What does it take to create a dictator?
That’s the question posed by The Childhood of a Leader, which explores the youth of an American boy transposed to 1918 Paris for the negotiation of World War I reparations, querying along the way what might lead to the rise of European fascism yet to come–and the men that might lead it.
The directorial debut of Brady Corbet (best known for roles in moody Euro-arthouse like Funny Games and Melancholia), The Childhood of a Leader is careful not to align itself too closely to any single real world figure, instead taking as its (loose) inspiration a short story by Jean-Paul Sartre.
Prescott (played with alarming, steely-eyed intensity by Tom Sweet) is brought to live in the Parisian countryside by his parents. His father (Liam Cunningham) is an American diplomat, a powerful figure in the peacetime negotiations. His mother (Bérénice Bejo), a multi-lingual European who stays with him in the house–though is more interested in exporting her parental duties to the hired help than tackling them herself.
After a rattling introductory overture, thudding strings set to archival war footage, we’re thrown into the first of three acts–each titled after one of three ‘tantrums’; the first is ominously billed as ‘A Sign of Things to Come’. Each sees the pre-pubescent Prescott testing his power, probing the limits of what he can get away with, pushing for a response in a battle of wills.
His father, mostly absent, serves only as an occasional source of physical threat. His mother is quick to foist responsibilities onto the maid, Prescott’s French teacher (a welcome Stacy Martin), even the local priest, leaving the child awash in parental figures, none of whom seem capable, or often even interested, in understanding his behaviour.
The adult performances are capable, though occasionally lost in the morass of swirling accents. Sweet is a revelation though, his piercing stare and cold expression offering a convincing sense of a monster yet to come, even as he devotes childish energy to refusing to eat his dinner or disrupting his father’s meetings. Robert Pattinson also enjoys a meandering dual role that casts uncertain light on the rest of proceedings.
Corbet certainly shows no shortage of directorial ambition in his first feature. The swirling score from avant-garde musician Scott Walker throws an all-out assault on the senses from the film’s opening moment on, punctuating the film’s punchier moments. Cinematographer Lol Crawley and editor Dávid Jancsó offer a considered visual counterpoint, meticulous framing and long takes giving way to chaotic cuts and pans as Walker’s score veers off into the wilderness.
That ambition is not quite fully realised by a script that finds too little room to grow. The child tyrant’s tantrums are fascinating to behold, but each offers only slight progression from the last–the same, but more so–rather than finding new avenues to explore. Still, it’s a fiery film for the most part, and suggests promise in Corbet remaining behind the camera rather than in front of it.
Words by Dominic Preston