“The Childhood of a Leader” has its Madison premiere at 7 tonight for FREE at the UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall. Not rated, 1:56, three and a half stars out of four.
Never underestimate youth. That’s the message of the chilling and masterful “The Childhood of a Leader” in more than one way. Centering on an angelic-looking boy who may be in training to be one of history’s greatest monsters, the film has the ominous grandeur of a Stanley Kubrick or Alexander Sokurov movie. But it was made not by an old European master, but by a twentysomething American actor named Brady Corbet (“Melancholia”) making his filmmaking debut. Wow.
“Childhood” opens with a ferocious, crashing score by Scott Walker (the musician, not the Wisconsin governor) that keeps us unnerved about what is to come. Deft edits of newsreel footage show that the year is 1918, the waning days of World War I, and President Woodrow Wilson is in Europe as the final surrender to the Germans is being negotiated.
Liam Cunningham plays one of unnamed Wilson’s key negotiators, who is in France with his family to finalize the surrender. We see him and fellow diplomats (including one played by Robert Pattinson) drinking brandy and plotting how to carve up the plundered territories to suit the interests of the West. Their insistence on seizing German’s coal has echoes of today’s “seize the oil,” as is the casual racism displayed about Muslims. Those familiar with history know that it’s the brutal terms of the surrender that will be partially responsible for the rise of fascism to come in Germany. When one diplomat smirks, “We will force the world to become a better place,” we know what the outcome of such blind good intentions will be.
But while Cunningham’s diplomat can bend Germany to his will, he can’t do the same at home. His young son Prescott (played by a British actor with the incredibly ironic name of Tom Sweet) looks like Little Lord Fauntleroy with his long golden locks and smart little suits. But he is a holy terror. In the opening scene, we see him rehearsing for his part in the church Christmas pageant, his voice like an angel. Then he hides in the woods outside the church and throws rocks at the adults exiting.
“The Childhood of a Leader” is structured around three “tantrums,” each identified by a title card, and the formal treatment given to these domestic outbursts suggests that this is no ordinary boy. As he engages in a protracted power struggle with his icy mother (Berenice Bejo) and tutor (Stacy Martin), we see a very clever boy who is learning how to manipulate the adults around him. But other times, he seems quite sweet, especially to the doting house cook, Mona.
Is he a “bad seed,” or is he the inevitable product of a cruel family environment? “The Childhood of a Leader” keeps us guessing even as the tantrums get worse. Corbet is drawing a clear allegory here between Prescott and the defeated Germany, an allegory that perhaps becomes too explicit in the film’s final scene. The connection between how superpowers treat weaker nations, and how parents treat their children, is resonant and haunting.
Corbet (who also co-wrote the screenplay) effectively builds a sense of mounting dread throughout the film, between Walker’s insidious score and the underlit, claustrophobic compositions on screen, that seems unnervingly at odds with the parent-child struggles we’re watching. But the film is clear that no struggle is small to those who engage in it, be they people or nations, and the repercussions of careless decisions can be catastrophic.