The Childhood of a Leader immerses itself in a volatile moment in history without trying to replicate it.
Instead of recounting real events at the end of World War I, first time director Brady Corbet takes a highly interpretive look at the conditions that might give rise to a fascist totalitarian leader. To accomplish this task, Corbet focuses on Prescott (Tom Sweet), a boy who's living outside of Paris with his parents, a German mother of chilly disposition (Berenice Bejo) and an American diplomat father (Liam Cunningham) who's working on the Treaty of Versailles for President Wilson.
Corbet divides his slowly evolving tale into three chapters titled Tantrums 1,2 and 3.
It's worth pausing to consider these titles as we watch an often unpleasant boy react to a harsh and loveless world that's full of disquiet. It's almost as if Corbet, who co-wrote the screenplay with Norwegian actress Mona Fastvoid, wants to tell us that authoritarian leadership amounts to a kind of sustained tantrum, an unleashing of puerile anger from a dictator who believes the world deserves to be smashed and brutalized.
Much of the movie's discordant feeling derives from an avant-garde score by Scott Walker.
Nowhere is Walker's influence more evident than in opening newsreel footage that serves as a prologue for what's to follow. The black-and-white images of diplomats gathering in Paris to determine the shape of Interwar Europe are accompanied by a soundtrack that might be suitable for a horror movie. And, in some ways, The Childhood of a Leader is a horror movie. Corbet turns over the soil in which bad seeds can grow.
We first see young Prescott through a window at night. Dressed as an angel, he's about to participate in a Christmas pageant at the local church. No sooner has the pageant ended, than Prescott races into the woods, finds a perch and begins throwing rocks at the local priest.
Other adults in Prescott's world include a tutor (Stacy Martin) and a maid (Yolanda Moreau). Only the maid demonstrates anything resembling affection for the boy.
At times, Prescott -- with long locks that his mother refuses to trim -- is taken for a girl. His mother won't let him be a boy, which signals trouble for his pending manhood.
Robert Pattinson does cameo duty as a journalist who has periodic discussions with Cunningham's character and who may be a secret lover of Bejo's character.
Corbett infuses his dimly lit movie with a sense of dread as he allows scenes to play out in often-ambiguous fashion. By no means an inviting movie, The Childhood of a Leader can seem unremittingly harsh, even forbidding.
The Childhood of a Leader, which takes its title and perhaps some inspiration from a 1939 short story by Jean Paul Sartre, has been compared to the austere work of Austrian director Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon). Corbet, who acted in Haneke's American version of Funny Games, obviously knows the director's work.
Wherever Corbet finds his influences, it's clear that he wants to speak in his own voice as he explores the murky origins of fascism. And if we're uncertain about his intentions, Corbet emphasizes the point with an eerie postscript, a brief look at the trappings of a fictional fascist state in which the now-grown leader has ascended.
It's possible to argue that Corbet leaves too much unstated in his depictions of daily life or that he moves too slowly. And, yes, watching The Childhood of a Leader requires patience, but Corbet deserves credit for imbuing his movie with an unquestionable seriousness of purpose. He makes you want to probe its mysteries.