When we first meet Prescott (Tom Sweet) he is rehearsing a nativity play in a local French village, trying his best to speak in a language which is foreign to him. Next, he is throwing rocks at the members of the church. This is the first of many tantrums in The Childhood of A Leader, an impressive debut by Brady Corbet looking at how fascism can be manifested through the development of a child.
His father (Liam Cunningham) is Woodrow Wilson’s aide, having travelled with him from America to set the agreements for the Treaty Of Versailles. They stay in a vast house in the countryside which, with its fading paint and incompetent staff, feels like a representation of the old order which is soon to melt away. There is little to do apart from go to Church, a concept resented by Prescott, who prefers to rebel against his harsh father and controlling mother (Bérénice Bejo) by locking himself up in his room and embarrassing them when they are entertaining guests.
There is a clear allegory between the unloving treatment of the child by his father, and his subsequent rebellion, and the horrific treatment and eventual rearmament of the Germans resulting from the treaty of Versailles. The obvious implication is that the absolute harshness of the treaty, – which is now seen as a deliberate attempt by the Allied Powers to cripple the German economy – created a breeding ground for fascism to arise. This is further stressed by the fact that his mother is German. In one scene she says something in her mother tongue, only for her husband to mutter: “Such a vile language”. The lack of compassion for the German people, who were as much a victim of circumstance as anyone else, proved a lesson for future treaty signings, notably seeing the opposite deal being struck after WW2, with aid being given to West Germany. It is a lesson that this film insists shouldn’t be forgotten.
Prescott’s recalcitrance is not merely to do with authority, but also his own burgeoning and arguably confused sexuality. He has very long hair, and wears highly frilly clothes, thus being constantly mistaken for a girl, to which he responds quite angrily. Additionally, the hyper-masculine and inappropriate actions of his father are repeated by the boy when being taught lessons by a local girl from the village (Stacy Martin). These tensions are excellently born out in the slow-paced scenes, coming as a strange contrast to the film’s more ambitious tendencies.
No review of the film would be complete without mentioning the music by Scott Walker, which in its extremely loud atonal percussiveness feels like a cross between Hans Zimmer in the Batman movies and Arnold Schoenberg. It certainly sets an ominous tone, especially when soundtracking the prologue with historical footage and racing shots of train-tracks highlighting the inevitable march from war to war. It is loudest when it is used to frame the film, reaching a crescendo of overbearing noise in the final scene, which takes the film out of the family drama genre and into something much more grandiose yet also obtuse. The sheer volume of the music here, coupled with some truly avant-garde, shaky camerawork, felt unnecessary and took me out of the scene, trying too hard to reach some kind of catharsis which didn’t evolve naturally from the screenplay itself. However, the ambition involved is something to be praised, as most films do not attempt to balance the concerns of the domestic with the universal in quite such a way. It reminds us: all dictators used to be kids at one point. Could they, with a little love, have turned out any different?
Dir: Brady Corbet
Scr: Brady Corbet, Mona Fastvold
Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Tom Sweet, Robert Pattinson
Prd: Brady Corbet, Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre, Chris Coen
DOP: Lol Crawley
Music: Scott Walker
Country: United Kingdom
Run time: 113 Minutes
The Childhood of a Leader is out in cinemas from the 19th August