Or: We Need to Talk About Fascism. Brady Corbet’s debut feature film is a finely-constructed work, rooted deeply in the annals of intellectually challenging European arthouse cinema, though it is hampered by not attaining quite the same level of intellectual clarity as its best peers. Corbet, who has been acting since his teenage years—his first leading role was in Gregg Araki’s masterpiece Mysterious Skin (2004)—has recently moved towards scriptwriting with Simon Killer (2012) and Sleepwalkers (2014). Now with The Childhood of a Leader he finally takes charge behind the camera as well. The results are interesting, even if the film is at times patchy and overly oblique for its own good.
Set in the immediate aftermath of World War One in a country home near Paris, we are introduced to a pre-adolescent boy (Tom Sweet), whose father is an American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) in France to start negotiations for the Versailles treaty and whose mother (Bérénice Bejo) is a German-born missionary’s daughter, world-travelled but deeply religious. The action is broken up by title cards announcing three ever-increasingly aggressive tantrums by the boy, as well as an overture and an epilogue, set in some unclear future by which time a fascist leader has taken charge (Robert Pattinson, although he also has a role earlier in the film as a young friend of the boy’s father, leading to questions over whose childhood exactly we are seeing).
As the boy’s tantrums get ever more violent, moving from minor childhood transgressions, such as throwing rocks, to pseudo-sexual ones to full-on violence, the film muses throughout upon the psychological background of extremist leaders. This is confirmed as much by the film’s end credits, which includes a list of intellectual influences, including Jean Paul Sartre, whose short story of the same name this film is loosely based on, certainly in intention if not entirely form and structure.
Cinematically, the film’s closest cousin is probably the work of Michael Haneke (unsurprising as Corbet acted in Haneke’s 2007 remake of his legendary Funny Games). The Austrian auteur’s preoccupation with the origins of evil are very present here, especially his Palme d’or-winning The White Ribbon (2009). Both films are set in a similar time period, Haneke’s work dealing with increasingly bizarre and darkening circumstances in a German village, whilst Corbet focuses similarly on a French country house. Corbet especially seems to have picked up Haneke’s long-take focus, in which the exacting lens of his camera zeroes in on his characters, trapping them, following them, suffocating them.
In Tom Sweet’s brilliant performance, with angelic, androgynous appearance—his long locks lead to him frequently being mistaken for a girl, much to his anger—contrasting with an undercurrent of manipulation and coldness, one could also draw a parallel with the classic horror The Omen (1976), in which a demon child wreaks havoc upon those around him. Hell, even his adopted father there is an American diplomat.
Indeed, The Childhood of a Leader often plays like a horror without any of the horror, preying on the sense of foreboding and darkness engendered by its title, setting, and mood: the dark shadows of the musty French country manor in which the family lives are pierced only occasionally by the cold winter sunshine. There are some incredible images here, courtesy of the excellent work by cinematographer Lol Crawley, and they are aided by the film’s greatest asset, its soundtrack. A furious, thunderous string-based orchestral score by Scott Walker, one of the greatest composers/songwriters/singers/maniacs of the past fifty years, the score arguably threatens to overtake the film, but as far as the film’s throbbingly dark mood goes, the score sets the atmosphere with such a forceful sense of purpose that it’s hard to complain.
The problem is that, despite all these strong elements (the supporting performances too are excellent), The Childhood of a Leader ultimately feels a too stiflingly academic to truly work. It comes across more as a thesis than as a film, with layers of metaphor and analogy, in debt to Europe’s intellectual history, but little to say of its own. Perhaps a second viewing will open up the film, so dense is it with allegory and suggestive implication, but it may well be a case of a young filmmaker making things oblique as a result of a lack of confidence in his ideas rather than as a way of challenging audiences to come to their own conclusions.
What results is an exquisitely-constructed film that is less than the sum of its parts. This is after all, the work of a first-time feature director, and an admirably ambitious one at that. For that, Corbet ought to be applauded, barely 28 and attempting a work of complex intellectual promise, even if that promise remains unfulfilled. The Childhood of a Leader isn’t quite a success, but it is an interesting and worthwhile work.