Brady Corbett’s film must be one of the most surprising films made by a US director in a long time. It possesses a sensibility which is so unusual that it not only makes you wonder where it came from, but also makes you question whether what you’re watching is any good or if it’s overblown nonsense.
The overblown comes from the get-go. Scott Walkers’s score is almost ludicrously melodramatic, Shostakovich meets Phil Spector on a day they both got out of bed the wrong side. Before you have any idea of what the film is about, the score is almost daring you not to take it seriously. After a dimly lit exterior scene, more Mungiu than Hollywood, there follows a long, boldly mixed and loquacious scene about the post-war discussions that will lead to the treaty of Versailles. The great war does not really exist anymore in modern cinematic consciousness unless the film contains a suitably sympathetic creature at risk of untimely death. (Be that a horse, a fey Englishman or Mel Gibson.) It’s a war that exists in order to provoke the sentiment that war is bad and to jerk tears. Corbett’s focus is the opposite. His interest is entirely political and far from being the bedrock for a sentimental saga, none of the film’s principle characters prove to be remotely sympathetic. The regles de jeu don’t seem to be functioning according to standard operating procedure.
The film is split into three acts and a coda. The three acts are flagged by a heading relating to a tantrum by the film’s dauphin, Prescott, the son of a US diplomat charged with executing Woodrow Wilson’s policy in the negotiations. Prescott belongs to a dysfunctional family. His mother is neurotic and frigid, his father has a short temper and fancies Prescott’s French tutor. Promiscuous Prescott also fancies his tutor, at one stage groping her. Prescott’s only ally in the family is the sympathetic local maid. He’s a brat of the first order, but a funny one, quite happy to upstage his parents and disrupt his father’s diplomatic negotiations when he brings his work home with him. Prescott may be an attention seeker and an emotional bully, but the film manages to pull off the surprising trick of making this demon child appealing. He is possessed of a weird charisma which is captured by Tom Sweet in a telling performance, reminding us that child actors are often more natural performers than their adult cousins.
Corbett’s pacing is erratic. There are longeurs, followed by vivid dream sequences or moments of childish hysteria. The audience never knows where the film is headed next. The coda/ denouement is a disjointed thwack around the audience’s chops. Prescott has become ‘the leader’, something the camera captures with the kind of delirium normally trademarked by Gasper Noe. Scott Walker backs the camera up, and the effect is marmalising. An occasionally subtle portrayal of childhood is blown up, as though Corbett himself were the brat now, throwing his own directorial tantrum.
What does it all mean? The film is a study in power, as we watch Prescott gradually take over the household. All this is presented within the context of the ongoing post-war negotiations, which at one point include a discussion about the true interpretation of Marxist theory. The Trumpian parallels are there to be made, retrospectively, but this is presumably fortuitous. Maybe Corbett struck lucky, or maybe he has his finger on the pulse. Only time will tell. As an actor Corbett has shown remarkable taste, working with many of the greatest living directors, something that has presumably helped to shape a remarkable cinematic consciousness. Childhood of a Leader may have its flaws, but in terms of delirious ambition it cannot be faulted.