Brady Corbet’s already award-winning debut feature film, The Childhood of a Leader, is a movie that treads softly along the boards of arthouse symbolism and insinuation as well as marches to a drumbeat of outré sensationalism. It is a bold piece of work, not for the faint-hearted (I give you Scott Walker’s brutal score), but also it is not a movie that will necessarily tie you in knots. It has a mark to make, and the double-meanings and amorphous winks are largely skags in the fabric of the narrative rather than overarching thematic messages. At the closing credits, head-swirling and eyes squinting, you can be in no doubt where we as an audience have been left.
It is the story of, in one sense, the boy of an American diplomat and his beautiful European wife, growing up in rural France as his father has a mid-level hand in what would become the Treaty of Versailles. In another sense, it is the story of the birth of the new Europe, the new age of Marxist propulsions and proletariat philosophy, of post-enlightenment rabble-rousing and the surge of political fascism that saw its first wave after the Great War and is still now well-oxygenated all over the world.
But mostly it is about the boy.
He is indulged, is home-schooled, and we are led to believe is somewhat neglected of parental love since the upheaval to France. “I want him to be like he was,” says his father. The boy’s behavioural instability has come with the move to Europe. The film is split into three main parts, or “tantrums”, and the first is the result of the boy throwing rocks at parishioners leaving the local church. His mother marches him to an apology to the elderly cleric. The boy scowls at him. “I have done nothing to you,” he says specifically. Things will get a great deal worse for the boy and the family before things are through.
The boy’s father has no time for religion, but it is his mother’s dependence on superstition and ritual that finds its way into the boy’s life rather than his father’s secularism. She had dreams, it turns out, of being a cultural, educated woman, before she was ensnared into marriage by the older man in New York. The brief moment when she mournfully reveals these youthful ambition to the boy’s tutor (a slightly creepy waif played by Stacy Martin), suggests she has retreated into the regimented folds of her childhood religions for comfort and stability in a life of loveless marriage-clichés and growing old – and severe – before her time. Have there even been moments of inappropriate closeness between the boy and his mother? Final revelations layer this further. It also brings to mind one of several references to earlier explorations of this idea, in this case Normal Mailer’s assertion that Hitler was the product – and party to – “a fuming stew of peasant incest” (to use William Boyd’s phrase). They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
The movie is in a sense a chronology of signposts. The boy’s mother – an excellently restrained Bèrènice Bejo – has a lot to answer for. Not only does she force-feed him medieval religious ritual when his father’s back is turned, but she flip-flops rejection and embrace. If Corbet is suggestion his adult fascism is the boy grown up trying to work out his mommy-issues he would not be the first to tackle this subject and suggest such a thing.
And as his mother struggles to maintain authority over her child, the boy’s father (a brilliant Liam Cunningham, with spot-on period American Statesman accent) is hardly ruler of his own household, absent often with work in the city. The boy experiences him being bossed both by visiting dignitaries as well as his mother’s increasingly morbid Catholicism. Perhaps it is too simple to draw from these moments that the boy is learning what it is he will inevitably utilise when he grows up to be the leader of the title, but he is exposed to various forms of control throughout the film. Politics and religion – what more does a fascist need to control the masses other than an economic downturn? In the wings the Treaty of Versaille is signed, and the boy will come of age as the stock markets crash on Wall Street. It is also telling that his only real connection seems to be with the servants of the house.
With the political establishment in the state it is in across Europe, the UK and America, in the week Angela Merkel loses a state election to a hard right party, it would be obvious to say The Childhood of a Leader is a timely movie, but the truth is, works of this calibre on these themes are always timely. Its general release coincides with the second of J.M. Coetzee’s “Jesus” trilogy of books, The Schooldays of Jesus. Coetzee likewise finds in the subject matter – what makes a saviour? – his masterpiece, and at a time when cultural heavyweights need to be tackling the heavy questions. But Corbet’s film is loosely based on the Jean-Paul Sartre story of the same title, and it also has the feel to it of Mailer’s aforementioned final book, The Castle in the Forest, about the childhood of Hitler.
The boy – who we later find out to be named Prescott – grows to symbolise something somewhere between Soviet fascism and the Nazi party. Or perhaps – we can only assume, after all – he grows to be a good leader, on the side of the angels. It is only our understanding of European history and of him as a disturbed child, that leads us to assume he grows up to be the antichrist.