‘The Childhood of a Leader’ (IFC Films) is an eerie, suspense filled drama, and the debut from Actor-turned-Director/Writer Bradley Corbet.
Corbet has a long and rich performance career to bolster him, appearing in films like: Funny Games (2007,) Melancholia (2011,) and Simon Killer (2012.) “The Childhood of a Leader” has a distinct maturity to it, one that we wouldn’t expect from a debut work, or from somebody as young as twenty-eight. Corbet is one to look out for, his unique directing style is set to put Corbet into a canon of auteur directors in the league of Hitchcock, Kuberick and Welles. Corbet took four years to the get the film to production, after revisiting the script that he started ten years ago but believed would be too big to tackle as a debut. In 2013 the cast was set to be Tim Roth, Juliette Binoche and Patterson, and the choice of Sweet for the lead took a long time. After dealing with the casting issues, and finally scraping together a budget of just $3mill from partners and private equity funding, the film was shot in 28 days in Budapest, Hungary, January last year.
Corbet said the process left him with no place to live, and drove him to near bankruptcy, claiming that himself and his pregnant wife “really bled for it.” Set against the depressing backdrop of post-WWI France, and in the midst the tense negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles, “The Childhood of a Leader” is a coming of age tale that delves into the oppressive, claustrophobic upbringing of seven year-old Prescott (Tom Sweet.) Prescott is the son of an American diplomat (Liam Cunnigham,) and a young, but dour, mother (Bérénice Bejo) who tires of her son’s Machiavellian mischief from the offset. With rare visits from a family friend, Charles (Robert Patterson,) a widowed politician whose unassuming, almost muted role goes unheeded until the dénouement, and the boy’s languages tutor – a young English girl named Ada (Stacy Martin) – whose subtle coyness, and sickly civility, spur on a sordid, sadistic sexual awakening for the child.
The opening overture of the film is set against reels of menacing, grainy archive footage of WWI soldiers marching, and rising out from their trenches. The rousing, baleful orchestral soundtrack (Scott Walker) – performed by a full 120-piece orchestra, and taking a year and a half to compose – foreshadows the film’s Draconian atmosphere befitting of early 20th century authoritarianism. The house is the setting of the majority of the film, with scenes that are dominated by shots of narrow corridors, which, as we move down them, appear to take us deeper and deeper into the obscure inner-workings of Prescott’s fragile, susceptible young mind.
The film is full of ambiguity and paradox, being both intricate and simplistic, incisively tense yet stripped of anything overt or melodramatic. The gloomy visuals of the film reflect a Europe ravaged by war and in a state of disillusionment and depression, but this is a more vicious representation of a period in history that is sometimes romanticized. The colour black haunts the film like red does Kuberick’s The Shining, a constant reminder of the shadows that lurk, and the darkness within. This film is sharp like a weapon, it feels dangerous, sometimes almost painful – forget about cutting the tension with a knife, this film is the knife…
Corbet’s skill lies in getting you to interrogate everything you see on screen, as you struggle to comprehend the layers of meaning and visual metaphor in the action – and then begin to wonder whether or not they even exist. This film is more than just a question of style or substance. It is unquestionably both of those things. But a question of how the two things interact with each other, in a delicate waltz that hides the aggression of a fiery tango. It is so concise and succinct that every part of its composition, every shot, costume, prop placement, the delivery of every line begs to be considered.
A film you can watch over and over still gleaming new meaning, and interpretive value, on every re-watch. The central focus of the boy’s character, and the early signs of his tyrannical future are this film’s raison d’être. Sweet’s uncanny performance oscillates between cherubic and devilish. He is cold, stoic, and mature whilst capturing the fragility, and downright childishness, of the role. As Prescott finds himself oppressed by the constraints of paternal authority his tactics are to scream, squirm, or manipulate in order to overcome them, but most of all never to surrender by admitting defeat. Instances of embarrassment like having to apologise to his church congregation, or being repeatedly mistaken for a girl presage the boy protagonist’s yearning to be dominant and respected. This film really doesn’t have the feel of a feature length debut; Corbet’s film has the class, style, and idiosyncrasies of a seasoned auteur. The film has been nominated seven times, and won five awards, including Best Director and Best Film at the Venice Film Festival 2015. I would give the film 4/5 stars, definitely one to watch (distribution for a film this avant-garde and peculiar will likely be short, but it’s worth getting down to your nearest indie type cinema to catch it while you can.) But mostly it is exciting to imagine the prospects of Corbet’s future work as a Writer/Director, and I look forward to seeing how his creative style and vision develop.
Words by Lola Josephine