Ann Jones wonders what The Childhood of a Leader is all about.
Beyond the obvious – and the very title means it’s hardly a spoiler to say that this is a film about the early life of a fascist dictator – I couldn’t quite decide what Brady Corbet’s The Childhood of a Leader is really about, or perhaps more accurately, I’ve struggled to figure out what aspect of the film most held my attention. In a way this is a film in which not much happens: in the immediate aftermath of the First World War a family has moved temporarily from New York to a village somewhere outside Paris while the father, a diplomat, plays a role as part of US President Woodrow Wilson’s team negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. The father, played by Liam Cunningham, is American but his German born, French speaking wife, played by Bérénice Bejo, calls herself a citizen of the world. It is their only child, Prescott – played by a young British actor called Tom Sweet, in an extraordinary performance of often terrifying intensity – whose behaviour drives the narrative. Just as the title – taken from a story by Jean-Paul Sartre – gives a lot away, the tale of Prescott’s experiences in France are given chapter headings that seem to direct our reading of events with little room for manoeuvre: the first ‘The first tantrum. A sign of things to come.’ initially alienates me somewhat; I find myself resentful about being told what to think. In the end though, this is a film that deliberately leaves the narrative open to interpretation. There are gaps we can’t fill and a sense that there must be more to it than this.
That this is a dysfunctional family is quickly apparent. The father is seldom present but his clear ideas about how his wife and child should behave must be adhered to. The mother has little time or affection for her son, but seeks to control him. Clearly most children of wealthy parents who see their offspring as an inconvenience to be controlled and interacted with only when it’s convenient don’t end up as dictators. Prescott is a product of his time and of his circumstances, of course, but we are offered no real insight into quite why he turns out as he does and ultimately this is probably the strength of the film. Through the tantrums that characterize this short period of his childhood, Prescott is starting to understand that he has power and learns how to exert it on those around him. This very partial, episodic view provides enough of a picture to establish a sense of anxiety but not enough to understand the outcome. In the end I think it’s the sense of removal that comes from being close to the action without really being witness to it that intrigued me most. There are no easy answers and the real action is often elsewhere. That’s life. Most of us come to terms with it but Prescott takes a different path.
There is a compelling darkness to The Childhood of a Leader that comes in no small measure from how the film looks and sounds. In particular the often dark, painterly aesthetic of the film – beautifully shot on grainy 35mm film in and around a dilapidated but ornate chateau somewhere near Paris (in reality somewhere entirely different, but no matter) – lends a sense of foreboding; the film feels even more claustrophobic than its tight aspect ratio demands and there is a darkness that seems more significant than simple period detail. The use of a single location – largely away from the real action that has brought the family from New York to the periphery of Paris, though dramatically at one point the father brings his work home – lends the film an incongruous intensity. There is a story here – an important story from which we could surely learn much – but we are left looking the wrong way. Like Prescott, we are shut out and left to draw our own flawed conclusions.
For a fiction set in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, there is something eerily timely about The Childhood of a Leader. I suspect works that examine the formative experiences of those who exert extreme power generally do have at least a resonance with current concerns – when, after all, are we not given to wonder quite where the power of a leader comes from, particularly a leader we abhor? In The Childhood of a Leader this is set against the backdrop of the treaty negotiations focused on making sure Germany was made to pay, regardless of the consequences, in a way, for me at least, paralleling both our struggle to understand the power balance of the world we now live in and, more locally (and clearly my own projection rather than the Corbet’s intention), Britain’s imminent future as an ill-equipped nation seeks to clarify its future in a world where, we are told, Brexit means Brexit without anyone seeming to have a clue exactly what it actually does mean. Centring on Prescott’s tantrums and his growing understanding of his own power to deflect of his own pain and frustration onto those around him while giving brief hints of the negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles means that the audience shares Prescott’s confusion about the world around him.
All in all, this is a striking and confident directorial debut from actor-turned-director Brady Corbet, who wrote the screenplay with his partner Mona Fostvold, both in terms of the partial, fragmented nature of the narrative and the way the aesthetics of the piece and Scott Walker’s score build a compelling atmosphere of toxicity that kept me interested in the story of a cast of overwhelmingly unsympathetic characters. With such difficult subject matter, inevitably, there are no simple answers. The real strength of The Childhood of a Leader is that this is a film that is prepared to leave its audience as uneasy as its characters.
The Childhood of a Leader is out today.