This film is a riveting study of a psychotic child living with dysfunctional parents, learning how to disrupt, and in so doing, how to control adults.
I’ve met that child. My years as a drama teacher in the east end of Glasgow were exciting. Pupils rushed to my classroom relieved of being fed stultifying mathematics, arid Protestantism, and turgid English history. “Why do you enjoy my classes?” I asked one twelve year-old from a tenement home. “Because it makes me confident, sir.”
They enjoyed my kicks at authority, my subversive instincts. A teacher with no tie and designer stubble was a threat to good order, according to the harpy on horseback that was the headmistress. No corporal punishment. No homework. Fruit to eat. I told the children they were worth something valuable to society. And they smiled and blossomed.
But one boy troubled me. He defied the class, the lessons, the improvisations, and me. He was a threat. I can see his face to this day. A stubby shaped boy, with hair cut by a blunt kitchen knife, shiny, threadbare trousers, eyes without emotion, face hardened by poverty and snot. He made sure he sat at the back of the class, coiled as if to spring on anybody who dared approach. No amount of cajoling, private chats, or witnessing the pleasure of his classmates making a video drama, enticed him from his seat.
In those days pupils exhibiting anti-social behaviour were removed to the naughty room, or worse, belted to blisters by the headmaster, a sure way of teaching the rebellious that exercising power and pain pays dividends.
I am reminded of that memory by the exquisite acting of Tom Sweet who plays the title’s main character, a little psychopath in the making, remote, detached, ready to show spite. However, my obnoxious pupil didn’t share Sweet’s angelic face. Not in the least.
The Childhood of a Leader is a timely right-wing allegory of our troubled age. From an 27-year-old novitiate, Brady Corbet, born in the cowboy town of Scottsdale, Arizona, a former jobbing actor, the film is a tour-de-force.
In content and style it’s far more European than American, a courageous calling card for a budding director in Hollywood.
Corbet spent more than a decade acting in films for celebrated auteurs: Michael Haneke (Funny Games), Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin), Lars von Trier (Melancholia). “Since I was young I took pride in my work. I want the majority of things I do to reflect my interests.”
He lambasts the left-wing media as well as the right for all the Trump image-building, and his views on cinema are just as principled – Corbet is all but dismissive of mainstream entertainment. If it’s not art, walk on by. “I wish our biggest talents would be more radical” he opined in a recent interview. Corbet demonstrates his somewhat hubristic views by leaving untouched the film’s clunky title.
The screenplay is a cooperation between Corbet and his partner, Mona Fastvold, the work based on a 1939 short story by Jean-Paul Sartre. Set in post–World War I France, Sartre sketched a fascist leader’s early childhood, the incidents that enforce and motivate, the inherent qualities missing from his character, such as empathy and compassion. When his parents impose good behaviour through physical discipline the boy interprets it as power over people. He’s a quick learner.
When he sees his mother discomfited by his father’s sexual approaches, the boy tests his nanny with the same move, and sees the result. When he refuses food and is confined to his room until he finishes his meal, he sees his nanny eat it as a shared secret, and realises he too can make adults do as he wants. The little fascist is understanding human nature quicker than the adults around him.
Corbet and Fastvold saw contemporary parallels in the work. The project took ten years to reach fruition, from inception to Best Director award at the Venice Film Festival.
The fact that the film proceeds from minor incident to minor incident without attempting an arc of dramatic development or drive is one of its riskiest conceits. And it takes lots of risks in transition from scene to scene, camera lingering on a face, and in pacing scenes.
The film is full of cinematic novelties and experiments, and they work. Each scene is shot as if in real time, at an unhurried pace, and the pay-off is that we are drawn into the child’s world as if a household servant of many years. 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.
Stylistically fearless, the film announces its historical setting with a barrage of newsreel images (Citizen Kane-like) set to pop innovator Scott Walker’s crashing, thundering, clangourous score, which sounds at odds with the film but is gloriously right. Walker is one half of the sixties Walker Brothers, who has taken the path of the avante garde.
In a peaceful French village, children in costumes are preparing for a Yule pageant. It is Christmas 1918. The turmoil of the Great War is all around but at a distance. Among the village children is an effeminate, long-haired little boy, (Tom Sweet) who looks like a girl because he refuses to cut his hair. He leaves the festivities and, irrationally, begins hurling stones at the others.
Newly arrived in France, the family of three is displaced both mentally and physically. The patriarch, (Liam Cunningham) is a high-ranking bureaucrat helping Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state bring about peace and reconciliation in Versailles. Correct and matter-of fact at all times – the type of man who folds his trousers before getting into bed with a lover – is nevertheless blind to the fierce animosity fought under his own roof between his German wife and son. We get glimpses of affairs happening, the moments a child sees.
The son’s misbehaviour – throwing rocks at fellow churchgoers, refusing food, groping his tutor – slowly advances from naughty child to boys-will-be-boys shenanigans and then to something more troubling, more foreboding.
Corbet takes pains to make his characters human, all too human, although the boy kept reminding me of the blonde children from John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, steely, cold, and emotionless. Characters with empathy and compassion are soon banished.
Corbet has assembled a terrific cast of character actors: Bérénice Bejo as the boy’s mother, Liam Cunningham as his father, Stacy Martin as his French tutor and the object of his burgeoning sexuality, plus hairy-scary Robert Pattinson in two roles!
Sweet, like Corbet also making his debut, plays the 7-year-old of the title, whose name is withheld until the end, done, I suppose, so we don’t identify him with any living fascist of today. Sweet speaks quietly so that everyone including us the observers, leans in to listen. He doesn’t strike the stereo-typical Hollywood sociopath-in-waiting figure – he doesn’t toy with knives or pistols, rip up his bed sheets, torture the cat, or piss in the cook’s soup. He exhibits an alienated sense of detachment.
As you absorb the story and get sucked in you begin to get a strong feeling of dread. You hold your breath. I kept saying, “This can’t end well.” And it didn’t.
It isn’t a criticism to say little of what happens comes as a shock, but Corbet’s narrative restraint, coupled with cinematic daring and fine acting, makes for a gripping experience.
The film is broken into four chapters — the First Tantrum, the Second Tantrum, the Third Tantrum and a New Era – each section carrying a subtitle that points us further in the same thematic direction. If I have a criticism it’s the ending, right as a theatrical punch to the heart, but too indistinct to offer a satisfying understanding. Judge for yourself.
Cinematographer Lol Crawley makes great images out of interior scenes appearing to have been shot without spotlights, while Walker’s ominous, ever-present string section builds to an unhinged crescendo that keeps pace with the film’s hellishly stomach-turning coda. (I’ve not aware of Walker as film composer, but readers will keep me right.)
Very late in the film, we hear the child referred to by name once: Prescott. (His parents are never named.) But we know it isn’t two-Jaguars John Prescott British ex-Labour MP. This begs the question, which leader’s childhood are we witnessing?
Is it Trump, (his father was an alleged serial womaniser) Pol Pot, Stalin, Indonesia’s dictator of 30 years, Siharto, Chile’s Pinochet, Spain’s General Franco? There’s any number from which to choose.
The boy is given to reciting the fable of the lion and the mouse, whose last line is on the nose stirring: Little friends may prove great friends. He himself has few, which he isn’t likely to forget as he ascends to power.
The downside is the film is firmly slotted into the art house circuit. Unless your local multiplex is liberally-minded, you’ll have to seek it out. Just don’t take your kids along.
- Star rating: Four and a half
- Cast: Tom Sweet, Robert Pattison, Bérénice Bejo, Yolanda Moreau
- Director: Brady Corbet
- Screenplay: Brady Corbet, Mona Fastvold, from a short story by Jean-Paul Sartre
- Cinematographer: Lol Crawley
- Composer: Scott Walker
- Duration: 116 minute