The Childhood of a Leader





This project, one astonishingly ambitious for a first feature, is in the event overshadowed by a masterpiece.


Childhood of a leader 

Tom Sweet with Stacy Martin


Brady Corbet is best known as an actor, but he has also worked on screenplays and The Childhood of a Leader now marks his debut as director of a feature-length film. It is also a further example of his writing work since he co-wrote it with his partner Mona Fastvold. Corbett when discussing his film makes mention of Dreyer, Pialat and Bresson while explaining that its title was borrowed from a short story by Sartre. In keeping with all of that, The Childhood of a Leader is an all-out attempt at arthouse cinema and you have to admire Corbet's audacity. That element extends to going against current trends and telling a dark, enigmatic story set in France in 1918, one that extends from the end of the fighting in the First World War to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.


The focus here is on one family who have just moved to France. The father is an American (Liam Cunningham), a diplomat involved in the negotiations, and his wife (Bérénice Bejo) is a German. Their only child (10-year-old Tom Sweet) is a troubled boy made more so by the cold discipline imposed on him by his parents but welcoming the warmth of a friendly maid (Yolande Moreau). A teacher (Stacy Martin) is brought in to help him speak French, but she too finds him difficult. Indeed, each of the film's three main sections is built around a tantrum.


The film opens with a semi-abstract Overture as Scott Walker's remarkable music score bombards us over images of war. As a family tale it is clearly a warning since the behaviour of the unsympathetic parents is guaranteed to bring out the worst in their son. Given both the particular period context chosen and the title selected, it would appear that the characters symbolise something about the Germany that will produce Hitler or, indeed, about human nature generally. But as the film, often darkly lit by Lol Crawley, proceeds it becomes not more precise but increasingly vague and ambiguous - and that is so despite a conclusion in which Walker's music is given a central role that reminds one of Shostakovich at his most bombastic. This may be in line with Corbet's intentions, but it is significant that in quoting admired, relevant directors he does not mention the name of Michael Haneke. Corbet's piece has been long in coming to fruition but back in 2009 Haneke in The White Ribbon provided us with a work set a few years earlier yet no less concerned with lives and behaviour that hinted at what lay ahead in Germany. Less effortful and quietly assured, Haneke made a film that stays firmly in the mind and eclipses this one.  




Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Robert Pattinson, Tom Sweet, Yolande Moreau, Jacques Boudet.

Dir Brady Corbet, Pro Brady Corbet, Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre, Helena Danielsson, István Major and Chris Coen, Screenplay Brady Corbet and Mona Fastvold, Ph Lol Crawley, Pro Des Jean Vincent Puzos, Ed David Jancsó, Music Scott Walker, Costumes Andrea Flesch.

Scion Pictures/Bow and Arrow Entertainment/Bron Capital Partners/Crystal Wealth/Unanimous Entertainment/MACT Productions/Filmteam-Soda Pictures.
116 mins. UK/France/Hungary/USA/Belgium. 2015. Rel: 19 August 2016. Cert. 12A