tue 23/07/2024

The Childhood of a Leader | reviews, news & interviews

The Childhood of a Leader

The Childhood of a Leader

Atmospheric debut film inspired by Sartre novella on the nurturing of a fascist

Human nurture: Liam Cunningham, Tom Sweet, Bérénice Bejo and Robert Pattinson in 'The Childhood of a Leader'

A tousled-haired child wearing wings is framed in a candlelit casement window. It’s a beautiful, Georges de La Tour-like scene. He’s the angel of the Lord in a nativity play rehearsal: unto us a son is born, peace on earth. But hark – why is the soundtrack so piercing and Psycho-ish? And why has this little angel (Tom Sweet) left the rehearsal to throw stones at people in the darkness?

This is surely the first film to formally divide its acts into “Tantrums”. There are three of them and, by today’s standards, they’re nothing major – refusing to eat dinner, barricading himself into his room, putting his hand on the governess’s breast – but this childhood takes place at the end of the First World War. It’s soon clear that the parents of the boy, whose name is Prescott, are repressed and cold; we don’t even know their names. They have just moved into a vast, dimly lit house, dripping with faded opulence, in the French countryside.

Dad (Liam Cunningham, who plays Davos Seaworth in Game of Thrones) is an American diplomat, working on the Treaty of Versailles at the Paris peace conference. He’s autocratic and mean: "Put the boy straight. I want him how he used to be," he tells his wife (Bérénice Bejo, who starred in The Artist). She is haughty, religious and prone to migraines as well as sacking servants, including the housekeeper Mona (the impressive Yolande Moreau), the only person who shows Prescott real affection.The mother spent most of her youth in Strasbourg – her husband says dismissively that she "has memories". She is fluent in four languages, including German ("a disgusting language," snarls her husband) and wants the same for her son; the scenes of him struggling to learn a French fable about a lion and a mouse are haunting. The trauma of the war and its aftermath are never far away, and the occasional presence of a bearded Robert Pattinson, playing a widowed family friend (and perhaps a lover), doesn’t lighten the load.

The feeling of doom and a melancholy reminiscent of Le Grand Meaulnes seeps into everything – Scott Walker’s powerful score helps – in spite of the sumptuous textiles and Prescott’s Little Lord Fauntleroy clothes. Tom Sweet’s measured performance is mesmerising. People think he’s a girl because his hair is long, which upsets him, so why doesn’t his mother let him get it cut? And what kind of leader is he likely to become? Whatever, he’s a disquieting, sharp-toothed little menace who’s going to cause trouble before the next war – you can tell when he starts yelling "I don’t believe in praying any more" at a posh dinner hosted by his father for important diplomats. And, taking his lead from mama, he fires the governess (Stacy Martin, pictured above with Tom Sweet).

First-time director Brady Corbet (he’s previously acted in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, among others) takes the film’s title from a Jean-Paul Sartre novella about the making of an anti-Semite, but it’s more of a nod than an adaptation. The acknowledgments are a heavy-hitter list: as well as Sartre, there’s Hannah Arendt, John Fowles and Robert Musil – perhaps too much portentousness for one movie. It looks gorgeous (Corbet has mentioned Barry Lyndon as an inspiration, and it shows in the painterly lighting) and Lol Crawley’s cinematography is outstanding. But there’s a touch of overkill with the enigmas. In the final, disorienting act, billed as "A New Era", in which a uniformed, moustachioed Prescott – at least, that’s who it seems to be – arrives at a fascist rally in a nameless city, we’re left wondering what exactly led him there.

Overleaf: watch the trailer to The Childhood of a Leader

The feeling of doom and a melancholy reminiscent of Le Grand Meaulnes seeps into everything


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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