Yesterday (the 18th of August 2016) was not a good day for the European film industry (yes, until Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is triggered I do still consider the British film industry part of a wider European industry). Dutch sales agent Fortissimo Films and UK based distributor Metrodome shuttered. Both companies had a strong history of supporting international independent filmmakers.
Metrodome straddled the divide between genre and art house fare, they had solid hits releasing films like Donnie Darko and Monster. More recently their acquisitions team had punched well above their weight, securing and releasing a string of significant art house films such as White God, Tangerine, The Falling, and What We Do In The Shadows (to name just my personal favourites.
The loss of both companies is a testament to the alarming shrinking of the independent film sphere, but Metrodome’s hits particularly hard as it removes a key distributor from a UK market now largely saturated with American studio product in which independent films across the spectrum from art house to exploitation increasingly struggle to be seen on a large format screen.
That Metrodome were to have released The Childhood of a Leader in the UK this week, and that it is on of the interesting films of the summer, is just pouring salt in the wound.
Anyway, on to the review…
Set in France at the beginning of the interwar period following the end of the first world war, actor turned director Brady Corbet’s debut feature is a tour-de-force. Technically brilliant film making is married to a narrative that presents a series of vignettes around the lives of the family of an American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) who is in the country as part of US President Woodrow Wilson’s retinue working on the Treaty of Versailles. The diplomat is joined by his wife (Bérénice Bejo) and ten year old son Prescott (Tom Sweet). They relocate to a huge, but oddly mouldering rural mansion. Cunningham’s stern father is often away on business, and Bejo’s brittle mother largely entrusts her Prescott’s wellbeing to the house keeper (Yolande Moreau) and his young French tutor (Stacey Martin).
What follows consist of a series of prolonged scenes as Prescott begins to act out and becomes more and more disobedient and unruly. Each vignette and the overall story are structured around the boy’s escalating rages. Title cards announce ‘The First Tantrum,’ ‘The Second Tantrum’ and so on. The first sign that something is going seriously awry with the boy comes early. After performing in a church play, the boy sullenly lurks in the shadows in the woods outside the church to throws rocks at the faithful as they exit the service. As the film progresses Prescott’s episodes of anger and defiance become ever more extreme and increasingly directed towards his parents.
It is no spoiler to reveal that what we are seeing are episodes in the life of a boy who will become a future dictator, both the film’s title and the cacophonous Herrmannesque score by Scott Walker (which first plays over footage of post war refugees) make the overall destination of the tale clear. What is interesting is how the film begins rooted in historical fact and detail but then increasingly moves away from recognisable history and towards something that feels more like a political fable. The twentieth century had no shortage of dictators, but by setting the film in France and linking it so clearly to the Treaty of Versailles you might expect Prescott to be a budding Hitler figure. However, his upper class background doesn’t really fit with this.
Corbet and his co-writer Mona Fastvold appear to have taken elements from the childhoods of several dictators (in the press notes Corbet reflects on stories that Mussolini threw rocks at parishioners exiting mass), but it is also possible to think of cinematic precedents. Walker’s deafening score ladles rich spoonfuls of portent over often innocuous scenes. The sense of foreboding created by this and the sinuous camerawork of Lol Crawley means that at times The Childhood of a Leader feels like The Omen with all the supernatural elements removed.
Prescott’s growing and barely explicable malevolence is thrown into contrast by the fact that Tom Sweet is as angelic a child as one can imagine. The boy has grown his hair long and will not allow it to be cut. Because of this he is continually mistaken for a girl by the frequent visitors to the house, something which enrages him. His sexuality is also beginning to manifest. In a beautifully lit scene he becomes obviously fascinated with the hint of a nipple behind his language tutor’s diaphanous blouse. The child also walks in on his father and his teacher in what seems to be something that might become a compromising position. This leads to a very awkward dinner scene when in front of his mother the child asks if his father was receiving French lessons.
There is a veneer of fetishism to the film that alongside its refusal to provide a traditional bedrock of narrative to contextualise the long vignettes reminded me of the films of Peter Strickland. Pre-pubescent polymorphous perversity suffuses many scenes. All of this creates a film with a very sinister atmosphere in which very small events and minor upsets take on what feels like a terrible significance.
The performances are excellent. Cunningham and Bejo are superb as the distant parents and Corbet gets a striking performance out of Sweet. In a marginal role as a family friend, Robert Pattinson is particularly fine. Playing an intellectual journalist he essays some of the finest dipsomaniac acting since Withnail & I.
This is one of the most fascinating, intriguing and mysterious films of the summer. Corbett and Fastvold’s screenplay refuses to supply a neat back story for Prescott’s growing antagonism towards any and all authority figures (adults, parents, priests). The effect is you will be looking constantly for a moment that unlocks the character, but it never comes. This is a dangerous game for a filmmaker to play. It risks alienating and frustrating the audience. Nevertheless, it pays off handsomely here, and the film is gripping from beginning to end.