First published by SciFiNow
“This has happened before, and it will continue to happen again and again.”
In 1919, journalist Charles (Robert Pattinson) discusses the Great War with the Father (Liam Cunningham) in a villa outside Paris. There the Father bullies his younger polyglot wife (Bérénice Bejo) and their son Prescott (Tom Sweet), and misbehaves with Prescott’s tutor Ada (Stacy Martin) – when he is not in Paris helping Woodrow Wilson’s team draft the Versailles treaty. Notoriously, that treaty would end one global conflict only to sow the seeds for the next. Here history is doomed to repeat itself.
In his feature debut as director and co-writer (with partner Mona Fastvold), actor Brady Corbet confines momentous global events of twentieth-century history to the background (or to monochrome montages of archival footage), while focusing instead on the parallel conflicts within this household, with its American patriarch, Franco-German matriarch (from disputed Strasbourg) and French staff. In the middle is prepubescent Prescott, sexually uncertain, caught between cultures, and absorbing lessons in adult conduct – authoritarianism, abuse and hypocrisy. As Prescott acts out, his ailing, dissatisfied mother, instructed to reimpose order by her absent husband, treats both the troubled boy and her staff in increasingly dictatorial fashion.
The Childhood of a Leader is a closely observed domestic tragedy that is also a parable of politics and power – not unlike the Aesopic fable that Prescott reads repeatedly. His formative childhood is glimpsed as a series of elliptical impressions, leaving viewers with an enigmatic mosaic that they must piece together for themselves, guided minimally by the film’s title and occasional chapter headings. Meanwhile, Scott Walker’s extraordinary string-and-percussion soundtrack keeps all these disparate scenes driving ever forwards with great intensity to their bleak alt-history future. It’s an adult film about Europe’s (and the world’s) permanent pre-adolescence.
© Anton Bitel