There are few films where you know from just the initial music that you are about to have an overpowering experience. Brady Corbet’s debut film as director, The Childhood of a Leader, is one such film. It’s utterly gripping, despite taking around half an hour to get into the rhythm of a film that builds up to an extraordinary last 30 minutes.
It’s a fictionalised tale of an unnamed boy who is set to be become a European fascist leader. It’s deliberately vague as to who it could be, with parallels to Hitler and Mussolini but with details that touch on the Soviet dictator Stalin as well. That said, the childhood portrayed is one of utmost privilege, so it fits the youth of Franco or the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley more closely. The film is structured around the child’s tantrums, which become increasingly more extreme and eventually violent.
To make the parallels to real-life events even more overt, it’s set right after the first World War and opens with harrowing footage of that conflict. The boy’s American father is helping to draft the treaty of Treaty of Versailles, so the family is living on the outskirts of Paris. Due to this it can be seen as much about the rise of European fascism as it is about the rise of American fascism. The ending, which depicts a rally, is clearly European, but it could just be the beginning. I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump’s childhood behaviour wasn’t that far off from what is depicted, either.
Corbet’s style is a combination of his influences: a mixture of directors he has worked with and others whose work has inspired him. Hints of Lars Von Trier, Tarkovsky, and Carl Theodor Dreyer loom large in the screen images, but it never seems derivative. He has soaked the influences up and created something fresh and original. The film also draws inspiration from the short story of the same name by Jean-Paul Sartre, but it’s very much its own creation. The cinematography was handled by Lol Crawley, whose resume isn’t the kind you would pick for this kind of film—but in fact he shoots beautifully, with plenty of Tarkovsky-like long-takes.
The Childhood of a Leader is one of the most audacious and assured directorial debuts in years. Corbet already is filming his follow-up feature. It’s also a film which comes at the perfect time, with a demagogue in the White House. It features a spellbinding score by Scott Walker, which recalls Bernard Herrmann’s more extreme work. Walker rarely does film scores but since his rebirth as an avant-garde musician pushing the boundaries of sound, it’s a field he should work in more.
The disc is fairly bare-bones but features a commentary by Brady Corbet and also a short film that will make you reconsider walking away.