familiar faces shambling artlessly around Truste Nationale properties. Indeed, what feels like some three-quarters of Confession is given over to footage of its principals tramping around stately homes and muddy gardens, in the hope of encountering - well, what? Profundity? A plot that might engage the viewer? Any real point or purpose? Anybody who had their doubts about Andrea Arnold's chancy take on Wuthering Heights should be referred here forthwith; compared to Verheyde's idea of revisionism, that earlier film begins to look like an unqualified masterwork.

Verheyde has cast "Peter" Doherty (this season's Andrew Cole, or Josephine d'Arby) as the hero of Alfred de Musset's 19th century tome: a dandy, heartbroken when the only girl he ever fell for completely is seen giving the eye to another man over dinner. (She's played by Lily Cole, using all her Cambridge smarts to get out of the picture early.) Retreating into decadence, our boy meets Brigitte (Charlotte Gainsbourg), an older woman who tempts him to feel something more than lust - but we soon twig no-one's likely to come away from this tryst any the happier, or wiser.

It's important to note that Verheyde is no rookie. She's wise enough to have hired cinematographers, costume and production designers who know how to dress up a thin, novella-sized conceit as a workable cinematic idea; truthful-sounding snippets of de Musset persist in her screenplay, and she's found a valuable ally in Gainsbourg, an actress who's always looked good wrapped up in corsets, bonnets and hesitant displays of emotion. But - oh dear - she's only gone and become the latest creative to fall under the dubious spell of Doherty, whom the director describes in the press notes as "a symbol of the sacred and damned poet". (Spare me.)

Clearly, the hope here was that Doherty would turn out to be a natural of the Sam Riley school, capable of bringing all his rock-star connotations to bear on the material. I'm afraid he may well be more Lisa Riley, wafting in on a formidable cloud of what can only be described as anti-charisma: you cannot tear your eyes away from him as he drags each scene and every co-star down to his grubby level. "Peter" sniffles and trips over his lines; he fumbles and tears the props; he looks entirely ill-at-ease in his natty period costume, as though he really wanted to go before the cameras in a stained vest and pants, with a syringe hanging from his forearm. Finally, he mumbles the closing credits number, in which we learn "love is the only cure for the sickness of celebrity". (Have you not tried Canesten, Peter?)

Somewhere in the middle of all this, Doherty shuffles through the lamest "man considering suicide" scene in the history of motion pictures, holding his musket to his face in such a listless and narcissistic fashion it's just possible audience members might shout out "oh, do it already", much as the crowd who suffered through Pia Zadora's stage interpretation of Anne Frank reportedly told the actors playing Nazis "she's in the attic!". With anybody else in the lead role, and just a little editorial tightening, it might have played; as it is, it's a terrible drag. If you are in the market for this type of thing, you'd be better off with Arnold's film, or Catherine Breillat's terrific The Last Mistress, in which Asia Argento shrugged off the novelty casting tag to state her credentials as both rock star and courtesan.

Confession of a Child of the Century opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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