What sounds like a dictator’s pre-pubescent biography transmutes into a tapestry of tales copped from the collective childhood’s of the 20th century’s worst enemies. Borrowing its title from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1939 short story, indie actor Brady Corbet’s (Eden, While We’re Young, Melancholia) directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader is a thoroughly art-house affair that will win critic’s affections, but no doubt alienate mainstream audiences. Still, amid Corbet’s predilection for the melodramatic, there is something distressingly original to be unearthed from a filmmaker who, it seems, is just flexing his muscles.
Robert Pattinson might be gracing the covers of The Times and Vanity Fair alongside Corbet in promotion of their festival-feted tour-de-force, but Edward Cullen devotees be warned, his appearances are scant. The real headliner is Tom Sweet, a girlishly striking young actor plucked from obscurity and burdened with carrying the effectiveness of the film on his bony shoulders. His, after all, is the childhood in question. Born to a German mother (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo) and an American diplomat father (Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham), aiding President Wilson in the rebuilding of post-WW1 society, Prescott is the fruit of a frost-bitten harvest. All too aware of the wandering eyes and language barriers that afflict the already chilly relations between his parents, Prescott has been raised in an environment where callousness and commands take precedence over compassion. Tracing disobedience which builds to deviance and eventually flourishes into full-blown despotism, The Childhood of a Leader plays like a period We Need To Talk About Kevin, which says enough about the kind of mood you need to be in to watch it.
With ferocious singularity, Corbet and his eclectic menagerie of a cast deliver a potent piece of cinema that will linger in your mind.
The film is structured in three acts, each labelled as tantrums and as one might expect, each escalating to have eye-widening ramifications. Boredom, might have something to do with it. Prescott, newly acquainted with his French chateau digs, has yet to make friends and finds reprieve in acting out. Whether it be throwing rocks at Parishioners in the family’s local church or humiliating his French tutor (Nymphomaniac’s Stacy Martin) with a series of calculated moves, Prescott discovers – not childish delight – but cold-hearted content in the chaos he is able to create. Status, appearance and religion are that which the family hold dear, something which Prescott recognises and learns how to unsettle early on. This is a child with an uncanny ability to undermine and override adult authority; revealing it to be fragile and performative.
With discipline failing and attempts at ‘befriending’ their child proving futile, Bejo and Cunningham – both efficiently effective in their roles – alternate between acquiescing entirely to their temper-prone spawn, or discussing providing him with a sibling, as if to erase his presence altogether. Though the triptych arc of Childhood is compelling in it’s setup, you can’t help but feel short-shrifted in terms of context and emotional depth. When Prescott’s third and final tantrum rolls around and a hostile environment – on both a personal and historical level – culminates in a dinner party with grave consequences, the explanations, or lack thereof errs on the frustrating side. For a film that projects anything but subtlety, it’s ironically prudish regarding the reasons behind the child’s maniacal tendencies.
A delirious and stylistically salient epilogue infers the result of all this bad behaviour, heavily alluding to World War Two and the appearance of a leader whom made his beliefs devastatingly known. Though the interim period might’ve done with a touch more fleshing out. A bizarre twist of sorts – slash – casting choice (best not to IMDb this one before watching) does nothing to alleviate the air of confusion.
All of this being said, with ferocious singularity, Corbet and his eclectic menagerie of a cast, deliver a potent piece of cinema that will linger in your mind. What begins as a simmering study of childhood malevolence ignites to something much weightier and indeed, timely. Despite its languorous pacing, this is a tightly-wound narrative and Corbet’s is a film that never wastes a single moment. Each glance or exchange is significant and frequently informs a later action.
With a strident score and deft camera movement, Childhood persistently places you on the back foot, making you aware that something sinister is brewing but distinctly not in a position to stop it. You can only look on – through splayed fingers, such are the mounting levels of tension – as the tantrums progress and the consequences worsen. There’s a particular moment, about halfway through, where the camera tracks Prescott from behind as he ascends the stairs to his bedroom; the musical orchestrations mounting and gnawing away at your insides. Prescott enters his bedroom, turns around and promptly slams the door in our face. His is not a perspective we are ever given insight into.
Corbet’s is a handsomely-mounted and atmospheric debut; presented with a decided amount of operatic theatricality. Shot by cinematographer Lol Crawley, who most recently worked on 45 Years, the colour palette of Childhood is a bewitching mixture of foreboding darkness and translucent shafts of light; menacing images occasionally punctured by cherubic beauty. The house meanwhile, is adorned with opulent curtains, through which Prescott makes several entrances and Corbet frequently frames his characters in wide shots, as if you are watching them on stage rather than screen. Interestingly for all the wealth and power tied up in this family, the house ripples with cracked walls and peeling paint, as if signifying postwar dilapidation and the fraying familial relationships. This was an era after all when everything appeared to be unravelling at the seams. (Did I use the word timely already?)
Despite his American background, Corbet’s cast and directorial sensibilities reflect a resume speckled with European influences. Written with his Norwegian partner Mona Fastvold, with whom he also collaborated on The Sleepwalker, a brilliantly unnerving and underrated thriller starring Christopher Abbott, there are semblances of Trier, Haneke, Force Majeure’s Ruben Östlund and Assayas. No doubt absorbed from Corbet’s time spent on their sets. After working for a great many auteurs, it comes as little surprise that with Childhood, Corbet exhibits the makings of a great one.