Film of the week: The Childhood of a Leader

The makings of ‘Prescott, the bastard’, a fictional tyrant familar from the worst pages of our history – not to mention our unsettled future.

Kim Newman

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The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

In defiance of the current vogue for spoiler warnings, Brady Corbet’s first film as a director gives away its outcome in its title – which is taken from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1939 short story, though the script (which Corbet co-wrote with Mona Fastvold) draws on many other sources – Robert Graves (I, Claudius) and Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism) are among those credited. With its precisely titled chapters (‘The First Tantrum’, etc) and foreshadowing conversations about the rearrangement of post-war Europe, it is plain where this story is going – though it’s still able to spring surprises. Even the credits are arresting: stark blocks of names that don’t linger on screen.

First seen literally as an angel (in costume for a nativity play), the young leader-to-be – whose character name is withheld until the climax, suggesting an identity coalescing under a rock – is an androgynous youth who bristles at being mistaken for a girl but resists having his long hair cut. Ten-year-old Tom Sweet is extraordinarily credible as a disturbed child who is clever enough to keep quiet and plot his revenges. As adults remotely fuss with details of the Treaty of Versailles in darkened rooms, the boy simmers – using reverse psychology on his neurotic mother as he misbehaves by going to his room and learning his lessons.

When his blunt father is infuriated that a small child has somehow risen to rule his household, he batters down the door and inflicts physical punishment. The boy exaggerates the resulting injury to solidify his position as a martyr, before committing a monstrous, violent, public act which jars history itself (signified by dizzying camera cartwheels and a terrifying Scott Walker score).

The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

While the milieu of the bulk of the film is meticulously historical, with the real diplomats involved in the treaty namedropped, the coda takes place in an alternate timeline where there is room among the strong men of the 20th century for the ahistorical ‘Prescott, the bastard’, who rules over an unspecified country (the Freedonia of Duck Soup, the America of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, the Oceania of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four?). The fact that Robert Pattinson takes a double role – first, as a journalist friend of the young boy’s parents, and later as the bald-headed, neon-eyed adult leader himself – suggests that Prescott may be a bastard literally as well as figuratively.

Specifics of the young Prescott’s misdeeds (throwing stones at churchgoers) are taken from the childhood of Mussolini, but the imaginary flags and symbols of the hallucinatory finale position him as any dictator. In fact, the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Franco were shaped by the political and social climes of the late 19th century through to World War I; Prescott is younger, though he swims in the same pool.

It’s not to trivialise the nuanced and serious Childhood of a Leader to say that it would work well as a prequel to a Fantastic Four movie that focused on the character of Latverian dictator Dr Doom. Several recent films have touched on the early years of sociopaths – Craig William MacNeill’s The Boy, Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not a Serial Killer – but this takes things further, to focus on a malaise which is set to have an impact perhaps on a global scale, a pertinent subject in an era in which nation states of all stripes are flirting with the notion of elevating pathological egoists to the highest office.

The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

Early on, the child Prescott dreams of his future – marked by East German-style paternoster lifts and the unsettling absence of his mother – and Corbet and Fastvold seem playfully to be drawing on The Omen, in which the Antichrist is raised in a diplomatic family and also plays off a worshipful, venomous nanny against a fragile, doomed mother. When dismissed, Mona the housekeeper promises Prescott’s mother that she will devote every waking hour “to destroying your family”.

The throwaway detail that the multilingual mother (Bérénice Bejo – replacing the originally cast Juliette Binoche) is from Strasbourg, a city about to be ceded by Germany to France in the treaty her husband is working on, suggests how far she is a victim of history. She personally has been annexed by America, in the person of the brutal idiot played ferociously by Liam Cunningham, while retaining feelings for Europe, personified by Robert Pattinson. And before Prescott can set out on his path to greatness he has to strike at her – an infantile Hamlet, or perhaps Norman Bates with a political agenda.

As an actor, Corbet appeared in Funny Games US (2007) – and his detached, clear-eyed manner is plainly influenced by Michael Haneke, with an especial nod to The White Ribbon (2009). He also starred in and co-wrote Antonio Campos’s Simon Killer, another study of a spoiled brat on a pathway to murder.

The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

But this is more than an imitation game. There’s a distinctive chill to the way the film picks up on childish whims and follows them as they become obsessions. The boy touches the compliant, matronly Mona’s breast and then fixates (in a long-held close shot) on the nipple, discerned through a thin blouse, of the younger Ada, his tutor. He hums a snatch of Beethoven’s Seventh (often a theme tune for megalomania, as coincidentally in X-Men: Apocalypse), takes a lesson from a fable, about a lion and a mouse, that shocks adults (later, the lion-head becomes the symbol of his tyranny), and he speaks softly (in two languages), only snarling “yes” or “no” at the grown-ups he is already determined to overthrow. Something is wrong in this household, in this continent, in this century – and yet it’s inevitable.

The adult actors are all excellent, though required to be stooges for Sweet. It takes three parents, several servants, a world war, a corrupt church (Prescott yells “I don’t believe in praying any more” like a mantra) to shape this monster. The failures of these adults and their institutions create the vacuum that allows his eventual rise. This may be the story of the childhood of a leader, but we have to look at the grown-ups who fail to solve or resolve anything – from a dinner menu to an equitable peace – for a sketch of the mass abdication of responsibility that might make a great many people want to be led by a dangerous maniac. This is also the story of those who will be led.

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