Overview: An American child grows up in post-war France. IFC; 2016; Not Rated; 113 minutes.
Running Before Walking: Brady Corbet, who is particularly well known for his work with other extremely controversial but still well-regarded auteurs (Lars Von Trier, Michael Haneke, Antonio Campos), now in the director’s chair himself has crafted a work full and worthy of their various influences. Yet Corbet directs The Childhood of a Leader with such striking ambition and confidence that this debut itself carries with it an inherent air of fascination. The film is a singular piece of work.
Comparisons to Haneke’s The White Ribbon exist in premise only as the film, in upholding a more focused lens, manages to create a more lucid thesis while sacrificing some universality in the process. Broken up into three parts, each one an enumerated “tantrum”, Corbet charts the developments in a child’s life: small but significant moments, a physically absent father, a mentally distant mother, and the overarching drafting of the Treaty of Versailles, before further illustrating how those minute details must prove monumental to a child. With an overtly descriptive title, Corbet infuses every small incidence with the overarching understanding of the film’s promise. Occasionally, the case for the conclusive evilness is unconvincing, and the child is often more frustrating than bratty–the child is definitely a product of his environment, but also of his own unmistakably devious actions.
It Takes a Village: Severely grim, The Childhood of a Leader dresses itself like a gothic nightmare, with impressions of both cult and the occult. Berenice Bejo, stinted by the dual language barrier in an otherwise fantastic turn, slowly becomes less of a nurturing mother and more of a countess in a vampiric gown. Liam Cunningham is big and brutish and domineering (and, like many of the other characters, one-note), hardly the sort of father a child would enjoy being raised by. Yolande Moreau’s initially pleasant Mona, the maid, becomes a sort of a witch. Only Stacy Martin’s kind teacher remains consistently good–and is thus rejected from the household. A dissonant orchestral score from Scott Walker invades the scenes in which it is injected into, and elevates the scenes to higher extremes – thereby sending the rest of the film into sprints to similarly reach. Otherwise, the film’s background is near-silent, channeling a brooding angst which threatens to manifest itself within the child’s growth that keeps the stakes consistently high.
Structurally, The Childhood of a Leader is easy enough to navigate through. Each new chapter brings with it a reset in pacing and a promise for another climax, only somewhat carrying the momentum of the last. The moments in between occasionally lull, and are occasionally pushed into tedium. Seeing Corbet reignite the film’s pacing or restart the flow at various points, feels very much like the central conceit of the film itself: watching somebody taking those initial steps into greatness.
Overall: It is easy enough to tell that Corbet has the makings of a great filmmaker, if not at the very least an assured one. And one should find solace in that The Childhood of a Leader, ultimately flawed albeit well-crafted in both hypnotic atmosphere and content, is not nearly close to the eventual opus of his career.
Featured Image: IFC