The Childhood of a Leader
Directed by: Brady Corbet.
Written by: Brady Corbet and Mona Fastvold.
Starring: Tom Sweet (Prescott, the boy), Robert Pattinson (Charles / The Leader), Stacy Martin (The Teacher), Liam Cunningham (The Father), Bérénice Bejo (The Mother), Yolande Moreau (The Maid).
American actor Brady Corbet has somehow become a go to guy for European auteurs – ranging from Michael Haneke to Olivier Assayas to Mia Hansen-Love to Ruben Ostlund to Bertrand Bonello to Lars von Trier – and with his directorial debut, The Childhood of a Leader, he certainly shows he was more inspired by them then by American filmmakers – particularly Haneke. The film takes place in 1919, as WWI has ended, and the Treaty of Versailles is being negotiated. An American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) is in France with his German wife (Berenice Bejo) and their five-year-old son (Tom Sweet). After a prologue, showing the world at war, and what is going on, we are plunged into their lives with a title card saying “Tantrum 1”. There will be two more tantrums in the film that grow increasingly serious – finally culminating in a shocking act of violence. The film, rather daringly, doesn’t try to put its events into context, or explain them away. It observes this family – and its friends, its servant and the political figures that enter their home, not quite through the lens or the young boy, but with his lack of understanding of what this all means. The title pretty much explains the epilogue of the film – like the beginning, another montage, this time showing us who that boy grew up to be.
As a debut film, The Childhood of a Leader is an interesting choice for Corbet – who doesn’t give himself a role in it, and hasn’t made the type of film that is going to get Hollywood knocking down his door with offers to direct something bigger. His film is brilliantly photographed by Lol Crawley, who did great work on 2015’s 45 Years and the Netflix show The OA – which I didn’t like much, but the cinematography wasn’t the problem. The cinematography keeps its distance from its characters, observing them from a quiet distance, with intruding on them. The film doesn’t really try to explain or psychoanalyze its characters – Liam Cunningham is a cold, emotionless man – a diplomat, who wants children, but doesn’t want them around. Berenice Bejo is wonderful as the mother, who wants to be a disciplinarian, but is often “too sick” to do it herself. Stacy Martin, from von Trier’s Nymphomaniac – is the teacher brought in to teach the boy – and not coincidentally, looks like his mother – although it doesn’t take the boy long to realize he’s the one in control.
It would be easy – and perhaps rather fun – to compare this leader to Donald Trump, and certainly as children of immense wealth and privilege, who are handed everything they wants, and become spoiled monsters a case can be made. But Corbet made the film in 2015 – it debuts at Venice that fall, and won a few prizes – although the rise of Trump style politics has been ongoing across the world in the last few years, and perhaps that is why Corbet made the film (apparently based on something Sartre wrote in the late 1930s). The film, that doesn’t spell out anything in terms of specifics, is more universal than that – this could be the childhood of any autocratic monster you want it to be.
I’m honestly not sure if The Childhood of a Leader really works. There really is no story to speak of, the movie being structured around three tantrums – as the young boy pushes to see just what he can get away with, and realizes it’s virtually anything. Tom Sweet gives one of the best performances you see a child give – it’s singular in its focus. The film is as well, perhaps too much so to be truly effective. And yet, The Childhood of a Leader marks a fascinating debut for Corbet – who is doing something very different than other American directors his age – and as such, is someone to watch.