‘The Childhood of a Leader’: Venice Review

The Childhood of Leader Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
An embarrassingly overambitious parable.

Berenice Bejo and Robert Pattinson star in a dark, operatic fantasy set at the end of World War I.

Attempting to describe the rise of fascism in Europe between the two world wars as a parable about a wayward little boy, the dark and dreamy The Childhood of a Leader can only be called extraordinarily over-ambitious. This first feature by 27-year-old American director Brady Corbet combines a fine Euro cast, grandiose art direction and a thundering score by Scott Walker, but the result is an embarrassing hodgepodge that’s very hard to follow. One can only wonder what future awaits it after its bow in the Horizons sidebar in Venice, and a brief cameo by Robert Pattinson is unlikely to change its fortunes.

It’s screamingly obvious that Corbet, who co-wrote the film with Mona Fastvold (The Sleepwalker), is a film buff well-versed in classic and modern masters, but this turns out to be a limited asset, or even a liability, given his inability to choose one path to follow. The result is a jarring clash of filmmaking styles and approaches, which switch-hit from Renoir to Welles, Dreyer to Haneke, as the whimsy takes him.

If only the film had the pithy, witty, sophisticated dialogue of these directors, instead of the inconsequential chit-chat that pads out most of its scenes.

The opening sequence is meant to impress, as dramatic archive footage of WWI battlefields gives way to a racing train, all to an operatic soundtrack that shakes the rafters. The important fact to take away from these preliminaries is that U.S. president Woodrow Wilson is in Paris to sign the Treaty of Versailles, which is supposed to build a lasting world peace. One of Wilson’s aides is a wealthy American (Irish actor Liam Cunningham), who is happy to be back in Europe with his German-born wife (French-Argentine actress Berenice Bejo) and 7-year-old son. They have moved into an enormous country chateau outside Paris with a few servants, including an amiable and maternal housekeeper, played by  irresistible Belgian comedienne Yolande Moreau. Given the casting, the family is about as American as the proverbial Euro pudding, and that much less credible. Bejo adds a note of international elegance and gravitas, at least until her Teutonic origins resurface. 

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After a rambling, pointless scene in which the diplomat discusses world politics with a visiting journalist, the story concentrates, for a time, on its young hero Prescott (British child actor Tom Sweet.) With his angelic face, Little Lord Fauntleroy locks and frilly clothes, he is often mistaken for a girl, which infuriates him.

The film is divided into three chapters, coyly named after his “tantrums”. In the first, he hurls rocks at people as they come out of church, then is forced by his martinet mom to apologize. In the second, the face-off between Prescott and his parents turns into war, with the boy barricading himself in his room. Now that he’s learned to manipulate his elders, he stages the third tantrum in front of his father's VIP guests.

Sweet gives a strikingly detached, adult-like performance as the son, wrapped in a spooky atmosphere of nightmares and a touch of the macabre. But how did he turn into an evil monster and megalomaniac dictator? It can't be all Dad and Mom's fault. Given the way he provokes them, his parents’ stern reaction and rough handling seem on a par for the period. Maybe there's a sexual trauma behind it? He does overhear his attractive young French teacher (Stacy Martin of Nymphomaniac) sharing intimate laughter with his father. Where his childhood went wrong will remain, for most viewers, a mystery.

The narrative never takes the shortest distance between two points if it can help it, and so Prescott’s story alternates with his mother’s religious fanaticism and Dad’s important diplomatic meetings which are redrawing national borders, planning reconstruction and exacting retribution from Germany. All of this would be a crashing bore were there not cinematographer Lol Crawley’s gorgeous painterly shots to look at, drenching Jean-Vincent Puzos heavily draped interiors in romantic lighting. Scott Walker's music is always original, even if it tends to be used in an orgy of symphonic excess. There is actually a lot of imagination at work in the film, though frustratingly it rarely comes together in an emotionally meaningful way.  

Production companies: Unanimous Entertainment, Mact Productions, Filmteam, Hepp Film
Berenice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Yolande Moreau, Tom Sweet, Robert Pattinson
Director: Brady Corbet
Screenwriters: Brady Corbet, Mona Fastvold
Producers: Chris Coen, Antoine de Clement-Tonnerre, Istvan Major, Helena Danielsson
Director of photography: Lol Crawley

Production designer: Jean-Vincent Puzos
Music: Scott Walker
Costumes:  Andrea Flesch
Editor: David Jancso
Sales Agent: Protagonist Pictures
113 minutes