Love is dramatically lost, unexpectedly regained and then gradually poisoned by uncertainty and jealousy in Alfred de Musset’s novel, “Confession of a Child of the Century.” But in Gallic helmer Sylvie Verheyde’s English-language film adaptation, the dramatic temperature never seems to budge much, let alone oscillate vertiginously. Leads Charlotte Gainsbourgh (“Melancholia”) and the Libertines singer Peter Doherty, making an inauspicious acting debut, have all the chemistry of two frozen fish filets, with line readings to match. Though the film is not uninteresting on a technical level, few auds will have the patience for this bloodless and shockingly apolitical period romance.
Poet de Musset’s only fictional work, written in 1836, was inspired by his stormy relationship with fellow writer Georges Sand (their affair was filmed as “Children of the Century” in 1999, with Juliette Binoche as Sand). Musset’s famous “disease of the century” is the excruciating malaise of uncertainty that inspired the French Romantic movement and generally proliferated in the minds of the men of the early 1800s, a time of political volatility since the French Revolution, the First Republic and Napoleonic France had all come and gone in quick succession. Though the monarchy was restored by the 1830s, every enlightened Frenchman realized nothing would simply return to how it was before.
The genius of de Musset’s “Confession” was that he took France’s recent past and uncertain future as the template for an epic love story, metaphorically putting the country’s well-being at stake as the relationship unfolds. It’s startling, then, that Verheyde (“Stella”) has completely gutted the story’s political dimension — which might have resonated strongly in our own uncertain times — to focus solely on the love affair, the outcome of which will affect, in this adaptation at least, all of two whiny Anglophone Frenchies who can’t make up their minds.
Octave (Doherty), who seems well off but clearly has no hair-styling budget, is at his wits’ end when he discovers his beloved (Lily Cole, in a cameo) has cheated on him. Inconsolable and egged on by a libertine friend (August Diehl, boasting an unsteady accent), he falls into a life of debauchery that is rather too tastefully filmed. The heavy drinking and hanky-panky only come to a screeching halt when Octave’s father dies.
While still in mourning, Octave meets a young widow, Brigitte (Gainsbourg), during a wintertime walk that’s captured, like much of the film, in seemingly anachronistic but very effective handheld shots. The couple’s black period garb also stands out nicely against the snow-covered landscape, showing Verheyde (“Stella”) has a good visual sense.
Octave falls in love with Brigitte immediately and, after a lot of bosom-heaving and haggling, she finally admits she has the hots for him, too. This transpires in long swaths of dialogue, although most of de Musset’s poetic qualities are lost in the pedestrian English used here. The drawing-room scenes with bigger groups feel quite authentic, but credibility plummets whenever Verheyde gets Octave and Brigitte alone, with the actors incapable of suggesting anything nonverbal about their rapport.
What remains is a chemistry-free period piece with interesting cinematography, a vaguely New Age-y score that manages to be both melancholic and propulsive, and costume and production design that are austere, probably due to budgetary reasons more than anything else.