The Childhood of a Leader is showing in the Plymouth Arts Centre cinema from 23-29 September. Review by Ieuan Jones.
If you’ve seen Michael Haneke’s remake of his own Funny Games (2007), then you’ll remember Brady Corbet as one of the malicious pair that terrorise a wholesome family in that film. Now Corbet has carried over a quite a bit of what he learned from Haneke into his debut feature, The Childhood of a Leader.
It is 1919 and the Great War is over. Presidents, generals and figures of high esteem are flooding into Europe to carve up the peace. Tom Sweet plays a young boy (late in the film we find out he is called Prescott) who is the child of an American diplomat (Game of Thrones‘ Liam Cunningham) and French mother (Berenice Bejo). In a decaying chateau, Prescott is left in the main to his own devices, as his parents busy themselves with their own concerns. He is reared more or less by his tutor, Ada (Stacey Martin) with whom he is obsessed. There is the occasional visitor, such as Charles (Robert Pattinson).
Through a series of temper tantrums and transgressions (including one remarkably sexual one) Prescott slowly reveals himself to be a pint-sized tyrant. By continually delegating responsibility for his behaviour, none of the adults seem able to get a handle on him and accordingly Prescott starts to fall helplessly into a kind of uncontrolled mania, much like the way Europe was at that time.
The Childhood of a Leader actually shares most DNA with another Haneke film, The White Ribbon (2009) – specifically in how it shows the development of a certain kind of malevolence in a society that would eventually put their country on the road to fascism. It does not share Haneke’s knack for chronic subliminal unease, I think, but is maybe trying something else instead – a kind of nauseating dread reflected in the collective nervous breakdown of humanity (the film is based very loosely on a short story by Jean-Paul Sartre).
The shrill finale of Corbet’s film is amplified by a tumultuous score by Scott Walker. The frenzied finale feels prescient, especially in light of the current Republican campaign for president of the United States. This is because Corbet does not just ask us to suppose how monsters are created in the first place, but why a mass of people would then go on to venerate them.