SIFF “Face the Music” preview: The Child Prodigy

The Child Prodigy is a biopic directed by French-Canadian filmmaker Luc Dionne that follows the real-life story of Andre Mathieu, a young piano-playing prodigy from Montreal whose promising career was derailed by alcoholism and depression.

Festival Screenings:

Friday, May 20 - 7 pm - Pacific Place
Sunday, May 22 - 3:30 pm - Pacific Place
Thursday, June 2 - 4 pm - Everett

Seeing as this is a music blog, and that The Child Prodigy is part of the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival’s “Face The Music” series, I think it’s probably appropriate to address the film’s music first and foremost. After all, it was its strongest aspect. Pinning down the music, which included not only Andre Mathieu’s compositions but how they would be performed on screen, was one of the principle challenges director Luc Dionne had to address, and I must say he did an excellent job. The scenes featuring the younger version of Mathieu performing for his father, auditioning for Julliard, or playing at one of the several recitals featured in the film are truly stunning, leaving viewers with the same sense of awe that must have come over those watching the young Mathieu perform live in the 1930s. The camerawork during such scenes is not only able to communicate the virtuosic grace and command Mathieu had over the piano at such a young age, but also includes several impressive shots of the inner workings of the piano itself, showing the hammers striking the strings and being held and released in accordance with whatever Mathieu happens to be playing. Basically anything to do with the performances, auditions, Mathieu’s compositions, the piano, or anything else to do with music kicked ass.

As for the actual story and structure of the film, the first half of The Child Prodigy features Mathieu as he is first being discovered, from ages 6-11, while the second half features an older, alcoholic Mathieu, played by French actor Patrick Drolet. The musical numbers are most affecting during scenes featuring Mathieu as a youngster, and as a result the first portion is easily the strongest part of the film. From the touching opening scene where a six-year-old Mathieu dazzles his composer father Rodolphe (played by Marc Labreche), to a recital in Paris where he impresses famed Russian pianist Rachmaninoff, the film’s first half does an excellent job communicating to the audience the nature of Mathieu’s genius and just how rare of a talent he was. You can’t help but root for him as his parents, who have dedicated their lives to his career, whisk him from Montreal to New York to Paris to perform in front of the world’s musical elite. Mathieu never fails to amaze his audience and Dionne makes it easy for viewers to imagine the success that awaits in Mathieu’s future.

What I expected from The Child Prodigy was an examination of the psychology of how Mathieu went from the precocious, adored, and musically flawless youth into a disillusioned alcoholic. Unfortunately, this whole portion of Matheiu’s life is not included in the film! The Child Prodigy does catalog some of the events which deepen his depression later in life, but after leaving the young Mathieu as he wins a New York Philharmonic composition contest, the film picks up with an already somewhat washed-up, alcoholic Mathieu who is well on his way out of the spotlight. What happened in between these two phases, I felt, would have been the most interesting part of his life to examine.

After his youth comes Mathieu’s “long, slow slide into depression and dissolution,” and this is what Dionne attempts to tackle in the film’s second portion, which sees Mathieu as a disgruntled alcoholic who cannot seem to help himself. He eventually bottoms out as the featured participant in a “piano derby,” where he attempts to break the Canadian record for endurance piano playing. Unlike the film’s first portion, the latter half feels contrived, as if Dionne is trying to squeeze in as many of Matheiu’s biographical checkpoints as he can, while only brushing over their emotional and psychological significance. The result is a string of events and decisions made by Mathieu that are not properly founded, and thus are not as affecting as they should be.

Nevertheless, the film is worth seeing solely for the stunning musical scenes and, as is true to the title, the portrayal of Mathieu’s life as a child prodigy. Even though it may falter in adequately getting to the bottom of the psychological and circumstantial factors that made Mathieu turn to alcohol and begin his slide into depression and obscurity, The Child Prodigy is a “can’t miss” for any fans of classical piano or those interested in the nature of a child gifted with prodigious talent.

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