JWR Articles: Film/DVD - The Child Prodigy (Director/Writer: Luc Dionne) - January 15, 2011

The Child Prodigy

L'enfant prodige

2 2
101 min.

Reviewed at the 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival
No great loss

The best moment in Luc Dionne’s fanciful reconstruction of “child prodigy” André Mathieu has much in common with Antonio Salieri in a scene from Amadeus (cross-reference below). In Paris, having just played his music for a select crowd at no less than Salle Chopin, the chubby-cheek boy (ideally portrayed by Zaccari-Charles Jobin) slips on a 78 rpm disc of Sergei Rachmaninoff (who sensationally attended the performance then—apparently—spoke highly of the young lad’s compositional gifts). For the first and last time in the film, the music captivated and beguiled as only masterworks can. The unmistakeable look of envy on André’s face is nearly identical in the subtle, intense understanding that washed over F. Murray Abraham as he “heard” Mozart’s Serenade in C Minor for Wind Octet come to dramatic life in his mind’s ear.

Hearing director/writer Luc Dionne state at the post-screening Q&A that Mathieu’s Fourth Piano Concerto could rightfully be dubbed “Rachmaninoff’s Fifth” sent me galloping to the exit.

There is no chance of a sudden renaissance for the workmanlike compositions that filled almost all of the production’s music tracks.

Clearly, Dionne is not Felix Mendelssohn, breathing new life into J.S. Bach’s forgotten works.

For a production all about classical music, more’s the pity the basic details didn’t get a scrubbing by Alain Lefèvre (the pianist did a masterful job bringing the slight compositions to musical life—curiously, performed on nearly every major keyboard manufacturer: no exclusive “product placement,” for a welcome change). The composition lesson where the American mentor argued for half-notes instead of triplets was nothing short of ludicrous. Much later, hearing that Mathieu’s student’s instruments were not “a quarter tone out of tune”—the players, not their tools, were the culprits (intentionally, no doubt) of the sour result—was another wrong note. Having noted conductor Wilfrid Pelletier (believably rendered by Benoît Brière) forced to admit that the Montréal Symphony Orchestra couldn’t possibly perform an “unheard” piece without twenty hours’ rehearsal belies both the skill-sets of the players and the rehearsal practices of the day. Finally, the editing crew must take a hit for framing the same section violinist with Mathieu with orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic even as the virtuoso was dazzling crowds with his baby face and adult technique.

Sadly, once André grew up (now played by Patrick Drolet) and began his torrid love affair with alcohol, the film lost all of its musical magic—trite works or not. The Oedipus complex scenes with his mother (pathetically, the call home on his wedding night—prompting his bride’s only rejoinder, “let’s have a baby”—sent her to the wings never to return) were so melodramatic (“There will never be another Mrs. Mathieu”) that all of the potential for artistic redemption for suspect work was knocked down to the lowest common denominator. The several career comeback attempts—famously a 21-hour piano derby on radio, featured crisp, clean, nearly note-perfect playing despite a constant infusion of Canadian Club et al—further undermined any remaining musical credibility.

Not since The Pianist (cross-reference below) has too good a performance been so at odds with the actual situation.

RIP, André Mathieu. Your tortured life had little in common with this recreation and even if your music gets more play time, you’ll never see the royalties. JWR

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Further information, future screening/performance/exhibition dates,
purchase information, production sponsors:
Palm Springs International Film Festival
Cross-reference(s): Please click on the image link(s) below
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Reader's Forum
February 19, 2020

I read your jaunty review of l'enfant prodige (2010). The film had a profound effect on me and I'm sorry you wasted the opportunity of this film. Perhaps you don't speak French.

Tragédie is a big word which working musicians are not allowed to mouth when one of their own goes down. The film is a tragédie not because of its making but because of the subject. So tragic in fact that the music you find trite still resonates with me days later.

One of the subjects of the story is the sang-froid with which musicians (and other artists) can climb over each other to sink them. Your review is of that sort. I had one issue with the film in that it gave the viewer no way out: no nasty traits of the young composer, no sense that any other aspect of his life gave him pleasure. It is uncompromising. You are wrong.

Sandra S., Montréal, Québec, Canada