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In 'The Childhood of a Leader', Old Europe Rises on the Shoulders of a Psychopath

Brady Corbet’s disturbing psycho-historical melodrama is like the Stanley Kubrick edit of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Childhood of a Leader

Cast: Tom Sweet, Berenice Bejo, Stacy Martin, Liam Cunningham, Robert Pattinson, Yolande Moreau
Rated: NR
Studio: IFC Films
Year: 2015

Historians usually pursue the great mystery of how Europe was torn apart by the gusts of fascism after the First World War by considering theories of economics, geopolitics, ethnic rivalries, and a contest between authoritarianism and democracy. This framework supports a story of inflation and territory, parties and elections, poor grain yields and reparations, rather than attributing shifts to one or even a few astoundingly effective leaders. Those leaders can have an impact, of course, but they succeed against a backdrop of fear and anger. Otherwise, a would-be fascist leader ends up just another frustrated journalist (Mussolini), failed artist (Hitler) or bank robber with pretensions (Stalin).

But what if all this isn’t true? What if the greatest conflagration in modern human history was sparked not by grander forces but by the whims of one or more determined psychopaths? That’s the nerve-rattling, if hard-to-swallow, idea advanced by The Childhood of a Leader. The directorial debut of actor Brady Corbet, this tricky, frequently overpowering film is set in 1919, just after the end of the First World War. The weight of history couldn’t be any heavier.

An American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) is working in Paris on the international peace agreement that they hope will keep the European continent from erupting again in to war. He has stashed his wife (Berenice Bejo) and son Prescott (Tom Sweet) in a tumbledown villa outside the city. The father comes and goes from the house with much 19th-century patriarchal harrumphing. He leaves the day-to-day job of raising Prescott to the mother, who in turn leaves it to the maid (Yolande Moreau) and Prescott’s French teacher (Stacy Martin).

Corbet, who co-wrote the film with Mona Fastvold, plays with nearly every event in this crumbling Polanski-esque villa of bad dreams. With the exception of a murky early scene of boozing and billiards between the father and a visiting wastrel of a journalist (Robert Pattinson), the film keeps a tight focus on the mostly mute Prescott. At first appearance a mop-haired Fauntleroy, Prescott is a nightmare of a child; a fact signaled by the first of the part titles that Corbet rather ostentatiously emblazons on the screen: “Part I: The First Tantrum”.

The tantrum itself, in which Prescott tosses rocks at some of the parishioners in the church where his mother brings him, is something of an anti-climax. That’s because Corbet begins the film on such a high note that it’s difficult for it to go anywhere but down. The title sequence, one of the most powerful beginnings to any film of the last decade, is ostensibly a history-setting vignette, all scratchy black-and-white newsreel footage showing President Wilson’s travels around Europe as he fights to bring Europe together in the spirit of equality and internationalism. But the backdrop to the footage is another creature entirely.

The original soundtrack composed by Scott Walker (his first since that racketing billow of noise he made for Leos Carax’s Pola X back in 1999) is a being unto itself. All slashing strings and rumbling epic drive, it has the strength and singular character of one of Bernard Herrmann’s masterpieces. Although Corbet presents much of the film in a quiet, almost trance-like state of gloaming, the dire unease and occasional rollicking interruptions of Walker’s score keep you on edge at nearly all times.

As the film progresses in fits and stops, we see Prescott play each of his adult guardians for fools. First he brings them close, making them think that he will do what they want. Then at the worst possible moment, he will throw another fit, aiming with body weapons and words for maximum damage. Prescott’s mother disappears further into a fugue state and his father wraps himself ever tighter in the mantle of diplomacy, leaving Prescott mostly to his increasingly sour and cold-hearted self.

It doesn’t take much analysis to figure out where Corbet is going with all this, even before you see the nods to Robert Musil, Jean-Paul Sartre, and John Fowles in the end credits. A filmmaker doesn’t set a story at this historical vector and spend so much time with a troubled child whose every misstep appears to be villainous, without having a particular purpose in mind.

The film is certainly overwrought as fascist analogy, the clueless diplomats fussing with their maps and treaties while evil seethes right under the feet. But with its precisely calibrated chill, The Childhood of a Leader is nevertheless a macabre and even sometimes thought-provoking piece of operatic doom in which great historical shifts take a back seat to a more individual view of evil.


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