Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Robert Pattinson, Tom Sweet
Director: Brady Corbet
Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Based on a 1939 short story of the same name by Jean-Paul-Sarte, The Childhood of a Leader is a formally audacious debut from 27-year-old American actor Brady Corbet, who has worked with provocateurs such as Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier. These two points of reference are especially apt here, because Corbet seems to have absorbed all his influences into something which feels very European; not just in terms of the casting, but also in its visual look and overall perspective. Corbet should certainly be applauded for the uncompromising nature of his vision; complete with a haunting classical score from musician Scott Walker, but the film’s central allegory is a rather simplistic notion of how Fascism rose out of European boredom. Furthermore, the screenplay, written by Corbet and Mona Fastvold, structures the narrative around a young boy (newcomer Tom Sweet), who goes from a prankster throwing rocks at church practitioners to something much more insidious because, well...that’s what the script dictates in order to make a larger thematic point.
What this point ultimately is jumps the shark fairly early from ambiguity into the realm of outright incoherence. It’s one thing to shroud your film in a mysterious atmosphere of dread; it’s quite another to cover over a story which never quite figures out what type of narrative it wants to tell. Divided into three chapters charting the boy’s “tantrums”, The Childhood of a Leader looks and sounds tremendous; from the period-appropriate set design to cinematographer Lol Crawley’s poetically dark images to that aforementioned score, which often seems on the verge of swallowing the entire film whole. Corbet’s aim here seems to be revealing the rise of Fascism after the end of World War I because of certain socio-political and philosophical ideas rising up within the culture at large, but these broader notions are jettisoned in lieu of giving us a detached demon-seed horror movie without the actual horror. Exactly how and why this child moves from a typically rambunctious troublemaker into something emblematic of an entire nation’s rotting moral center is never clarified in a compelling way, which means Corbet’s intentions never reach beyond mere aesthetic. Most of the film simply alternates between scenes of the kid acting out--locking himself inside his room, groping the French teacher (Stacy Martin), wandering around the house in a state of undress--and those of his mother (Bérénice Bejo) moving towards religious fanaticism while the father (Liam Cunningham) deals with diplomatic meetings, including the Treaty of Versailles. Meanwhile, Robert Pattinson shows up in a few scenes as family friend and widowed politician whose ideology may in fact align with the adolescent monster-to-be.
The Childhood of a Leader is a film which could easily be given a pass considering it’s an auspicious debut with a welcome aversion to pandering to mainstream sensibilities, but Corbet can only get by on aesthetic alone for so long. At some point, he has to tie up loose ends; culminating in a visual and auditory tour-de-force finale where his camera swirls around capturing a flurry of political activity. This ending, though impressive technically, lacks dramatic impact since the rest of the picture never really built up to such a moment in any organic sense. Without any rich exploration of the historical time-frame or intricate understanding of the characters, the film basically boils down to “Problem Child: The Fascism Years.”