When we first see the boy, he looks harmless enough. We catch a glimpse of him through a lit window; he is dressed as an angel, but his blond locks would make him look reasonably angelic even without the costume.
The music, though? It is the discordant, foreboding drone of a horror film. It puts us in mind of other cinematic children, ones called Kevin or Regan or even Damien. The visual style may be Fanny and Alexander, but the sound design is the avantgarde dread of There Will Be Blood, designed to evoke an atmosphere of unease. This child may look like an angel, yet he is anything but.
(Warning: Spoilers to follow)
And would you know it? Add some bad parenting and that child would grow up to be Hitler and Stalin, all at once. Roll on snare drum. Curtains. Good joke.
Brady Corbet’s The Childhood of a Leader looks like a much better film than it is. It features strong performances, especially by Liam Cunningham and Bérénice Bejo, and Tom Sweet is excellent as the metaphorical devil’s spawn at the centre of the film. The cinematography by the wonderfully named Lol Crawley (I want this guy to be knighted, because the world sorely needs a Sir Lol) is atmospheric, if perhaps too showy for its own good at times, and both of these things are true for the music by Scott Walker, who hides his roots as a teen pop icon well. Glancing at the reviews as well as the awards and nominations the film has received, I can say that The Childhood of a Leader was something of a critical darling.
And yet, the more I think about the film, the more I dislike it. I find it dire and self-important. The Childhood of a Leader seems to think it has something to say about the rise of fascism, but scratch the surface and you’ll actually find facile psychology and an almost utter lack of sociohistorical awareness. See, we watch the young child (we find out only at the end of the film that his name is Prescott) going through three tantrums, as the intertitles inform us. We see him throwing rocks at churchgoers just for the heck of it, which sets the tone for his following shenanigans. His parents are distant; his father (Liam Cunningham) is barely present, as he works in the entourage of Woodrow Wilson in the aftermath of the First World War and the leadup to the Treaty of Versailles, and his mother (Bérénice Bejo) is resentful and cold, while the servants and the boy’s French teacher coddle him. No one knows how to handle his moods and his growing willfulness. Prescott doesn’t seem to care about anyone and anything other than imposing his will on others. He, in short, is a terror, but his parents don’t seem deserving of our sympathy either.
Things come to a head when, in celebration of the Treaty of Versailles having been signed, the father throws a dinner party for… friends? Colleagues? We never see either of the parents having much of a social life, other than their ambiguous relationship with a family friend, Charles Marker (played by Robert Pattinson). During the dinner, Prescott makes a scene and, when his mother tells him off and tries to take him to his room, he smashes her in the head with a rock, wounding and possibly killing her, and runs off.
Cut to the epilogue, in which we find an adult Prescott – looking suspiciously like Charles Marker – who has become the leader of a fascist state (the iconography points at a mix of Soviet Russia and the Third Reich). Cue titles. The end.
I wasn’t exactly on board for the first 1 1/2 hours of The Childhood of a Leader. While it is atmospheric, it is also ponderous and repetitive, with no trace of wit or humour. It seems to aim for ambiguity: is the child made into an entitled brat devoid of empathy by his bourgeois, distant, unloving parents, or is he a little terror to begin with and the bad parenting he receives only exacerbates his personality? The ambiguity is added to by the historical superstructure: the Treaty of Versailles, which is negotiated in the background of the film, was a major factor leading to the rise of fascism in Germany. Is the story we’re seeing in the foreground to be read metaphorically? The problem is, none of the ambiguities add up to anything. We have seen better, smarter, more nuanced tales of child psychopaths and nature vs nurture (Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin comes to mind). And if Prescott is to be read as a metaphor for the rise of a half-century (at least) of fascists, it is a supremely facile metaphor. Is Prescott a little psycho because his mummy and daddy, who didn’t love him, made him one, or was he a little psycho from birth? Was Germany made into a murderous fascist state by diplomats and nation-makers driven by resentment and self-interest or was the kernel there to begin with? Here, too, we’ve seen more subtle, complex takes, such as Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon.
Then again, perhaps I am insisting too much on a mechanically metaphorical reading and The Childhood of a Leader should be read more as a tone poem, a riff on the rise of fascism – but for that the plotting is too clunky, the writing and the filmmaking itself too heavy-handed. If we’re not supposed to see a parallel between Prescott and the Germany of the first half of the 20th century, why have the subplot about the Treaty of Versailles and why have the film’s far-from-subtle iconography code adult Prescott explicitly as a leader of a nation that combines in its imagery fascist Germany and Soviet Russia? And why, while we’re at it, that blunt suggestion that Prescott was the offspring of an adulterous liaison? If it’s in the film, it’s supposed to matter, to have some sort of meaning – but what meaning can we derive from “Ah, you see, this terrible child and, later, fascist leader is actually the outcome of extramarital intercourse!”? It might be easier not to read the last fifteen minutes of The Childhood of a Leader as some clunky, overly deterministic and frankly quite offensive metaphor if we didn’t get that cut from Prescott’s third ‘tantrum’ (his vicious attack on his mother) to Prescott, Hitler and Stalin both rolled into one, which suggests that we’ve seen all that matters, all that is needed to make the child into the man. Take one troubled boy, add shitty parents, sprinkle some historical references on top, bake for 15 years, et voilà! You’ve got yourself a Führer.
Clearly, Corbet is not without skill as a filmmaker. The Childhood of a Leader is dense in its tone and atmosphere. The actors, while in line with the ponderous rhythms of the film, do a good job. The combination of visual and audio design is effective, if heavy-handed. But if this film is anything to go by, Corbet and his collaborators are better at creating the appearance of a good film than at making a film that actually coheres. As a story about the rise of fascism, The Childhood of a Leader is as compelling as one of those stereotypical stoned student conversation at 2am where supposedly deep truths are pronounced. And in 2020 we don’t need facile, self-important stories about where fascism comes from. We can just turn on the news for that.