The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

  • Time: 115 min
  • Genre: Drama | Horror | Mystery
  • Director: Brady Corbet
  • Cast: Robert Pattinson, Liam Cunningham, Bérénice Bejo


This chilling fable about the rise of fascism in the 20th Century tells the story of a young American boy living in France in 1918 whose father is working for the US government on the creation of the Treaty of Versailles. What he witnesses helps to mould his beliefs – and we witness the birth of a terrifying ego. Loosely inspired by the early childhood experiences of many of the great dictators of the 20th Century and infused with the same sense of dread as The Others and The Omen, The Childhood of a Leader is an ominous portrait of emerging evil.

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  • Is monstrosity born out of the dregs of mundanity? Is it fashioned by those who raise by neglect? Is it already in the bloodstream, deforming from within? The Childhood of a Leader provides an elliptical treatise on the subject and marks an impressive but problematic feature film debut from actor Brady Corbet.

    Taking its title and inspiration from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1939 short story but also nodding to the more recent We Need to Talk About Kevin, Corbet and co-screenwriter Mona Fastvold divide the narrative into five sections: – an overture, three chapters named “Tantrums” and a coda. The overture, comprised of archival newsreel footage, establishes the historical and political backdrop that will continue to lurk in the film’s margins. It is approximately 1918, World War I has brought about devastation, and President Woodrow Wilson has come to France to negotiate what would later be known as the Treaty of Versailles with several other world leaders. An American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) serving as assistant director to the President’s Secretary of State has moved to France with his German-born wife (Bérénice Bejo) and their seven-year-old son (Tom Sweet).

    The boy’s first tantrum is the throwing of rocks at local partitioners. It seems innocuous enough, though the chapter title, “A Sign of Things to Come,” warns us otherwise. His mother wonders why he would do such a thing, his father is too busy spending time in the city for work (and possibly extracurricular activities) to pay much notice. Often mistaken for a girl because of his long blond locks, the boy whiles away his time rattling around his home, finding varying degrees of warmth from a kindly housekeeper (Yolande Moreau) and his French tutor Ada (Stacy Martin), whose breast he grabs during one lesson. The fates of the two women lead to the second tantrum, which results in the boy’s awareness that there are people who wield power and that he himself has the ability to manipulate those around him for ultimate control.

    This is not a film that will sate viewers in search of the formulaic cause-and-effect or ones hoping for a little melo in their drama. Corbet and Fastvold offer suggestions that the making of a monster can be rooted in religious fanaticism (symbolised by the Mother), gender confusion, sexual awakening, and overhearing hushed talk about redrawing national borders. Yet they also remain noncommittal to such pat reasonings. Sometimes people are evil because they can be (see Michel Haneke’s American version of Funny Games in which Corbet co-starred as one of the two sociopaths that terrorise a family), and sometimes people are evil because people allow them to be. John Fowles’ statement regarding the Holocaust is directly lifted here: “That was the tragedy. Not that one man has the courage to be evil, but that so many have not the courage to be good.”

    The Childhood of a Leader constantly runs the risk of being an opaque intellectual exercise. There is a prevailing airlessness about the film, its languorousness both leeching and asphyxiating, but its visual and sonic ambitions are not to be ignored. The nails-on-the-blackboard score by Scott Walker may be hazardous to the central nervous system. Slashing and stabbing, piercing and pounding, it is symphonically homicidal, deliberately disorienting and willfully bludgeoning. Yet it serves to animate and portend the formal rigor of cinematographer Lol Crawley’s richly textured compositions. The film’s astonishing final moments find Crawley’s camera reeling and thrashing as if in ecstasy or exorcism with Walker’s music even more intent in provoking a grand mal seizure.

    Corbet is obviously influenced by many a cinematic master from Orson Welles, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, the aforementioned Haneke, Raúl Ruiz, and Alexander Sokurov, but The Childhood of a Leader is very much his own vision. The greatest lesson Corbet appears to have learned from these auteurs is the refusal to compromise, to adhere to the totality of his imagination and creativity. The Childhood of a Leader may not be for all tastes, but it is clearly the work of someone to whom attention must be paid.

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