The Childhood of a Leader opens not on the angelic face of its sociopathic protagonist Prescott (Tom Sweet), but on real footage of the events that shape him. Bone-rattling music plays over silent films of the events surrounding the aftermath of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, introducing the viewer to the film’s background and the formation of its protagonist’s identity. Prescott will be affected by these events, even if he does not play a part in them – his is a world of uncertainty, repression, and repressed violence, the perfect breeding ground for a fascist leader.
Brady Corbet’s feature film debut tells of a formative period in Prescott’s life. The son of an American diplomat and his globally educated wife (Liam Cunningham and Bérénice Bejo), he lives with his parents and a few servants in a rundown villa in a village outside of Paris. His father is attached to President Wilson’s delegation in the aftermath of World War I. Absent for much of the time and distant for the rest, the father leaves Prescott in the care of his mother, who alternatively coddles and disciplines him.
Old family friend Charles (Robert Pattinson) makes an occasional appearance as the voice of external reason and restraint, but the family unit remains imbalanced by the father’s absence, the mother’s coldness, and Prescott’s increasingly violent tantrums. The tantrums form the film’s chapters, dividing the story into acts centered around Prescott’s psychological growth. As the boy’s violence and manipulation of the adults around him reach a fever pitch, the film crescendos to a series of terrifying denouements that leads to the birth of a true dictator.
Prescott’s monstrosity is the center of the film, and is terrifying because it is so normal. Read outside the lens of the film, his initial behavior is not extreme. Like many children, he pushes boundaries in the search for attention and validation, but his behavior becomes increasingly erratic as the world around him disintegrates. Prescott is neither a monster of his own making, nor simply product of his environment; he’s both, a monstrosity who comes into being because of the circumstances of his world. Adults provide something for him to poke, prod, and manipulate, discovering weaknesses and exploiting them to fuel his desires.
Prescott is surrounded by men and women incapable of speaking what they think or feel, and whom he learns to manipulate for his own selfish ends. Mona (Yolande Moreau) is a kindly housekeeper who coddles him, undermining his mother’s authority. His by-turns loving and hostile mother wallows in her own sense of betrayal and disappointment and takes out those frustrations on her son. His father, autocratic and distant, only seems to touch his son in anger and otherwise remains aloof, uncertain how to even relate to the boy. The presence of the French teacher Ada (Stacy Martin) catalyzes the frustrations of the mother and the repressed desires of the father, language, freedom, and sexuality fusing together in a mash of psychological complexity.
Language cuts through Prescott’s experience: his father refuses to learn French, or to allow it spoken under his roof. His mother is fluent in four language, and insists that her son learn French as part of his education. Prescott’s knowledge of language remains obscure – it’s never clear how much he understands, or when, and he uses this confusion to his advantage. Prescott understands more than the adults around him do, or than they think he does, and he pushes the limits of his willfulness to conclude that his power lies in not explaining his actions, in lording over his own world without recourse to theirs. If he refuses to obey their rules, he remains in control, his power certain because they cannot and will not speak the words that would stop him.
This is a film about unfinished sentences and unclear thoughts. Questions are asked and never answered. Relationships play out in looks and half-spoken sentences, understanding and concealment so deep that the viewer is never quite certain who knows what, or who suspects whom. That extends beyond the characters to the film itself, its resolution concealed in the multitude of what is not said, not shown, not understood.
The pounding Wagnerian soundtrack by composer Scott Walker further emphasizes this tension in the obscure and the mundane, the barely concealed hostility, anger, resentment, and even desire lurking beneath the clean facades. The music, all scraping violins and booming chords that ring out like gunshots, often plays over innocuous images: a string of cars driving through the countryside, a young man climbing stairs, a group of children performing a pageant. In contrast, the scenes of externalized hostility are left to speak for themselves, the crashes and bangs of domestic brutality close and personal without the benefit of banging kettledrums.
So much is left unspoken in The Childhood of a Leader that it can become frustrating to watch. Scenes that should have tension sometimes fall flat, the dialogue (or lack thereof) floating meaninglessly in the air. The slight messiness at the edges of the film, the sense of unevenness in Corbet’s depiction of a sociopath’s rise to power, undercuts the monstrosity and indeed the brilliance sometimes found in the frames. Late-in-the-day revelations provide little explanation for Prescott’s behavior, but their obscurity is more maddening than intriguing. The ambition of the film does not always reach the heights it promises; nevertheless, that ambition is laudable and in keeping with the scope of the narrative, at once personal and global.
Despite its occasional oversteps and misfires, The Childhood of a Leader is a fascinating film, as moving and irresistible as it is terrifying. If the film lags in places, it makes up for it in the absorbing development of its characters and themes. It may surprise, it may shock, and it may occasionally bore, but it leaves an indelible impression.
The Childhood Of A Leader is an intense and complex film about the rise of a sociopath that will leave an indelible impression for days afterward.