The Childhood of a Leader (2015)
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The film imitates the music.
The story of Childhood of a Leader comprises scenes in the upbringing of Prescott, the rich, spoiled son of an influential American diplomat and his beautiful wife. The father is hammering out the details of what will become the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the First World War, and set the stage for the Second. Neither parent has much time for Prescott, and he is raised by servants, who can be dismissed on a whim.
Prescott eventually grows up to be (here's the spoiler): a fascist leader.
The takes and the scenes go on for far too long, leading to boredom. But the director and writer, Brady Corbet, isn't interested in making a good movie. He wants to deliver a message, even if he has to hit you on the head with it. He wants you to know that there is no free will; that your attitudes and place in society are determined by your class and upbringing; that any child raised under these circumstances would turn out this way.
What he fails to notice is that nearly all upper-class children in pre-WWI times were raised like this. Yet somehow they did not all end up leading fascist coups.
Childhood of a Leader's only redeeming feature is the acting. It is excellent throughout, especially Liam Cunningham as the father, who expects his orders to be obeyed and his son to be disciplined. Cunningham is completely believable playing this unattractive character.
We shouldn't blame director Corbet for making such a second-rate film. Given his class and his upbringing, it was inevitable.
Prescott has been brought to France in the immediate aftermath of World War I. His cold, strict father (Liam Cunningham) is an American diplomat helping draft the Versailles peace treaty. The boy and his French-born mother (Bérénice Bejo) stay in a manor house in a small town. The film is divided into three "tantrums" where Prescott unleashes violence on those around him, all played out against the backdrop of vicious diplomatic negotiations where the victorious Allies seek to harshly punish the loser Germany -- a humiliation traditionally blamed for the rise of Hitler and other fascist demagogues. Besides the vindictiveness being shown on the international scale among diplomats and men of state, Prescott is also confronted by intrigues within his own home: his father's affair with his governess (Stacy Martin), and his mother's mysterious relationship with his father's friend Charles (Robert Pattinson). Add to this appalling class divisions that make the family masters of an enormous home and the local peasants merely their servants, and there's plenty of cause to lose faith in noble ideals and justice.
My interest was originally drawn to this film because its score was supplied by Scott Walker, who started out as a 1960s crooner and gradually became one of the most intense avant-garde pop artists around. Walker's score, purely instrumental (you won't hear his famous voice here) consists of intimidating martial passages for full orchestra and atonal string threnodies. I was initially sceptical that this would work, as I haven't warmed to Walker's earlier purely instrumental work, and I thought his modernist style might clash with the early 20th-century setting. In fact, Walker's score is excellent, boosting the intensity of the action. Lol Crawley's camera work is initially restrained but given free rein as the film reaches its climax, making for some memorable shots.
The film makes, I think, an interesting point about people who grow up to be evil in that, even though we are shown various traumatic childhood experiences and cruel or neglectful parenting that we can point to and say "That's what did it", they nonetheless remain a mystery. Prescott's a black box, we are never sure how exactly the events of childhood are processed in his mind so that we end up with the stunning reveal that we ultimately get. Audiences can expect to see the eventual rise of a fascist leader because this was repeatedly underlined in the film's publicity, but Corbet throws a curveball that makes for a shocking twist ending.
But my rating for this film eventually had to account for the film's diminishing appeal once one has already seen the twist: there isn't much re-watch value here, as the slow pacing and invariable sombreness of the film grates once it is no longer rewarded by the final jump into action and revelation. And while I love Scott Walker's work, apparently some viewers will consider the music a bad thing. I do take issue, however, with those who want to label A CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER "pretentious". If this film is to some degree a failure, it is nonetheless a noble one because Corbet dreamt of an epic scope and a highly original story in spite of the limited means available to him for his first effort as a director.
The child actor with a long blond hair that is reminiscent of Renoir's Coco portraits is brilliant. great acting for a 8,9 year old - or whatever his age is.
All other actors are really good too and they do convey the feeling it is 1918. I don't know where is this big old house - but somehow it does not fit into France. I would more think about the Balkans. But it is just a thought.
Were they really people with black hoods and capes and all at funerals at that time? It is a rather strange and completely unnecessary scene in the film, though kinda effective.
I really liked the mood of the film and I can appreciate the art vision of it. However, the film is too long and most of the time boring. I love French and I was forcing myself to make that as a plus point, but...
The best thing about this film is music!
But somehow its dramatic score and almost banging at the window tone is totally opposite to the calm and slow narative. That music would be better for horror films.
All in all, I would not really recommend this film to anyone as I think it is too boring. And plus the ending totally makes no sense to me.
Corbet's "loose adaptation" of "Childhood of a Leader" is indeed very loose. All the Freudian and identity elements that formed the core of Sartre's short piece were discarded, and whatever was left ( not much ) was then watered down into a full feature film.
You can feel it throughout.
Photography and acting are really good. Had this been turned into short film instead, I'm sure my review would've been much different.
The movie is heavily alluding to the rise of a famous early XXth century German leader, but lacks realism if this is the actual model: A. Hitler has been considerably beaten up, living with a mother who had to get over various infant deaths (alluded in the film with the scene of the bed and missed love)without support, while his father had a much more violent attitude towards him and cultivated the secret and shame upon his origins.
The movie describes uncaring parents, without ever getting in line with what we know of the infancies of, say, Staline or Sadam Hussein or said German leader, without even getting close to what educative violence was in those years post WWI in Europe (or sadly still is sometimes in the US). Some side plots are not used to their full extent (the dismissal of the carer, the would-be affair between the father and the repetitor), the relationship between mother and son is only rougly drafted, but never gets to its full extent (eg: a sick sensual relationship is half suggested between the mother and the son, by his girl attire-also an allusion to a famous Hitler picture?-, or his mother exclusive attention), The sexual repression of young Prescott could have been exploited more -didn't 19th century Americans widely used circumcision as a way to make sex hurtful?- the young Prescott relations -or lack thereof- with the other village kids could have been used)
As it is, the movie goes along the line: "young kid feels alone, gets trashed once, gets sexually aroused by his repetitor, who scolds him, hits his mother and becomes sadistic leader. This may seems a bit lame for anyone with a superficial knowledge of European history (Europe, land of horror stories)
Subsequent title cards are broken into three "Tantrums", as we witness the ever-escalating inappropriate behavior from young Prescott (Tom Sweet). In what on the surface could be classified as a nature vs nurture expose', the film leaves little doubt that Prescott is rebelling against the monotony of his environment and the disengaged parents to which he is tethered. However, it also seems evident that young Prescott is inherently "off". He seems to be cold and emotionally removed as he engages in battles of will with his parents his father (Liam Cunningham) a US diplomat knee-deep in negotiations that will lead to the Treaty of Versailles, and his mother (Berenice Bejo), a self-described "citizen of the world".
Two obvious film comparisons would be The Omen (1976) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). The ominous music and settings leave little doubt that we are headed somewhere very dark here, though it's not in the religious sense of The Omen and it's more global than the intimacy of 'Kevin'. Thinking of this as evil in the making would be a just description, though a different title might have held the ending a bit longer.
Support work is provided by Stacy Martin as the French teacher and Yolanda Moreau as the housekeeper who has moments of connection with the challenging Prescott, but Robert Pattison fans will be surprised at how little screen time he has – especially for dual roles.
Young Tom Sweet is fascinating to watch in a very tough role for a child actor, and director Corbet proves he is a filmmaker we should follow closely. His visual acumen is something special, and offsets a script that could have used a bit of polishing. The movie will probably prove divisive – either you will find it mesmerizing and creepy, or you simply won't connect at all. That's often the case with a creative and bold project.
The story revolves around a wealthy American (or citizens of the world, as The Mother calls them) family at the end of WW1 in France. The movie centers on the kid, Prescott. He's not a "normal" kid, I guess. He's been acting up ever since they moved to another town. He takes French lessons from the teacher, Ada (played excellently by Stacy Martin), which The Father disapproves of, because he can't speak the language himself and he feels The Father works for the American government, right under President Jimmy Carter, so he goes on a lost of work trips, and he doesn't really care about getting to know the people of the town as much as The Mother does.
At the beginning of the film the kid got caught throwing rocks at the church members ("A Sign of Thing to Come) and the movie just goes from there. The film is divided in chapter in a really cool way (First Tantrum, Second Tantrum etc.). The whole film is stylized really old school, e.g there's an overture at the beginning and etc. That brings me to the score, oh my god. The score is amazing, it's very unsettling. Quite possibly the best score I've heard this year, Knight of Cups is the only competition.
All of the performances are fantastic, especially Tom Sweet as Prescott, Bèrènice Bejo as The Mother and Stacy Martin as Ada, or The Teacher. Robert Pattinson is great too as a friend of the family and widower Charles, in the few scenes he shows up in.
I can't believe this is Brady Corbet's directorial debut, because the film is directed so well. I knew he's a great actor (Funny Games U.S.), I had no idea he could direct. I cannot wait for his next project because this is one of the better directed films I've seen in a while. Everything felt unsettlingly natural and real, the cinematography was fantastic and all the actors were great, even the kid. Or especially the kid.
Oh yeah, by the way, this is not a horror movie, it has some horror-ish and surreal (although it never goes full Eraserhead or Enemy) elements and it's very unsettling but it's not a horror movie. I think the horror-ish stuff lies in the things we don't see, or the things to come.
Oh, and no spoiler but the ending was so amazing, holy crap.
This is the third, possibly second, best movie I've seen so far this year and I'm hoping for Oscar buzz for this film at the end of the year, but it's not likely that will happen though.
9/10. It's excellent.
But try as I might to become engaged in this production, it just dragged on as a cardboard, lifeless attempt at rendering what could have been a spectacular creation of historically relevant drama and intrigue.
Not sure I can put my finger directly on the most obvious failure point, but it just didn't come to life for me.
Technically, the camera work was well done, the sets, stagecraft and all that was comparable to any decent BBC type of historical production, but the audio engineering here seems to have been a bit clumsy at best. But even that technical detail can be forgiven if the quality of the acting and the story itself can carry the production . . . which sadly, it doesn't.
The acting is stiff, monodimensional, reminded me of college theater plays. No, wait . . . actually, that isn't fair to some of the college theater productions I've seen in past years.
The supposedly important tension scenes just dragged on as useless time consuming segments sprinkled in between sections of potentially relevant (but equally flat and uninspiring) dialogue.
What an unfortunate waste of what could have been a great production.
Clearly the director (Brady Corbet) just didn't "get it". My best guess is that he was intently focused on delivering the obvious political message embedded in this character study into the culturally relevant psychodynamics of the time . . . but completely missed the target of actually creating a compelling delivery of the story.
Which is unfortunate, as I really wanted to like this.
Perhaps another attempt, with a different director and style of delivery . . .
It's hardly a bold or singular premise that a disturbed childhood will create a damaged, perhaps dangerous adult. But the movie's portrayal of cause and effect is so simplified as to be ridiculous. Plenty of neglected children--the condition is hardly the rarity the filmmakers seem to think, especially among wealthy people 100 years ago--grow up to be normal adults. Some become nasty ones. Some, in reaction, become humanitarians. If the cause and effect are so cut and dried, why don't we have 50 million fascist dictators? Could it be because a great many emotional and intellectual attributes, a great many factors of class and opportunity and geography and history are necessary for someone to become a fascist dictator? An unhappy childhood is hardly the only qualification!
The script and director also ignore the most basic rules of portraying an unhappy childhood, rules that have been followed by every writer and director of merit. First: If you cry, they won't. Kipling, Graham Greene, Henry James, Dickens--everyone who has done this well has shown the mistreated child suffering in silence or near-silence, so that the reader or film-goer supplies the emotions of sadness and anger and indignation. In this film, however, the child is constantly outraged, insolent, aggressive, at times violent, so he pre-empts all our emotions. It is hard not to regard him as simply a nuisance and a bore. Second, feeling sorry for a character is not enough to make us like him or even be interested in him. The boy is front and center in almost the entire film. But he never does or says anything interesting, charming, sweet, selfless, funny, quirky. All he does is throw tantrums. Kids like this are one of the things I go to the movies to get away from!
Ever saw a movie about a child who could possible be a future dictator like Hitler, Mussolini... ? how could his childhood looked like and how where his parents and his surrounding like ? well this movie gives you a idea of how it might have been.
the cinematography,camera work and acting are great and theatrical. but One of the most important things about the movie is the score by Scott Walker, which gives the movie a lot of tension and some sort of coolness.
Just be warned:Its a very slow and sometimes incomprehensible movie.
Who is he? Since the film takes as its backdrop the signing of the Treaty of Versailles we can, at least, put it into some kind of historical context so by the time he grows up to be a shaven-headed Robert Pattinson, leading what is obviously a fascist army, it's easy to put two and two together and get...well, you tell me. Are we meant to surmise that all dictators and fascist leaders are nothing more than demonic little brats who are nasty to their parents? Of course, it's all rubbish and dull rubbish at that. On the plus side, Walker's score does conjure up the requisite air of menace in a sub-Wagnerian kind of way while young Tom Sweet is very good as the horrid little tyke. There's also a nice supporting turn from the excellent Yolande Moreau as the family maid. Otherwise it's much ado about nothing.
The story is about a precocious, insolent, young American boy Prescott (Tom Sweet), growing up in France as his dad (Liam Cunningham) negotiates the Treaty of Versailles, which many say lead to the second World War. H.L. Mencken claimed the Second World War was fought because we backed the wrong side in the first war.
The film is organized as a musical opera, implying there is a conductor over us and history is set whether it is Hitler or Prescott, the wheels are in motion. The dialogue about history "It happened before" shows that things go in cycles and nothing really can stop it.
The picture is nearly half in French. It is slow and boring, even the groping parts. The parents gave Prescott far too much freedom, although that is certainly not the case of evil dictators making me question what was the whole point? And the gap between the childhood and the last 8-10 minutes of the film, I would consider more important than Prescott dressing up as a girl, groping his teacher and screaming he doesn't believe in prayer. Yawn.
The film has won numerous awards and is critically acclaimed. I think everyone is out of step, but Johnny.
Guide: No swearing, sex, or nudity.
The story and plot is challenging and requires full concentration to see into it's message and meaning. It it also like watching part one of a trilogy,
There is lots of going up and down stairs in steady tracking shots that at times almost feel Escheristic.
The film will appeal to those who enjoy watching directors that attempt to paint on a cinematic canvas and who appreciate challenging films.
Debut Director Brad Corbett also seems to have fallen victim to the "syndrome" in his rather specious take on the childhood of a wholly generic "Fascist leader." But before we examine the generic quality of his narrative, Corbett's talents still must be acknowledged. He has put together a story involving a period in history that is rarely covered these days—a behind-the-scenes look at the Versailles Treaty negotiations from the Allied point of view; what's more he's impressively employed Kane-like cinematography and music, creating a Gothic noir palette reminiscent of the German Expressionists.
That being said, Corbett's story that seeks to explore the roots of fascism, manages to hold few surprises. His anti-hero (played by the young Tom Sweet) is named Prescott (aka "The boy")--he's the son of a married couple, a German woman and a US diplomat, who has arrived in France as part of the team to negotiate the terms of the Versailles Treaty with Germany, along with the other defeated countries in World War I.
Corbett's narrative chronicles a series of tantrums the boy throws beginning with some rocks he hurls at parishioners leaving a church. The head priest tries to reason with the boy but his anti-social behavior continues. The mother's main crime, according to the film's scenarists, is that she overly-feminizes her son by failing to cut his hair short; at a certain point, the father's fellow diplomat mistakes the boy for a girl. On another occasion, the boy gropes the breasts of his French teacher--which I suppose is intended to suggest that he's acting out his Oedipal attachment on a more attractive substitute.
Eventually the boy parades naked in front of the father's assembled associates and then locks himself in his room and won't come out, despite entreaties from his mother and a sympathetic maid who is eventually fired by the mother for encouraging him in his rebellious proclivities.
Corbett takes a stab at blaming an authoritarian patriarchal culture for the boy's eventual descent into what appears more like Stalinism than Fascism at film's end—it's the boy's father who gives him a nice little whipping after refusing to comply with his demands to come out of his room. Thus, the boy's childhood traumas at the hands of his parents, serve mainly as the director's explanation for his embrace of evil as an adult.
At the denouement, Corbett only offers a glimpse of his authoritarian martinet. And as argued before, it's a wholly generic portrait since we learn nothing about the future monster to be except that he's propped up by an adoring crowd of sycophants.
Corbett also indulges in generalizing about the average man's apathy in the face of evil. Echoing Satayana's famous quote ("Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"), he has one of his characters, Charles, a widowed British diplomat, quote the Sartre- influenced novelist John Fowles: "That is the tragedy: Not that one man has the courage to be evil, but that so many have not the courage to be good."
Corbett's greatest failure here is to develop some of the ideas from his source material—a short story by Sartre (from which he takes the title of this film)—in it, Sartre follows his protagonist who has a one-time affair with a pederast poet and then joins a group of youths, who assassinate a Jewish man on the street. This idea is also found in Rossellini's film—Germany Year Zero—where a prepubescent boy murders his father after coming under the influence of a Nazi-sympathizer, a pederast, in post-war Berlin.
Encounters that prepubescent boys and young teenagers had with pederasts and certain kinds of homosexuals (not of the liberal persuasion)--as chronicled in such books as "The Hidden Hitler" and "The Pink Swastika"—suggest that there may be more of a direct connection to adults joining fascist movements later on than what Corbett lets on here. Again, his rather tame speculation finds its roots in his simplistic, generic understanding of "evil"—not based on true, real-life experience.
Still, Corbett is not without talent on a technical level—a script with more psychological depth the next time around should afford him an opportunity to join the ranks of talented directors churning out compelling art-house offerings.
On that level it works. The opening credits and first 10 minutes are intense. The Scott Walker soundtrack really pulls you in and immediately makes you think this is no ordinary film. And for that I loved it.
The acting is absolutely superb. Not at any stage do you think they are actors. The boy, the mum and the tutor are the stand outs.
The cinematography is superb, particularly near the end with the camera circling a dome, beautifully simple.
The overall look and feel reminded me of The Duke Of Burgundy (One of my fav films of recent)
There's not a lot of love in this family, thats for sure. The film is rather dull and slow though. I did find myself snnozebusting.
The ending made no sense either. It wasn't until I chatted to the guys in the cinema that we sort of worked it out.
I really respect the director for making a film like this. Im looking forward to his next film. Lets just hope more interesting stuff happens.
If you liked the Witch, you'll love this.
As a film on the spoiled brats of leaders in general, it's not bad. Not original and not insightful either. It's more like the writer and director threw a tantrum together.
It's not the worst possible rating essentially because the acting and music are entertaining enough to keep the film from causing your head from bouncing off the floor, but that's about it.