Dense chronicle of a life foretold
(M) he first feature film from Australian writer-director Cris Jones, The Death & Life of Otto Bloom, is nothing if not ambitious. Inspired by Albert Einstein’s perspective of time (“the perception we are moving forward is an illusion. Time is just another dimension of the physical universe and every moment is therefore simultaneously real”) and channelling other films that deal with the non-linear ( The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Memento), Jones has made a faux-documentary (perhaps influenced by Woody Allen’s Zelig) about a man who is born with all his life’s memories but will die with none. Otto Bloom, well acted by Xavier Samuel, will remember the times you shared with him before they actually occurred.
Sounds intriguing? It certainly is, but the trouble is that Jones’s abilities don’t quite match his ambitions. His story is, on one viewing at least, difficult to follow but, more importantly, difficult to engage with — and that’s despite the strong performances of Samuel and the sublime Rachel Ward and her talented daughter, Matilda Brown, who play Bloom’s lover Ada Fitzgerald at different periods of time.
I’m not certain that I’m capable of describing the bare bones of the plot, but it seems that Bloom appears out of nowhere in 1983 when Bob Simkin (Terry Camilleri) goes to a homeless men’s shelter to assist a young amnesiac. The youth is assigned to Dr Fitzgerald (Brown) and, to her astonishment, knows her name before they are introduced.
In the documentary format that follows, various witnesses reveal that Bloom experiences time in reverse: he and Ada become lovers but he leaves her for other women.
The talking-heads witnesses, filmed as if they were taking part in an Errol Morris documentary, include the man who “manages” Bloom (Tyler Coppin), an art critic (Suzy Cato-Gashler), a philosopher (Jacek Koman) attracted to his outlook on the world, and a physicist (John Gaden), while the images — provided by cinematographer Laszlo Baranyai — employ “found” footage such as home videos, television footage and even CCTV camera footage. Jones divides the film into chapters, some of which evoke the titles of other movies (“The Man Without a Past”, “The Fallen Idol”).
On one level, the film delves into the shallow world of popular fads and personalities, and Bloom is photographed in the company of reallife celebrities such as Ronald Reagan, Stephen Hawking and Burt Reynolds; but dialogue that talks about “inverse temporal perception” becomes a bit wearying as the film proceeds.
One element that particularly intrigued me was that Bloom apparently makes a short film in 1985 that is hailed as highly original — but what we see of it indicates that it’s a dead ringer for Canadian animator Norman McLaren’s Pas de Deux, which was made in 1968.
The Death and Life of Otto Bloom challenges its audience and there’s nothing wrong with that. So, too, did the Spierig Brothers’ extraordinary Predestination, but whereas that underappreciated masterwork of Australian fantasy cinema succeeded on every level, Otto Bloom falls short. “He hadn’t remembered me from the past, he’d remembered me from the future” is an impressive line — and a tantalising idea — but the film that contains it is just too dense and enigmatic to make its unusual proposition accessible. The Childhood of a Leader is also a first feature, the work of 28-year-old American actor Brady Corbet. Prized in Venice a couple of years ago, it’s another ambitious but not entirely successful drama with a strange, unfathomable protagonist.
The period in which the film unfolds is the immediate aftermath of World War I. The title character is Prescott (Tom Sweet), the sevenyear-old son of an American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) assigned by president Woodrow Wilson to negotiate a postwar peace treaty. Based in a house on the outskirts of Paris — though the film was made in Hungary — the man and his wife (Berenice Bejo) carry out their official duties while worrying over the antisocial attitudes of their son.
Prescott, first seen dressed as an angel for his role in a school nativity play, is a strange child, given to the “tantrums” that provide the film with the titles of the chapters that divide it. He wears his hair long and refuses to have it cut, but resents being mistaken for a girl. He throws rocks at the other kids taking part in the play, upsets his pretty French tutor (Stacy Martin) by touching her breasts, and is chillingly resentful towards his parents, whose attempts to punish him are singularly unsuccessful.
He’s like one of those “bad children” from an early-20th-century book of cautionary poems The Childhood of a Leader (“The chief defect of Henry King was chewing little bits of string”). Corbet opens this portrait of a dictator as a young boy with a bang: a thunderous music score, by Scott Walker, accompanies horrific newsreel images of World War I before the film’s first chapter devotes much of its time to rather dull discussions between the father and a French politician, played by an unengaged Robert Pattinson in one of two roles he essays in the film. In fact, Prescott’s story, adapted by Corbet from a short story written in 1939 by no less an author than Jean-Paul Sartre, isn’t particularly involving. The boy is a pain in the arse, his parents too involved in their own lives to deal with him adequately, and only the French housekeeper (Yolande Moreau), a kind, motherly woman, seems to provide him with anything that approaches love.
The problem with the film is that it promises more than it delivers. The title is intriguing, suggesting that this might be a portrait of one of the 20th century’s evil dictators in embryo. But despite a strange and unsatisfactory epilogue set many years later, the film fails to inform on this level. It leads you to expect far more than you actually get. There are, apparently, allusions to the childhood of Mussolini (the throwing of rocks), but in the end the film is entirely, annoyingly, non-specific.
This said, The Childhood of a Leader is not negligible. It’s handsomely photographed on 35mm film, not the digital format that has become the norm these days, by Lol Crawley, and Sweet is remarkably good as the child who quietly plots his revenge on the adults who make his life miserable. And there are intriguing details, such as the fact that the boy’s mother comes from Strasbourg, a city that is about to change hands in the Treaty of Versailles in which her husband is involved.
There have been plenty of films about monster children, from The Bad Seed to Village of the Damned, The Omen and countless others. The Childhood of a Leader seems to be striving to be a thinking person’s approach to a monster child and, as such, it tends to fall between two stools. It’s visually handsome and intriguing but really not very satisfying — though I’d bet we’ll be hearing more from Brady Corbet in the future.
OTTO BLOOM WILL REMEMBER THE TIMES YOU SHARED WITH HIM BEFORE THEY ACTUALLY OCCURRED
Xavier Samuel in The Death & Life of Otto Bloom; below, Tom Sweet and Stacy Martin in