Though only in his late-20s, Brady Corbet has already worked (albeit briefly, on occasion) with a string of top European directors as an actor; the list includes Michael Haneke, Olivier Assayas, Lars von Trier, Mia Hansen-Løve, Bertrand Bonello and Ruben Östlund. There are similarities in terms of the directing styles of some of those named above, and certainly with regard to three or four of them in particular it’s fair to say there’s a kind of removed, icy feel to their best-known films. Corbet’s debut as a director, The Childhood Of A Leader, is a cold, dark and distant film, with cameras that constantly back away apologetically from the action, or that seem to linger without emotion or fascination on the characters at the end of some scenes (in order to emphasise the importance of what is happening, however unpalatable it may be). The film’s superb, atmospheric soundtrack, by Scott Walker, has jarring strings and occasional, strange electronic outbursts, which means that it too seems to fit with the dissonance between the characters on screen, of which few (if any) are sympathetic. It’s a film with a distinct look and feel that one would have every right not to expect from such a young director.
As the title suggests, we’re dealing here with the life of a boy (played by newcomer Tom Sweet) who will become a leader in the future, and there’s an ominous, bleak mood from the outset; given that the film is set in Europe just prior to the signing of The Treaty Of Versailles in 1919 – the resentment of which within Germany became an important factor facilitating the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party – it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what kind of leader the boy will become. He’s called Prescott, and he’s the son of an authoritarian American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) and an austere French woman (Bérénice Bejo), who between them create a particularly stiff, puritanical home environment. The father’s role in brokering the Treaty is important, while he’s also having an affair with Prescott’s language teacher (Stacy Martin). The mother, meanwhile, shows some affection to her son, yet she too has a colder side, as witnessed when she summarily dismisses house staff who have years of experience in their jobs.
Corbet’s film – based on a short story by Jean-Paul Sartre – is split into segments (‘The First Tantrum’, ‘The Second Tantrum’, etc.), which detail outbursts by Prescott that are presumably supposed to be taken as grave indicators of what will follow in adult life, though one could just as easily argue that the child’s stubborn rejection of the hypocrisy and over-the-top punishments meted out by the Catholic Church are merely indications of someone being wise beyond their years, and that his parents are deserving of the scorn and embarrassment they receive. (I read a witty summation on Letterboxd that described the film as ‘a portrait of a spoiled, rebellious child of privilege who wants to get everything he sets his heart to and will one day be hailed as righteous by the general population’ before later pointing out that the same description could be applied to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.)
The concept here is simple, and it’s presented to the audience in a straightforward, compartmentalised fashion that allows very little room for nuanced interpretation: Prescott is such a ‘perfect’ psychological case study it’s perhaps unsurprising that he’s been dreamed up by writers (Corbet’s screenplay was co-written with filmmaker Mona Fastvold) to fit squarely with widely-held views on behavioural patterns. For me, then, The Childhood Of A Leader is more interesting for its formal qualities than it is as a study in child psychology. The tone is homogenous with films like Haneke’s The White Ribbon, or even 1970’s chillers like Richard Donner’s The Omen, with which Corbet’s film shares a sense of looming, impending dread. In fact this feels like a horror film at times, and so chaos and the unknown gradually take over from normality, as they do in horrors; the director and his cinematographer Lol Crawley manage to create a sense of a world going awry with disconcerting, circular camera movement throughout, which eventually leads to a topsy-turvy view on events in one scene, as the father chases the son so he can catch him, and punish him. The nausea-inducing, lurching camerawork of the epilogue is the grand payoff, and it reinforces the notion that this is a remarkably-assured debut feature.
We see plenty of evidence of Corbet’s care (and Crawley’s, perhaps) with regard to the blocking, staging and framing, too. Despite his stature Sweet is often placed at the centre of the frame, or if he isn’t in the middle his presence is amplified by the positions of other actors around him, or the angle of the camera. We see certain things – such as the signing of the Treaty, or the discovery of the father’s affair – from his perspective, and it’s also interesting to note how close or far away the camera is (or indeed the kind of lenses that are employed) during his rebellious acts or his tantrums; I’d need to watch the film again to confirm this, but my impression was that a greater number of close-ups were used as the film progresses, after some initial distance from the action. Does this make us empathise with the brat the longer the film goes on, when we should be tiring of his petulance? Perish the thought, given what he becomes.
Much of this is a long-winded way of me saying that Corbet has made a film that has clearly been constructed very carefully, and with much thought paid to the way in which everything fits together to make a coherent, cohesive whole. To reinforce the point or to support a claim that he could in future be a director of real prowess, I could mention other elements that help to cover up a rather middling plot: once again it’s worth reiterating the importance of Walker’s score, which oddly reminded me of Mica Levi’s Under The Skin soundtrack at times; the very good performances by Cunningham and Sweet in particular; the look of the film, from the enveloping darkness and the natural lighting to the attention to costume design and period detail, which (in tandem with the wintry setting) occasionally makes you feel like you’re watching a movie in black and white, such is the dearth of any striking colour; it’s also so damn heavy-feeling from start to finish, which will undoubtedly put some people off, though it’s also indicative of the director’s consistency with regard to tone. Corbet has clearly been paying attention to a variety of directors and other crew members on a variety of sets, though I wouldn’t want to suggest that this film is a mere imitation of a certain festival-and-critic-pleasing European arthouse style; there’s a strong voice here, and clear ambition, so I’m intrigued to see what he does in the future while admiring this assured debut.
Directed by: Brady Corbet.
Written by: Brady Corbet, Mona Fastvold. Based on The Childhood Of A Leader by Jean-Paul Sartre.
Starring: Tom Sweet, Bérénice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Robert Pattinson.
Cinematography: Lol Crawley.
Editing: Dávid Jancsó.
Music: Scott Walker.
Running Time: 115 minutes.