The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

Brady Corbet’s award-winning directorial debut in The Childhood of a Leader is an original concept of the making of a fascist monster.

Irresistible Rise

by Alexa Dalby

The Childhood of a Leader

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Actor Brady Corbet’s first film as a director ignores convention in ways that bring to mind the early Orson Welles of Citizen Kane.

Set immediately after the end of the First World War, it’s based on a 1939 short story by Jean-Paul Sartre. Newcomer Tom Sweet is outstanding as Prescott, whose Little Lord Fauntleroy looks disguise the growing monster within. His father (Liam Cunningham, Game of Thrones) is a US diplomat working for President Woodrow Wilson in France on negotiations for the Versailles Treaty, intended to bring peace to Europe after the First World War – in reality, carving up the world in a way that prefigures the rise of totalitarianism in decades to come. His wife (Bérénice Bejo, The Artist) is obsessively religious. Yet neither of them is ever named, and we only learn Prescott’s name late on. The family is living in a crumbling chateau outside of Paris during the father’s posting. Until a climactic dinner party, their only visitor is a colleague of the father, English fellow diplomat Charles (Robert Pattinson, The Twilight Saga), who plays a dual role in the film.

The film is like a parody of a historical biopic as it shows Prescott’s development through his growing battle of wills with his parents, resulting in three major tantrums. After playing an angel in the local nativity play, he throws stones at the participants as they leave the church and is forced to apologise to the congregation. He gropes the breast of his sweet French tutor (Stacy Martin, Nymphomaniac.High-Rise, Tale of Tales) and goes on to deliberately cause her dismissal by his jealous mother. He rebels so determinedly against his authoritarian parents that it seems the only person able to reach him as a child is their kindly housekeeper Mona (Yolande Moreau), who is summarily dismissed as a result. And at a crucial dinner party for numerous dignitaries, he makes a shocking speech and behaves with extraordinary violence.

Lol Crawley’s cinematography makes the chateau and the bleak wintry landscape that surround it look like sombre oil paintings. The overall feel is dark and cold. Dialogue is muffled at times, and can be elliptical. The soundtrack is dominated by a discordant orchestral score by Scott Walker, an onslaught of thundering cellos that creates a permanent feeling of unease and dread.

The nightmarish epilogue is a striking and terrifying collage of shots from disorientating angles – conveying collusion, confusion, messianic adulation and menace in an unnamed nation.

Brady Corbet, who has starred in Thunderbirds and Mysterious Skin as well as in the English-language remake of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games has made a very European first film that’s art house yet brash, ambitious, original and highly intriguing as a precursor of how he will go on to develop as a director. The Childhood of a Leader won Best Debut Film and Best Director Horizons awards at the Venice Film Festival in 2015.

The Childhood of a Leader is released on 19 August 2016 in the UK.

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