When it comes to films by twentysomething American actors
making their debuts as writer-director-producers, Brady Corbet’s “Childhood of a Leader” is singular in its defiance of conventional expectations. For one
thing, Corbet doesn’t give himself a role in the film. For another, its
cerebral purposefulness and aesthetic audacity make “The Childhood of a Leader” almost the
opposite of a Hollywood hopeful’s calling card.
Having played roles in films by Michael Haneke (“Funny
Games”), Olivier Assayas (“Clouds of Sils Maria”), Bertrand Bonello (“Saint
Laurent”) and Ruben Östlund (“Force Majeure”), Corbet makes his first foray
into auteurist filmmaking with a movie that’s far more European than American indie in its sensibility. Beyond taking place in France, it also bites
off a particularly potent slice of European history to chew on: the time of the
Treaty of Versailles, when one world war was being laid to rest even as the
conditions for the next were being fashioned.
The film announces that historical setting with an initial
barrage of newsreel images that are all the more riveting when set to pop
innovator Scott Walker’s propulsive, clangorous score, which is an asset throughout.
Once the story properly begins, it seems to be in a haven from the conflict that
so recently tore the continent apart. In a peaceful French village, children in
costumes are preparing for a Yule pageant (this is Christmas 1918).
Among them is a long-haired little boy who soon exits the gathering, and, for
reasons not apparent, begins hurling stones at the others.
A title identifies this section of the film as “Tantrum
Number One”—the first of three tantrums which organize the narrative. The
perpetrator of all three is the little boy of the first scene, who belongs to the
family of an American diplomat (played by Irish actor Liam Cunningham) in France for the post-war negotiations (which began in January, 1919). He is a
married to a German-born woman (Bérénice Bejo), who undertakes the task of
punishing the child and making him own up to his malefactions.
Very late in the film, we hear the child referred to by name
once: Prescott. (His parents are never named.) The boy’s identity thus is
something of a mystery throughout, one that the film’s title invites us to
ponder from the get-go. Which
leader’s childhood are we witnessing? Is he a historical person or a
This review will not reveal answers or possible answers to
the mysteries the film poses, but rather will note that much about Corbet’s
creation is mysterious, opaque,
oblique—an approach that’s bound to leave viewers divided. Some may want more
clarity on all fronts: who the characters are, the nature of their
inter-familial problems and the implied connection of their domestic drama to
the great drama of negotiations that will occupy Europe for the next six
months. Those who allow Corbet’s tale to establish its own cinematic logic, on
the other hand, will end up relishing the very original way he skirts countless
conventions in recurrently casting the task of meaning-making back on the
Much of this is done by glimpsing the central family almost
as a servant or visitor would. Little Prescott is willful and headstrong,
almost to an obnoxious extent, yet he seems no more disturbed or destructive
than any typical upper-class only son of that era. His parents occupy their own
discrete worlds within the family home, the mother organizing servants and
teachers, the father discussing politics with a visitor (Robert Pattinson, who
plays two roles in the film). The grown-ups converge only seldom to confer on
the care and discipline of the boy, who may be at the center of their concerns
yet whose actions never provoke an out-and-out crisis.
The fact that the film proceeds from minor incident to minor
incident without attempting a typical dramatic architecture or drive is one of
its riskiest conceits. Corbet allows the details to accrue at an unhurried
pace, and the pay-off is that we are drawn into this distant world as we would
be if we came to know the family over a period of time. Interestingly, this is done without our being encouraged to identify with any of the main characters;
we get close to them even while continuing to observe them from a distance.
The film’s visual approach makes the most of this
observational stance. With its elegant Vermeer lighting, cinematographer Lol
Crawley renders the family’s house as a character with its own moods and secrets,
ones evoked through oblique camera angles and shots that linger
pensively on shadowy rooms well after people have left them.
A young British actor named Tom Sweet occupies the center of
this crepuscular environment with an almost preternatural presence as Prescott. With his
golden locks and foppish Little Lord Fauntleroy wardrobe, Prescott is sometimes
mistaken for a girl, which increases his rages, but there’s nothing unclear
about Sweet’s performance. A truly remarkable piece of work by an actor so
young, it impressively anchors a film where all of the acting is solid and
The script that Corbet wrote with Mona Fastvold is
reportedly based on a 1939 piece of the same title by Jean-Paul Sartre, and its
central idea has been understood as positing a certain psychological background
for fascist leaders. But if anyone looks to Corbet’s film for a rigorous working-out of that notion,
they’re bound to emerge disappointed. More than anything, the movie plays as a
personal, poetic look back at a century where history, cinema, psychology
and politics intersected in ways that we are still trying to parse. That it has the
courage of cryptic-ness, and leaves sympathetic viewers intrigued long after
its final images have faded, is enough to mark “The Childhood of a Leader” as an
uncommonly promising debut.