The Childhood of a Leader [2015] – A Visually Striking Offbeat Period Drama

Actor Brady Corbet’s brilliant directorial debut has a title that brings up a set of expectations & questions. When my friend finished watching The Childhood of a Leader, he asked ‘who is this leader?’ and ‘what’s the particular moment you think made him to be this type of leader?’ Brady Corbet never gives clear-cut answer to such questions. In fact, he calls his movie ‘an anti-origin’ story, which subverts preordained narrative beats to create a poetic as well as an unsettling parable about the rise of fascism.  The Childhood of a leader is one-fourth historical fiction and three-fourth psychodrama, set against the background of 1919 Paris Peace Conference. The titular child in question is a wilful young boy (Tom Sweet), the son of a brusque diplomat (Liam Cunningham), who serves in American President Woodrow Wilson’s negotiating team at the Paris Conference. The boy’s mother (Berenice Bejo) is a repressed & devoutly religious woman. There’s something of Haneke’s ‘The White Ribbon’, as hints are dropped that the boy may grow up to be a fascist leader. Nevertheless, the boy’s transformation from innocence to corruption is anything but conventional. Brady Corbet’s nuanced film-form and the mesmerizing orchestral score conjures an unnerving, somber tone that it becomes profound examination of political evil.

The Childhood of a Leader derives its title from Jean-Paul Sartre’s short-story. But Brady Corbet confides that the story owes more to Margaret MacMillan’s non-fiction book ‘Paris 1919’ than Sartre’s tale. Director Brady was interested by the idea of creating the character of an alienated child, whose alienation and repression is itself ironically caused by the peace talks. The psychological violence inflicted on the child, in the background of peace conference, sort of becomes catalyst for shaping the near-future authoritarian leader. The script was co-written by Brady’s partner Mona Fastvold. The screen-writing duo sensibly avoids retelling the history and adapts a poetic tone, which gives viewers ample space for contemplation and to bring their own ideas on what the film is about. The Childhood of a Leader could even be read as subtle warning about the revival of extreme right-wing (in the contemporary Geo-politics arena). But the film would also perfectly work for cineastes, who don’t want to interpret political ideologies but rather prefer to lose themselves in the exemplary impressionistic compositions.

The movie opens with retro credits, juddering score, and montage of key World War I footage. We get the first glimpse of the ‘child’ or the boy – whose name (Prescott) is only mentioned towards the end – wearing angelic wings during the rehearsal of church’s nativity play. Soon, we see the same child throwing rocks at the fellow parishioners. The reason for the boy’s strange, displaced behavior is pondered over gradually. The boy and his parents have only recently arrived to the remote, wintry village in France (from US). Diplomat dad spends much of his time in the city, heading over Secretary Lansing’s negotiating team. The German mother and son are confined to the old, crumbling mansion. Of the mansion’s servant, an elderly French woman showers immense love on the boy. The other important member visiting the mansion is an attractive local girl named Ada (Stacy Martin), who teaches French to the boy. A day after stone-throwing incident, the boy’s mother takes him to apologize to the priest. It becomes the starting point of the boy’s power struggle with his parents. What follows is not series of cliched events to depict how a sociopath is made. Similar to the style of Haneke or Lars Von Trier, director Brady Corbet stirs up the existential dread without delivering a fixed dramatic blow. The tension is superbly orchestrated that we don’t bother much about the lack of a 'bang' or its open-ended nature. It’s worth watching for just experiencing the genuinely intimidating and uneasy atmosphere.      

Brady Corbet has done wide variety of roles in international as well as American indie circuit. He has worked with renowned directors like Michael Haneke (Funny Games US), Lars Von Trier (Melancholia), Mia Hansen-Love (Eden), Ruben Ostlund (Force Majeure), and Oliver Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria). Despite playing small roles in the works of European auteurs, it must have been an ideal experience for the 27 year old actor to put him in the path of fulfilling his directorial dreams. In the reference column, Brady cites Sartre, Hannah Arendt, John Fowles and mentions Robert Bresson and Carl Theoder Dreyer as huge influence in shaping his debut feature. The bewildered perspective of the boy draws comparisons worthy of Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol (1948) and the candle-lit compositions plus the shadowy elegance of certain frames pays fitting homage to Kubrickian aesthetics. Despite citing this long list of masterful literary and movie references, Brady’s direction never turns out to be a mere derivative. Brady Corbet and British cinematographer Lol Crowley have worked wonders in weaving a rich language, especially after considering the shoe-string budget (Brady also credits production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos for the film’s rich look, who is said to have taken cues from Ermanno Olmi’s masterpiece ‘The Tree of Wooden Clogs' (1978)). Most of the long, masterful handheld shots are lit with natural light. The ghostly white profile of the boy cloaked in sailor shirts, set against earthy background tones reminds us of Renaissance art. The mid-shots of characters staring off into the distance alongside the graceful zoom-outs serve as wonderful tribute to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975).

The Childhood of a Leader is a microcosm of the interwar period (between World War I & II). It depicts how the thin veil of peace talks couldn’t eventually conceal the deep-rooted lust for power and authoritarian behavior of the European & American adults. The focus is more on this greater irony than in detailing the events that misshaped Prescott to fully embrace his sociopathic tendencies. The script avoids narrative threads and red herrings, in order to realize tiny moments, which anchors the boy’s psychology and raises more questions. The strange aspect of the film’s formal design lies in its absence of a fixed character perspective. We don’t exactly share Prescott’s viewpoints, although we could feel his frustrations and bewilderment. Like the unsettled Prescott, we too feel that things are quite beyond understanding. Some of the sequences moves like fever dream, seen from none of the character’s perspective. Combined with Scott Walker’s menacing soundtrack, these aesthetic choices give a feeling of being caught inside an indecipherable nightmare.

The narrative restraint and slow-burn nature won’t definitely work for many. Most of the non-event sequences are totally open-ended about their implications. While it grows to a dreadful crescendo, there are no rich payoffs. This will bother those who expect some answers. Although Brady Corbet hasn’t written any big dramatic events, he subtly hints at little moments which may have served as small building blocks in creating the ‘leader’. For example, Prescott’s emotional burst after the dismissal of his only beloved friend and when he recites the story of lion and mouse with the message ‘Little friends may prove great friends’. The ending (‘Prescott, the bastard') set in fictional country isn’t very satisfying. It looks like the conventional part of this defiant manner of storytelling (although formally the final sequence seemed grandiose). Nine year old Tom Sweet as the titular child gives one of the best child performances in recent times (he’d never acted before). His sullen scowl and impassive expression casts a long shadow throughout the narrative. 



The Childhood of a Leader (116 minutes) is a timely allegory about the rise of a grim leader in a totalitarian world. Director Brady Corbet’s exemplary visual language and the central performances make this a gripping art-house drama. 


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