Pete Doherty is a really, really bad actor

The former Libertine isn't very good at playing a libertine.

Witness the trailer for Pete Doherty's debut film role, in which the ex-Libertine mumbles his way through his lines with the grace of a gawky sixth former desperately reciting some half-learned poetry to an uninterested crush:

Notice too how little the trailer shows of Doherty actually acting. There's a reason for this, apparently. As the Guardian's Catherine Shoard writes:

His performance as a shambling yet sensitive libertine (geddit?) in Sylvie Verheyde's adaptation of the Alfred de Musset novel is catastrophic. Still, that does mean it's tonally of a piece with the rest of the film.

Or the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw (yes, the film is so bad they gave it two one-star reviews):

It's not exactly like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs. It's more like seeing one of those dogs on the TV show That's Life! that could say "sausages". Only instead of saying "sausages", it's saying, "You understand, madam, that I am the greatest libertine in all Paris!" while wearing a top hat.

The Telegraph's Robbie Collin is kinder. To the film, at least:

How much damage can one man’s performance wreak on an otherwise serviceable film? When the film is this adaptation of Alfred de Musset’s semi-fictionalised memoir, and the man is Pete Doherty, the answer could be measured on the Richter scale.

The Hollywood Reporter's Megan Lehmann:

The role of a beautiful and damned 19th century libertine sounds like a perfect fit for disheveled English rock poet Pete Doherty, but then there’s the little matter of being able to act. 

Based on his debut performance in Sylvie Verheyde’s Cannes Un Certain Regard entry, Confessions of a Child of the Century, an intolerably dull adaptation of French romanticist Alfred de Musset’s 1830s novel of debauchery and despair, the Libertines and Babyshambles singer shouldn’t even think of giving up his day job.

Total Film's James Mottram:

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, casting the former Libertines frontman as Octave, the debauched Parisian, but the novelty soon wears off. Suffocated by Sylvie Verheyde’s lifeless direction, Doherty’s so ill at ease you’d think his britches were too tight.

At this point, I started feeling bad for Doherty, so I tried to track down a good write-up. I couldn't. The film is currently 0 per cent "fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe steer clear of this one.

Pete Doherty and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Confessions of a Child of the Century.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear