Brady Corbet’s The Childhood of a Leader is more of a cinematic experience than a tightly constructed narrative. It’s a film that manipulates the viewer’s perception, constructing a character outline that can’t properly be explained within a two-hour time frame. And with a telling title, Corbet establishes a haunting tone even before the unnerving opening sequence.
In Chuck Klosterman’s But What If We’re Wrong: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past (2016), the author imagines a future in which the accepted truths of today have either been forgotten or factually debunked. He also theorizes how the fundamentals of rock and roll will be taught 500 years from now. Which musician embodies all the definitive traits of a rock leader? Well, it’s not Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley or even The Beatles, at least through Klosterman’s point of view. And with The Childhood of a Leader, Corbet examines the various tantrums of a future “leader,” yet the director holds back on revealing a crucial bit of information that ultimately gives the film new meaning.
Young Prescott, played by Tom Sweet, represents everything awful about entitled kids. He throws rocks at parishioners, walks around naked and feels up a teacher (Stacy Martin) at home, only to get her fired by memorizing an extended passage of “The Lion and the Mouse” from Aesop’s Fables (“little friends may prove great friends”). Set in 1919 France, Prescott lives in a unique household as “The Father” (Liam Cunningham) serves as an American diplomat for President Woodrow Wilson, assigned to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles. And for “The Mother” (Bérénice Bejo), she’s a bit aloof to Prescott’s evolving maturity. The kid fully recognizes the home dynamics, manipulating situations to his advantage, with each designated as “tantrums” in three chapters of the film.
Prescott’s familial conflict and friction is made perfectly clear. He acts about because he doesn’t feel loved by mother, and father seems entirely consumed by work. Making matters worse, the supposed defining male figure in Prescott’s life struggles to communicate himself, both in quiet and chaotic times. This contrasts the more eloquent ways of Charles (Robert Pattinson), an early visitor that gets elegantly wasted before checking out entirely from The Childhood of a Leader, leading one to question his relationship to the family. As it turns out, there’s plenty of dysfunction and unaddressed drama between Prescott’s mother and father.
Even with the exceptional performances and tightly written characters (script by Corbet and Mona Fastvold), it’s the visuals that carry the film. The chiaroscuro lighting highlights both the inherent darkness of Prescott’s state of mind and the fact that he’s still only a child. And when such arresting visuals are complemented by Corbet’s unusual pacing and the haunting score by Scott Walker, it all equates to a feeling of utter detachment. Prescott isn’t a character that one identifies with; one doesn’t root for Prescott to overcome his conflict. And so, Prescott’s confusion and discomfort emerges not through dialogue but through creative insinuation. He understands the immediate effects of his behavior and even acknowledges (to his teacher) that he’s “not improving,” which only signifies a larger personal struggle, one far more complex than just his French studies.
The Childhood of a Leader may not behold a traditional narrative, yet Corbet’s auterist style creates a memorable visceral effect. And while he’s obviously picked up on craft techniques by working with directors such as Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier and Noah Baumbauch (to name a few), the form and execution reveals someone fully in tune with a specific vision.
Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and the founder/editor of Vague Visages. In 2004, he graduated from Concordia College (Moorhead, MN) with bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History, and from 2006 to 2012, Quinn lived in Hollywood, California. He now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.