by Ren Zelen
During the blockbuster summer months, it’s an unusual event to go into a darkened room and see something disturbingly different.
During the opening titles of Brady Corbet’s debut feature The Childhood of a Leader, avant-garde composer Scott Walker’s menacing and edgy strings cut into archival footage of World War I troops marching in formation. Walker’s score is a particularly prominent feature, and slices into the movie like the scalpel of a nervy surgeon. The music for the entire movie sounds as if it were written for a particularly gruesome horror. The desired effect one presumes, is to telegraph to the audience that this is a truly ominous origin story, on par with the rise of Damien in ‘The Omen’.
Corbet however, has made a debut that’s far more European in its sensibility than American. The film not only takes place in France, it also deals with a particular event in European history: the Treaty of Versailles – when one world war was coming to an end, even as the conditions for the next were being propagated.
Corbet wrote the script with Mona Fastvold, and it is reportedly based on a 1939 short story of the same title by Jean-Paul Sartre that traced the evolution of a young boy from problematic early years, through Freudian therapy, to his espousal of anti-Semitic Fascist ideology as an adult. When I discovered this, some of the more difficult aspects of the movie started to make sense in a kind of ‘Sartreian’ way.
The film is divided into five sections (an overture, three ‘Tantrums,’ and a coda)and begins in 1918, when a seven-year-old boy moves to France with his American diplomat father (Liam Cunningham) and German mother (Berenice Bejo) and has to adapt to a new language and the devout European Catholicism of his mother.
His father is an assistant director to President Wilson’s Secretary of State, and is prominent in conducting the Paris peace negotiations. Much of this is explained in a mumbled and detached introductory dialogue between Cunningham’s character and widowed journalist Charles Marker (Robert Pattinson, who appears to play another role later in the film) as they exchange political views and academic analogies over a hazily inebriated game of billiards and subsequent brandy-and-cigars.
While the music veteran Walker was a brave choice of composer, the film isn’t entirely in sympathy with his strident, turbulent score. The thunder and terror of the instrumentals seems at odds with the subdued colours and lighting in which cinematographer Lol Crawley bathes the family house.
The house takes on a character of its own, exuding moods and secrets evoked through oblique camera angles, muted colours and shots that linger just that little bit too long in empty, shadowy rooms – the watery winter sunlight giving a blue-grey tinge to everything.
At the centre of this pensive and crepuscular environment is the child Prescott, played with disconcerting assurance by British newcomer Tom Sweet (who more or less overshadows the entire adult ensemble).
The boy passes his time by cold-bloodedly antagonizing those around him (in blatantly Freudian manner) by throwing rocks at parishioners after the church Nativity play, grasping the breast of his gentle French tutor Ada (Stacy Martin) whom he then summarily dismisses, parading naked through the house during one of his father’s important meetings and finally locking himself in his room and going on hunger strike.
His offenses result in battles of will between the boy and his equally hard-headed parents, whose determined acts of discipline are met with indifference or disdain. Only kindly and affectionate housekeeper Mona (Yolande Moreau) seems able to mediate, but when she is caught being lax in enforcing a punishment she is fired by the mother, which causes the first truly emotional outburst from the boy.
His parents occupy their own separate worlds within the home and have a distant relationship – the mother not wanting any more children, the father possibly philandering – nothing is made obvious, and we are left to draw our own conclusions. The parents come together only to eat dinner or confer on the care and discipline of the boy.
The boy may be headstrong to an obnoxious extent, yet seems no more disruptive than any entitled upper-class son of that era. It is Tom Sweet’s performance, an extraordinary piece of work by an actor so young, which impressively anchors the film. However, the disorienting, obscure, pseudo-historical finale, where the camera itself becomes a wildly crazed thing, prompted by Walker’s increasingly mad and intimidating score, almost annuls the visual virtuosity attempted earlier.
The Childhood of a Leader is an audacious initial cinematic statement, its cerebral doggedness disguising the fact that it dispenses with the psychological complexities of Sartre’s source material. The movie may be too much a politically-infused adult fairy-tale to find much approval amongst the Hollywood crowd, but I suspect that was never Corbet’s intention.
The Childhood of a Leader is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now!