By the final dizzying moments of The Childhood of a Leader, I was completely overwhelmed in a satisfying way. The film takes place in the temporary rural home of an American diplomat stationed in the French countryside at the close of World War I. His wife and child, Prescott, waste away the days with French lessons, performances at the local church, and malaise. Prescott has a series of tantrums with the film structuring this three fits as its chapters, with an epilogue that brings everything together decades later.
The film is the directorial debut of longtime child and indie actor, Brady Corbet. It is very apparent that Corbet’s work under directors like Michael Haneke and Olivier Assayas has been a masterclass in filmmaking. This is one of the strongest debut films I’ve ever seen. The cinematography is astounding, the performances are subtle but carry much weight, and every single aspect of the film is crafted with care. Add to this the nerve shattering score by veteran composer Scott Walker and you have a film that brings together a number of genres but defies to be defined by any of them. This is a horror film set in an alternate history of our world…or is it the mix of the real and the deluded visions of a troubled young boy?
It’s hard to pin down The Childhood of a Leader. The film keeps itself enigmatic to encourage the viewer to explore and think about what’s happening on screen. The two ways I saw to read the film during this viewing were as the literal story of a young boy at the center of world history who would rise to power one day. There’s also the idea that we’re dealing metaphor. The American Father, The French Mother, The English Reporter. All three seem oblivious to this ranting, tantrum-ing, seething child until it’s too late. With each tantrum, he increases his hostility and potential to do harm to those around him.
From the opening moments of the film to its conclusion, there is an unsettling tension building. Walker’s score for the film plays a major role in building that, but its juxtaposition to the dim visuals on screen following Prescott from behind as he runs through the woods, roams the empty halls of his house or wanders naked into the middle of his father’s meeting with important policy makers is what keeps the film at the edge. We never descend into complete horror until the final moments, but every second up to that point is fraught with terror. Highly recommended and with much potential to reveal more with subsequent viewings.