Venice Film Festival: The Childhood of a Leader

The Childhood of a Leader
Directed by Brady Corbet
Starring Robert Pattinson, Stacy Martin, Liam Cunningham and Bérénice Bejo

by Katharine Fry

The Childhood of a Leader was the film I chose to open my time at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival. This is director Brady Corbet’s debut that borrows its title and some key themes from Jean Paul Sartre’s 1939 short story. The mini synopsis promised insight into the birth of a terrifying ego in a chilling fable about the rise of authoritarianism.

Duly warned, I went in prepared and from the first chords of Scott Walker’s brilliant pounding score the film looked likely to be a slightly less demonic, more serious take on The Omen. We start with a long shot of a series of little boys drifting past a church window dressed as angels. We are pulled in closer and closer, focusing on one floppy haired blonde with big wings (10 year old Tom Sweet making a remarkable debut). He’s going to turn and look, he’s going to give us the death stare, I think. I’m ready, almost gripping my armrests, the score is grinding, pounding, pulsing, screeching. But no, he passes calmly with nary a glance and so begins a film completely at odds with its own set-up and pacing.

Divided into three chapters (chapters are big in films right now) each one is labelled after one of Prescott’s tantrums. These tantrums, though they do escalate slightly in violence and defiance of his parents, don’t really suggest anything out of the ordinary for any child acting out and getting out of control. So far so disconnected from the premise and again that pulsing score that screams psycho kid psycho kid psycho kid.

And what of his parents? His father, unnamed played by Liam Cunningham is an American working for President Wilson on the terms of the Treaty of Versailles while his mother, also unnamed, played by Bérénice Bejo is the multilingual piously religious daughter of German missionaries. Their marriage it is suggested is not that happy. They may both be having dalliances, her with old friend and her husband’s colleague Charles Marker (Robert Pattinson) and him with Ada, Prescott’s sweet French teacher, but these suggested leads lead us nowhere. The dialogue is sparse and though all actors play their parts well, the feeling is that they don’t have enough material to really bring any meaty sense to the unfolding saga.

The final denouement offers a gearshift, dramatically shifting visual styles and sending us into total disorientation. A ham-fisted juxtaposition of images does nothing for the final result and it’s unclear from whose perspective we are undergoing this unravelling. There is one neat part where Liam Cunningham’s character talks about the rise of evil. It stems, it seems, from the courage be to true to yourself. One man is courageous enough to be true to himself as evil, it is the rest who are lacking the courage to be true to themselves as good.

Corbet talks about being influenced by Orson Welles, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Raul Ruiz and, ambitious though you might term this project, such a confluence of guides does not lead him towards powerful storytelling. The films key tantrums don’t seem enough to herald the birth of a new dictator. Does Corbet then want to warn us that any attempt to discipline any wayward child could lead the rise of a new world order? It seems a weak premise. This is not the 90 minute advertisement for contraception that We Need to Talk about Kevin was.

Go to swim in the sumptuous series of heavy draped sets rendered swoon-worthy by DOP Lol Crawley and drown in the dizzying depths of Walker’s score. Just don’t try to connect them to the slow paced underwhelming story.

(1 for cinematography, 1 for music)

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