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New Release Review - THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER

The young son of an American diplomat throws a series of tantrums.






Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Brady Corbet

Starring: Berenice Bejo, Robert Pattinson, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Tom Sweet, Yolande Moreau



This is clearly the work of a director obsessed with cinema, yet it's so idiosyncratic it could equally be the product of someone who never set foot in a movie theatre. America may have just found its next great filmmaker.



Brady Corbet is one of the most interesting figures working in cinema today. As an actor he's chosen a distinctive path, shunning the sort of teen comedies and dramas you might expect an American star of his age to eke out a career in. Instead you'll find Corbet cropping up in small roles in the movies of his favourite filmmakers. He's appeared in some of the most acclaimed movies of recent years - Martha Marcy May Marlene, Melancholia, Simon Killer, Force Majeure, Clouds of Sils Maria, Eden - working under a who's who of modern auteurist cinema - Michael Haneke, Lars Von Trier, Antonio Campos, Ruben Ostlund, Olivier Assayas, Noah Baumbach. It seems young Corbet has been taking notes, as his own turn behind the camera might be the most distinguished directorial debut by an American actor since Vincent Gallo's Buffalo '66.


The Childhood of a Leader is a decidedly loose adaptation of the Jean Paul Sartre short story of the same name, but it really just borrows the story's theme of the early development of a fascist leader. Corbet's version narrows it down to a few weeks in the life of would be dictator Prescott (Tom Scott, delivering one of the all time great child performances) as a young boy. It's 1918, and Prescott's father (Liam Cunningham) is an American diplomat stationed in France to work on the Treaty of Versailles. Setting his tale in the world of politics, Corbet seems to happily invite comparisons with that most famous tale of demonic childhood, The Omen. His father largely absent, Prescott is left to roam the crumbling French farm house as his seemingly long suffering mother (Berenice Bejo) does her best to keep out of his way, entrusting his development to an elderly maid, Mona (Yolande Moreau), and a local girl, Ada (Stacy Martin), who administers French lessons. Unlike his mother, both seem beguiled by the boy.


Corbet breaks his movie roughly into three acts, each announced as a 'tantrum'. On the surface, Prescott's tantrums are just that, a bratty, spoiled child pushing the limits of his parents' and guardians' patience, but there's an arrogance to his display of intelligence that adds a sinister edge to his actions. He might be the smallest person in the room, but Prescott is always the smartest, knowing exactly how to push specific buttons. His treatment of Stacy Martin's pleasant English teacher is more disturbing than anything the actress had to endure as the lead of Von Trier's Nymphomaniac.

While Prescott's rejection of religion and alliance with his working class maid suggests a left wing tyrant in the making, it's impossible not to think of the current threat the globe faces from the far right, be it nationalists like Trump or the manipulative leaders of Islamist terror groups. Though it's largely a subtle film, Scott Walker's score pounds away in the background, shaking us like an angry parent, imploring us to pay attention to Prescott's disturbing behaviour, even if his parents are happy to ignore it.


This is clearly the work of a director obsessed with cinema, yet it's so idiosyncratic it could equally be the product of someone who never set foot in a movie theatre. The closest to an explicit influence would seem to be the early works of Peter Weir. Corbet evokes the indefinably unnerving atmosphere of Picnic at Hanging Rock, while Prescott's psychological harassment of his parents recalls the subtle badgering of Judy Morris by Ivar Kants in Weir's under-rated 1979 TV movie The Plumber.

Confidence seeps from every pore of Corbet's film to such a degree that it justifies asking whether the movie is inspired by the writer-director's own childhood. When the grown up Prescott arrives to address an adoring crowd in the movie's distinctive and overwhelming climax, it might as well be Corbet stepping onto a podium with his chin held high, asking us "What do you think of that, huh?" We think quite a lot. America may have just found its next great filmmaker.




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