Adapted from Alfred de Musset’s 1836 autobiographical novel of the same name and premiered at Cannes, Sylvie Verheyde’s Confession of a Child of the Century (2012) sees the acting debut of former Libertine Pete Doherty, who joins a long line of successful musicians and pop stars who have become truly awful actors. Mid-19th century France: the Revolution, with its exhilaration and terror, has been and gone, whilst Napoleonic conquest and defeat are likewise receding into history. Octave (Doherty) feels he has missed his moment, belonging to a generation brought up for war, at a time when all wars have been fought.
When he catches his mistress Elise (Lily Cole) playing footsie with his best friend, he fights a duel and is wounded in the arm. Unable to forget his lover, he throws himself into a life of debauchery, drinking and orgies. Unsatisfied, depressed and further sobered by the death of his father, Octave retires to the country where he meets a cousin, Bridgette (Charlotte Gainsbourg), with whom he falls promptly in love.
Doherty, like a sixth former who hasn’t quite learnt his lines for drama class, fidgets throughout Confession of a Child of the Century and seems constantly surprised when it is his cue. There are one or two moments of fresh charm from the controversial lead, but they obviously belong to Doherty rather than Octave (ironically, he isn’t at all convincing as a libertine). Add to this the fact that he seemingly has a sniffle for the entire film, and the performance soon passes from entertainingly bad to infuriatingly awful.
Playing opposite, French actress (and Doherty’s former girlfriend) Gainsbourg looks more than a little perplexed by the whole ordeal. The film remains visually competent, and Verheyde is a proven and talented director – her previous film, 2008’s Stella, is a sadly neglected work of some brilliance – yet the hand-held camerawork soon gets tiresome and the feel for the period is notably off.
As with Sofia Coppola’s heartily poor Marie Antoinette (2006), Verheyde tries to inject a bit of post-modern punkiness to proceedings, sadly to no avail. A French production of a French novel, set in France with a French lead actress – yet in English, presumably to cater for Doherty – Confession of a Child of the Century feels like a whole production bent around one very poor casting decision.