The Childhood Of A Leader (2016)
As the shards of summer slowly slip toward the shadowing eaves of Autumn I had hoped to turn my attention to more intellectually stimulating fare, as I don’t know about you but I’ve drank my fill of franchises, superheros, remakes and reboots for many seasons to come. Slightly overshadowed by the sad demise of its Metronome distributor The Childhood Of A Leader arrived in London on the ebbing crest of a Cannes conflagration, enjoying positive plaudits from across the critical spectrum. I confess to missing the hubbub around the film back in July, but I have picked up on the recent spate of articles citing it as one of the best films of the year, compounded by Cannes jury member Jonathan Demme pull quotes that sealed the deal for a cinema visit. Citing debut director Brady Corbet as ‘reminiscent of a young Orson Welles’ is not the sort of praise that one should be throwing around with any sort of indiscriminate abandon, as that sort of message is Pavlovian dog whistle enticement to a cinephile crowd that has been long starved of any celluloid nourishment. Now safely ensconced in the heart of Westminster I have a rich choice of the capital’s cinemas at my beck and call, so this week I took a leisurely stroll across St. James Park to the stately Curzon in Mayfair for my first and long overdue movie visit for a couple of weeks. I entreated just one, individual viewing of the films trailer to whet my appetite, and truth be told I don’t think that preview alone without the surrounding praise would have convinced me of the films relative merits. Recent box-office successes like Suicide Squad and Batman Versus Superman have been cited as evidence that the public don’t pay attention to ‘serious’ critics, the sort of elitist, broadsheet cultural capo’s whose commentaries bemoan the lack of originality or non-formula reheats of past successes and genre gentrification. Well, as far as I’m concerned that challenge cuts both ways as I found this film to be an intriguing subject rendered redundant by some grating storytelling choices, ineffectual writing and hideous mangling of psychology, not a terrible film but also one in no way worthy of the praise it has been awarded.
The title cards bisecting the film first shelled my suspicions, heralding a rather peacock strutting import to just how precious the film is going to be, encapsulating each severe tantrum that our little terror unleashes while diluting any organic flow or dramatic tension. After a portentous montage of ominous newsreel footage of marching brigades, Luftwaffe blitzkriegs and shattering trench warfare the film alights in France, 1918, where US President Woodrow Wilson is in Paris to sign the Treaty of Versailles, an intended bandage to heal the seeping wounds of the catastrophic destruction of the First World War. Diplomatically decanted to this foreign country is a haughty American played by Game Of Thrones alumni Liam Cunningham, with his unnamed European wife (The Artist’s Berenice Bejo) and their 7-year-old son, Prescott, played by the ironically named newcomer Tom Sweet. Soon the little treasure is seen indiscriminately throwing stones at exiting parishioner of the local church, the reasoning of his behavior and motives unclear. Perhaps the move to a lonely country chateau has upset the sensitive child, with only a few servants to keep him company while his parents attend to their adult affairs, only the amiable and vaguely maternal housekeeper Mona (Yolande Moreau) and his new teacher Ava (Stacey Martin) in Prescott’s orbit and able to provide the wayward child with a sense of moral guidance. These questions, however, are moot as its quite clear from the start that he’s a petulant, narcissist wrong ‘un, the genesis of which is obliquely suggested by his parents aloof demeanor and hinted emotional and physicial infidelities. Here, in its oblique psychological posturing is where the film fails to provide any logical or dramatic infrastructure on which to build its intended horrifying character study, rendering The Childhood Of A Leader as more a puzzling, ponderous work, rather than an incendiary portrayal of the genesis of 20th century tyranny.
As a structure bisected the film into a sequence of ‘tantrums’ is as simplistic and causal as befits the films ideology, a cod -application of some sort of pseudo Freudian neurosis emanating from Prescott being mistaken for a girl due to his unconventional hairstyle, sprinkled with a dash of Oedipal adolescent yearnings and some authoritarian parenting. Well, I say authoritarian but I’d judge the child’s treatment as spectacularly tame compared to the norm of the period – the only act of violence occurs as more of an accident than any intentional anger – so judging by this thesis its a wonder that the entire Middle Class of Europe wasn’t populated by hordes of psychopathic tyrants, after they were either called a sissy or suspected that one of their parents wasn’t entirely enslaved to the matrimonial bed. The period detail and decor are handsomely mounted, and Prescott aside all the adult performances acquaint themselves with the necessary historical gravitas, but the second major stumbling block is Sweet’s performance which seems to be praised across the board, so once again I find myself at inscrutable odds with my brethren. I found his take frankly verging on the comedic, I even thought I could see him glancing off screen at certain points, seemingly yearning for some real-time in-scene direction, and of course it is with the director rather a child performer is where the blame must lie. Corbet has not only permitted a substandard performance to oppress his film he also riddles scenes with some rather perfunctory dialogue which can’t quite decide if its searching for the naturalistic or the stylized poise of Brecht or a Mamet, before petulantly stomping into its final section where some drama is yielded from Prescott’s war of attrition with his unrepentant mother, while also hinting at some deeper family secrets and clandestine couplings which lurk beneath the surface in an unexcavated and therefore largely redundant fashion.
At the risk of sounding like some pretentious jerk I blanched at the director citing his influences from the pantheon of Bresson, Dreyer and of course Kubrick, noble intentions all which the films confused narrative edifice and visual massing doesn’t even remotely equal. I’ve also seen an interview with the director where he carelessly dismisses modern entertainment such as (especially) Fincher’s Gone Girl as a mere ‘mass market entertainment’, its all rather sneering and elitist and making him quite stupid as he completely overlooks the gender politics, the social critique of marriage, the class and social expectations in the 21st century which that film instinctively harbors, coating the with a thriller narrative and some gfirst class technical and production values. Less manufactured, less product formulated material is welcome of course, even as a mere palette cleanser especially after such a wretched summer, but simply positioning yourself against a system is not the same as generating a genuinely successful film on the art-house margins of the industry, as in the final analysis this film is rather trite and simplistic, which actively plunges into the realms of the embarrassing in its final coda. I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers but this is where some of the debut director delirium drenches the film in pretentious platitudes, including deliberately nausea inducing camerawork, a so-called twist which is as apathetic as it fails to retract back to earlier development, and Scott Walker’s highly intrusive score actively becomes enraged and starts yelling ‘THIS SCENE IS SO IMPORTANT’ into the audiences ears, with all the subtly and nuance of serial killer chainsaw attack. Maybe I’m being a little unfair but this was such a disappointment after the critical celebration, and as I was actively seeking something a little more stimulating than yet another multi million dollar CGI catastrophe, but like its central subject A Portrait Of A Leader is an exemplar of all things mere sound and fury, signifying nothing;