The Childhood of a Leader Review

From tantrum to tyrant in four easy lessons…

With its intention to be “a fable about the rise of fascism in the 20th century” Brady Corbet’s debut feature The Childhood of a Leader has ambitious targets that demand rather a lot from its audience. It depicts a few seeming minor incidents from the childhood of a young 10 year old boy and expects to you make the leap that one day this boy will become a fascist dictator. Expectations suitably managed however, this is nonetheless a bold and distinctive film with a refreshing intelligence that is derived more from literary, philosophical and historical sources rather than an attempt to emulate other cinematic and arthouse models. Managing expectations is, you could even say, what The Childhood of a Leader is all about.

In terms of structure and purpose however, there’s nothing in the film that in itself is difficult to follow. Following a thunderous musical Overture from Scott Walker to archive footage of historical events from the period, we are introduced to Prescott (Tom Sweet) and his family who have come to France in 1919 in the aftermath of the Great War. The boy’s father (Liam Cunningham) is a senior US diplomat in Woodrow Wilson’s government, part of a team sent into help reorganise and restructure the post-war map of Europe and prevent any spread of Bolshevik and Communist ideology that is raising its head in Russia. Despite the best efforts of his French-speaking multilingual mother (Bérénice Bejo) – the father doesn’t really care – the family, not insignificantly, don’t manage to fit in well with the local community.

A tutor is engaged to help the boy learn to speak French, but Prescott soon seems to develop a mind of his own. The first sign (or the first tantrum, as it is described by the intertitles to each chapter) is Prescott throwing stones at the congregation of the local small church where he has just taken part in a nativity play in his faltering beginner’s French. Is this just a tantrum or are we suppose to see it as a rejection of religion, the first sign of trouble ahead for the world in the birth of a fascist tyrant? It’s a bit of a stretch, but there are equally tenuous connections suggested between the boy’s sexual awakening and his increasing rejection of the world he has been brought up in. Subsequent “tantrums” involve refusing to eat the food served to him, refusing to dress and refusing French lessons by locking himself in his room. Hardly classic warning signs of a dictator in the making…

…but what warning signs would you reasonably expect to find in a 10 year old boy who may turn out to be something more terrifying in the future? Well, that’s the challenge that Corbet ambitiously sets out to examine, and whether you find that reasonable or convincing is up for debate, but it’s an impressive ambition and it’s admirably laid out. So focussed does the film seem to be on the mundane that you almost miss what is going on around him, but there is considerable attention placed in the detail. The behaviour of the boy and his family seems to cause only minor ripples among the servants and in the local community, but you can sense a stirring of deep resentment for these outsiders coming in, taking control and establishing their own rules with no consideration for the impact it has on the local people and their familiar way of life.

The implication of course is to consider the small family drama as a microcosm of the wider implications of the treaty about to be signed at Versailles in the aftermath of WWI. The interventions fail to adequately take into consideration local feelings and cause undue suffering and growing resentment for many people already struggling after the war. The Childhood of a Leader is clever in the way that it tackles such a subject from an oblique angle, or from a relatable human level if you like, getting right to the heart of the human sentiments and the behaviour from which greater social upheaval will inevitably result. There are significant antecedents for this type of filmmaking, from the ‘Rosebud’ of Citizen Kane (there’s a different kind of ‘rosebud’ beneath the blouse of his French teacher that stirs Prescott in The Childhood of a Leader), and there’s the allegorical treatment of a similar subject in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon but Brady Corbet’s film doesn’t pay homage to such films with any obvious cinematic references.

The film certainly gains much from the wintry fields of its Hungarian location shooting in the same way that Béla Tarr’s films do, but Corbet uses the background detail of cracking and peeling paint on the doors of the house, the drapes in the rooms, the burning out of a candle against the wallpaper to describe the otherwise indefinable and unbridgeable situation between the family and the locals, between the human element and the political overtones. Scott Walker’s discordant orchestral death-metal score also contributes much towards the unsettling ambience that lies in the juxtaposition of these unequal forces. The director however taps into those less obvious forces with a distinct style of his own that uses structure and side detail to suggest much more than is shown on the screen, allowing the film to follow an imperative that arises out of the subject itself rather than imposing a restrictive set of rules upon it. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.


Updated: Aug 22, 2016

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The Childhood of a Leader Review

An ambitious journey from tantrum to tyrant in four easy lessons...

The Childhood of a Leader Review | The Digital Fix