Brady Corbet's directorial debut is a true triumph, and a film you must see up on the big screen if you can. The film does hinder itself with an over indulgence in enigmatic plotting though.
Brady Corbet is an actor most people will know from his lead performance in the live action Thunderbirds movie. Post that performance, he has charted an interesting career path, working with many of Europe’s leading auteurs, such as Lars Von trier and Michael Heneke to name but a few. These influences have clearly rubbed off on him, as Childhood of a Leader feels very European in its sensibilities, but just as important, very bold stylistically.
The film is primarily set during the drafting of the Treaty of Versailles. Prescott is the son of an American diplomat who has moved his family to France with him as he works on the treaty. This backdrop is bleak, a mood accentuated by archive footage from the time, a drab colour scheme and the grainy 35mm format the film was shot on. Corbet had wanted to make a film about the Paris Peace Conference for many years. It’s quite clear that he and co-writer Mona Fastvold were also inspired by a Jean Paul Satre’s short story that explores how a child’s experiences condition him to become a fascist (the book and the film share a title), and thus the two ideas have been loosely fused, resulting in this film.
At last year’s Venice Film Festival the film deservedly picked up both the best debut award and the best director award. Corbet manages to create an ominous atmosphere that consciously seems more belonging to the horror genre. Corbet also seems to be channeling Wong Kar Wai as there is a lot of frame within frame shot compositions. Most of the film takes place in the setting of the family’s manor, so were seeing sequences staged within door frames, symbolizing the maddening feeling of confinement the house creates.
A concern many might have looking at this film is that its main character is a child, and thus the film now is dependent on the child’s potentially limited ability. Thankfully this is not the case as the first time child actor they’ve got fits the role perfectly. He manages to convey the arrogance and detachment central to the Prescott character with a natural ease, no light feat considering that this is a bi-lingual role. You can certainly draw comparisons between him and Damien from The Omen. If you were to catch this film mid way through you’d assume that in line with clichés Prescott is just possessed. This expectation is teased by the role religion plays in the film, alongside some disturbing imagery drawn out from such. The film subverts this as we see that Preston’s evil doesn’t come from the supernatural. This brat is an allegory for fascism, and like fascism was, his behaviour is ignored for too long.
The film has an orchestral score composed by Scott Walker. This score erupts out of the screen and grabs you by the throat, particularly in the breathtaking opening and closing sequences where a ferocious string and horn piece plays. The disorientating closing scene in particular is like nothing I’ve seen before, for the film’s final shot the camera is within the crowd, then it starts wildly spinning like a gyroscope, the shot barely in focus; this one take is not just reflecting the pandemonium created by the crowd fawning over their dictator, it’s also signifying how buying into cult of personality distorts perspective.
Being the debut film of an actor turned director you might go into this film concerned about it being pretentious. This film is segmented into three vignettes and an epilogue, with each vignette revolving around a Prescott tantrum, and how his distant parents handle it poorly with their authoritarian tendencies. This structuring wasn’t pretentious in practise, however the plot itself was a flaw due to what seems to be a mix of both budgetary constraints and pretension.
The film’s historical subtext could have been explored in greater detail. When the father went to into the city to work on the treaty we should have followed him, and got to see the high ups working on the treaty (e.g. Keynes). Following this the film should have had a fourth vignette showing Prescott as a sycophantic young adult interacting with this destitute and divided 1920’s context (a context we know was partly created by the treaty of Versailles thus further validating the film’s focus on it). In the film the third vignette ends then we jump to him as the leader. This isn’t due to run time as the film is only 113 minutes.
Regardless this film puts Corbet on the map as a fantastic new director, not afraid to tackle original content with innovative flair. This year has been great for actors turned directors, with Don Cheadle also proving himself to be an apt craftsman behind the camera too with the slick Miles Ahead. Definitely try and watch this film on the big screen if you can as it is a film really suited for that euphoric matinee experience.
The Childhood of a Leader (2016), directed by Brady Corbet, is distributed in the UK by Soda Pictures. Certificate 12A.