Brady Corbet is a familiar face on screen as an actor in independent in a number of films by today’s quintessential auteurs. He starred in the English language remake of Michael Haneke’s own Funny Games, Lars Von Trier somber beauty Melancholia, and is part of the creative team in front and behind the cameras of Martha Marcy May Marlene and Two Gates of Sleep. And like so many from that latter’s group, that ensemble can be described as all-around filmmakers (making, performing, and producing one another’s works). Corbet clearly wants to be more than just an actor…and has the skills and vision to make a name for himself as a filmmaker; he has an ear for dialogue, unique artistic vision and technical skills proving he has the making of a great writer-director. And his debut film The Childhood of a Leader, is an audacious and compelling debut which shows his willingness to make daring and thought-provoking cinematic choices.
And those two elements of the film, its daring sensibilities and thought-provoking aftermath it has on the audience, are the best reasons to recommend this movie. The film tells the story of a 7 year old boy who has moved with is his American father (Irish actor Liam Cunningham) and German born mother (Oscar nominee Bérénice Bejo) to France just after the First World War during the signing of the treaty of Versailles. His father works for the American government and has been sent into town for work on the negotiations, causing him to often be absent from their cold, dark home (the movie has a heavy chill from start to finish), leaving mother alone with the house employees who care for the little boy, Prescott (newcomer Tom Sweet); his tutor (Stacy Martin from Nymphomaniac) and their maid (Yolande Moreau).
The dynamic between these three women provide the most interesting interpersonal dynamics of the film…mother is harsh and often cold in her discipline, the maid nurturing and permissive, the tutor hard but fair and encouraging. And the way Prescott takes aim at each suggests a compulsion towards disobedience and need to control people which borders on the classic horror child (only accentuated by the pulsing string music reminiscent of Psycho). But the more interesting thing the film shows is his tantrums aren’t much worse than we’re used to seeing from young children. He throws rocks, he disobeys his father, and he tries to use his cuteness to pit one adult against another. But his reactions to punishments are so severe and overblown, there clearly seems to be a psychological disturbance which in the time period, would have been near impossible to treat or diagnosis. It’s unsettling to see a child whose diabolical tendencies seem wrapped in real mental illness left untreated.
These aspects of the story all work to create a compelling character study in a kind of chamber piece (most of the film takes place in their house). The acting is topnotch, particularly by Martin and Bejo in their scenes together, suggesting an unspoken bond deeper than either would care to admit, and them with Sweet. Robert Pattinson also has a substantial role in the film in a duel role, as a friend of Cunningham’s and older version of Prescott. Both roles are relatively small, but Pattinson is proving to be a strong character actor more than capable of fitting into an ensemble. But casting him in a double role seems a big misstep in the film, as it is difficult to find the logical connection between the two characters. The narrative only hints at a possible reason (which still wouldn’t satisfy justification) and even less if only symbolic. It became a distraction as the film drew to what should be a provocative conclusion; one which ultimately feels added for shock more than anything else.
Considering the black and white footage movie begins with and time period of the film, it’s not difficult to think of the kind of leader Prescott’s childhood is leading him towards. In his directors note (something I think this movie should make available), Corbet writes that Sweet’s character is “somehow to be metaphysically linked to them (the Treaty of Versailles), possessed by the motions of the era.” That idea is a compelling one, as the character’s European-American nationality certainly suggests this is true. I just wish there had been a closer look at such ideas and more discussions which would draw out such a thesis, rather than a shocking climax Corbet goes for…which feels a little cheap and unearned. The discussions that could be applied to either the family or Europe are by far the most compelling moments in the movie…I just wish we’d been given a bit more.
Corbet and his writing partner Mona Fastvold set up an excellent story and characters but draw conclusions the film simply can’t fully support; or at least the film can’t support them without supplemental materials to understand the leaps taken and elements which make those conclusions harder to tie together (such as questions of gender, sexuality, and religion which are interspersed). This is one movie which would most definitely benefit from a Q&A or book club environment, to discuss the ideas and hear others interpretations audiences had. The movie may be imperfect, but it still feels like an important cinematic experience worth having, and therefore worth seeing.