Director: Brady Corbet.
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Bérénice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Tom Sweet. UK/Hungary/France 2015. 116 mins.
An attack on the senses. The Childhood Of A Leader opens with discordant trumpets and strings that are almost as unbearable as nails scraping down a blackboard. Pounding, threatening piano kicks in over footage from the end of the First World War. Flitting images of people shivering, swaddled children, vast seascapes ahead of war ships; men in menacing uniforms rush across the screen maniacally to Scott Walker’s mad music. As the film cuts to a small, dirty window, we see children wearing angel wings walking down the stairs of a church. The maddening music seems inappropriate for such a pure image, but the juxtaposition is a sign of things to come.
Prescott (Tom Sweet) is a ten-year-old boy in a strange country. He’s out of place, alone. His family have moved to rural France at the end of the First World War; his father (Liam Cunningham), an American diplomat, is involved in negotiations around the Treaty of Versailles. His mother (Bérénice Bejo), a devout and damning Christian, struggles with his tantrums. She’s cold, vacant, emotionless from the beginning. After a rock-throwing incident, she scolds the boy: “You put blood on my dress! Why would you do that?” Instead of comforting him, she holds him at arm’s length, patting his sides. She’s more concerned about the embarrassment of her unruly son’s behaviour than with exploring why he’s acting out. Out of her detachment a sociopath is born.
First-time director Brady Corbet uses a disturbing soundscape to convey the emotional turmoil this little man is going through. When Prescott has a bad dream, Corbet uses a mixture of the child’s heavy breathing, migraine-inducing synths and screeching strings over dizzying displays of decaying, flaking architecture. The rooms shown are dead. Not a soul is in sight. This sensory hell conveys the stress, upheaval and parental detachment that Prescott is suffering, and that will eventually lead him to fascist rule as an adult.
Aside from the sound, the visuals are dark and brooding. The mother wears black at all times, even at a celebratory dinner party. The inside of their servant-adorned mansion has scorched wallpaper, tinged black at the edges; the paint on the doors is peeling and chipped. The furnishings are congealed-blood red with dirty faun fringing. To add to the feeling of unease, outside the house, nature is dying. Trees are bare; leaves are dry and trodden into the cobbles; broken branches lie in the streets. Everything is lifeless: the people, the place and the dialogue. Corbet’s experimental approach to depicting this fictionalised history is effective, gripping and uncanny, leaving one in a state of unrest after viewing.