'The Child Prodigy'

"The Child Prodigy" portrays the life of "Canadian Mozart" Andre Mathieu, whose extraordinary early facility as a composer and pianist brought popular and critical success.

“The Child Prodigy” portrays the life of “Canadian Mozart” Andre Mathieu, whose extraordinary early facility as a composer and pianist brought popular and critical success. Unfortunately, once the novelty factor wore off and adulthood kicked in, he commenced a familiar slide into addiction and ignominy. Luc Dionne’s well-appointed biopic — featuring much intriguing music by the subject, performed by his latter-day champion Alain Lefevre — is colorful and entertaining, despite feeling overall like a spotty timeline with scant room for psychological insight. Released at home in May, it could attract theatrical and tube sales offshore, especially among artscasters.

Mathieu’s gifts are first glimpsed in a scene in which the toddler (Zaccari-Charles Jobin) startles his professional-musician father, Rodolphe (Marc Labreche), by not only expertly mimicking phrases on the piano, but improvising variations. By age 6, in 1935, Andre (now played by Guillaume Lebon), with two years of composing already under his belt, is giving his first public concert at Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton.

This reps the first of several triumphs driven by the ambitions of stage mother Mimi (Macha Grenon), over the mild objections of Dad, who thinks their little genius should hone his skills out of the limelight. Accolades greet recitals in Paris (where no less than Rachmaninoff proclaims himself a fan), New York and elsewhere over the next few years.

When the end of WWII permits free travel across the Atlantic once again, Andre returns to Paris a no-longer-cute teen (played from this point on by Patrick Drolet) to continue his studies. It’s here that his fortunes begin sloping downward, and the pic’s lack of psychological nuance begins to show. We get one scene of Andre reacting negatively to criticism from his celebrated teachers. But that — combined with frustration over the variable interest shown his work as a composer as opposed to his role as an interpretive virtuoso — is scarcely enough to explain all the self-pitying, alcoholic floundering that occupies the remainder of the tale.

Likewise, the portrait of Ma Mathieu as an overbearing, overprotective Gorgon is too erratically developed to become a dominating theme, while Andre’s lady loves, sole wife and supportive sister get too little screentime to add much. Drolet is the very picture of a tortured-artist “longhair”; it’s not his fault Andre’s self-destruction (he died at 39 in 1968) has less emotional impact than it should.

Himself a celebrated international recitalist from Quebec, musical director Lefevre plays (with or without orchestral accompaniment) generous excerpts from 14 Mathieu compositions, whose keening melodicism earned him the title of “the last Romantic” at a time when dissonant modernism was more in fashion.

A TV scenarist who’s turned to feature helming (“Aurore”), Dionne lends the handsome production a retro feel in 1930s-style montages complete with overlapping images of fingers dancing across the keyboard, black-tie applause and rave-review headlines. Major location changes are announced via archival newsreel footage, allowing Sofia, Bulgaria, to stand in for Paris in closeup. Tech/design aspects are highly polished.

The Child Prodigy

Canada

Production

A Cinemaginaire and FunFilm Distribution presentation of a Cinemaginaire production. (International sales: FunFilm, Montreal.) Produced by Denis Robert, Daniel Louis. Directed, written by Luc Dionne.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Bruce Chun; editor, Jean-Francois Bergeron; music supervisor, Alain Lefevre; production designer, Michel Proulx; art director, Emmanuel Frechette; costume designer, Francesca Chamberland; sound, Philippe Scultety, Louis Gignac; sound designer, Marie-Claude Gagne. Reviewed at Mill Valley Film Festival (World Cinema), Oct. 16, 2010. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Patrick Drolet, Guillaume Lebon, Marc Labreche, Macha Grenon, Karine Vanasse, Lothaire Bluteau, Benoit Briere, Francois Papineau, Isabel Richer, Catherine Trudeau, Sophie Faucher, Andre Robitaille, Marie-Felixe Allard, Mitsou Gelinas, Zaccari-Charles Jobin. (French, English dialogue)
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