Dissecting Nihilism and Romanticism in Confession of a Child of the Century

 

Sylvie Verheyde’s 2012 film, Confession of a Child of the Century, based on Alfred de Musset’s 1836 semi-autobiographical novel, tells the tragic love story of Octave and Brigitte set in 19th Century France. Octave, a young aristocrat and self-described libertine played by English musician Pete Doherty, falls in love with an older widow, Brigitte, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Having been left by his fiancé at the beginning of the film, Octave obsessively pursues Brigitte, eventually convincing her that his love for her is genuine, and not merely a defect of his youth, as she initially believes. Brigitte is more reticent of this new relationship, and spurns Octave’s advances, before eventually giving in to her feelings for him. However, the relationship turns sour as a result of their melancholic nature, Octave’s affinity for partying, and Brigitte’s interest in another man. The characters, particularly Octave, seem to embrace without question the belief that life is inherently meaningless, however they throw themselves completely into their romantic relationship as the only beacon of hope. Love and the associated emotions are all that give life meaning for Octave and Brigitte. But as the film purports, love is transitory, even illusory, therefore life is still fundamentally meaningless to the characters. When love is lost, or revealed to be untrue, the characters fall into complete despair. The film, reflecting the tone of its source material, borrows heavily from the style of the Romantic period, while also embracing the seemingly contradictory view that love does not exist, and life is ultimately meaningless.

Alfred de Musset’s original novel, La confession d’un enfant du siècle, is a prime example of the literature of the Romantic period, largely through its emphasis on human relations, emotions, and an overwhelming sense of melancholy. Despite the latter quality, the central character of the story (based on Musset himself) ultimately comes to a place of hope, despite many hardships along the way. He traverses chaotic relationships, questions his purpose, suffers greatly, but in the end, discovers his belief in God. In keeping with many of the themes of Romantic literature, Musset praises the individual, and sees the beauty of nature and love as a reflection of God. However, Verheyde’s film adaptation takes a different approach, both in style and tone. While Octave narrates the story, his character is portrayed (both physically and through his words) as an eternally depressed and listless man. He drinks to excess and hates his own nature, but also exalts himself as a young man who is wise beyond his years. He recognizes his own temperament, which he refers to as the “disease of the century,” as he believes it has afflicted his entire generation. Octave describes this disease as:

“A feeling of inexpressible discomfort [that] began to ferment in all young hearts. Sentenced to idleness and boredom, the anxiety of death wormed its way into their soul. If it was tantamount to a negation of all things, then one can call it disenchantment or desperation, if one prefers.”

It is this disenchantment with life that initially leaves Octave in despair; a despair that he believes can only be cured with love. But even as he seeks love, he is dubious of the concept. Having lost the woman that he thought to be his one true love, Octave proclaims that he “no longer believed in the possibility of loving.”

However, soon after this proclamation, Octave meets Brigitte, and quickly develops an intense attraction to her. He simultaneously embraces this newfound love while dismissing the authenticity of love outright. During a walk through the woods with Brigitte, Octave states that he “believe[s] in nothing” but wishes to die loving her. He later advises her, “If you have a passionate soul, I’ll tell you straight off, love doesn’t exist. Just throw yourself headlong into the world.” It is this seemingly paradoxical view that permeates the film. Octave is both a believer in nothing and a hopeless romantic, chasing love, and attributing meaning to life only through its association with love. These qualities are common in the Romantic philosophy, which wholly embraces the often transitory and even contradictory emotions of the individual. It is this paradoxical theme that gives rise to the constant battle in the relationship between Octave and Brigitte: reconciling a belief in nothing with intense feelings of love. This is further exemplified when Octave proclaims, “I do not believe anything, except that you are beautiful.”

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It is also important to note that the visual style works in tandem with the tone of the source material to intensify the ennui of the lead characters. While the costumes and settings all work to recreate an authentic image of 19th Century France, the color scheme is noticeably washed out to reflect Octave and Brigitte’s underlying sadness. It also works to foreshadow the relationships demise, even at times of pure joy and ecstasy. In scenes where Octave and Brigitte lie in bed together, professing their love for each other, the mis en scene is simple, and the colors are faded and lifeless, with primarily gray tones. The actor’s performances are also reserved, with the influence of the image speaking for their emotions. Pete Doherty narrates dryly over the image, and the audience is left with a similar feeling of listlessness as the camera floats from one gray scene to the next. Even the French countryside appears dead and decaying.

Rather than adopting the conclusion of the source material, the film chooses to allow the characters to wallow in perpetual misery, devoid of any real answers or knowledge to cling to. While Octave and Brigitte’s relationship starts with their physical and emotional attraction to one another, quickly becoming intensely passionate, it soon devolves into an ugly and jealous affair. Octave, ostensibly addicted to his former activities before meeting Brigitte, continues to drink and party, enjoying the company of prostitutes while still professing his love for Brigitte. Alternatively, Octave discovers Brigitte’s journal, and reads aloud her confessions about another man for whom she has harbored strong feelings. Octave, knowing that he has also been unfaithful, feels betrayed but decides to dismiss it and reconfirm his love for her. However, Brigitte, having increasingly strong feelings for this other man, begins to distance herself from Octave, and wavers on whether or not to leave the country with him. It is at this point that Brigitte confronts Octave, questioning the sanity of their relationship, and ultimately decides, with much difficulty, that they cannot be together any longer. During this final confrontation, they both question if love is something worthy of their pursuit, and Brigitte implores Octave that, “you have to decide, either love is a good thing, or it is evil…if it is good, you must believe in it…if it is evil, you must recover from it.” When they are both faced with their own lack of belief in any meaning, they come to realize that their relationship is doomed for failure. As they cannot reconcile their emotions with their own nihilism, they are left to wallow in misery, unable to cultivate their love for one another.

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