Dense chron­i­cle of a life fore­told

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

(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.


Xavier Samuel in The Death & Life of Otto Bloom; be­low, Tom Sweet and Stacy Martin in

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