One could go about analyzing all the different aspects of The Childhood Of A Leader and find yourself as clueless as before. The moody atmosphere sets up the story but the story is evidently lacking. Brady Corbet uses instances of mischief and tantrums to justify his point…his point being that such uncontrolled behavioural problems are symptomatic of the creation of adult monstrosity. The unfettered child without proper guidance is dangerous. I’m not going to argue for or against it because it’s a tenuous point to begin with. But The Childhood Of A Leader doesn’t ram it home. It leaves you in scenes that are suggestive, scenes that are dramatized by ominous string instrumentals and scenes that are localized (picked up and ends off by itself). The result is a string of scenes that I find interesting but offer no inherent tension.
I found it frustrating that the film tried to force its way through. What some consider a strength of the film is something I consider a weakness. The haunting music is played during the most mundane scenes. It’s as if the film is trying to imprint on us a sense of dread when there is none, and foreshadow an evil in the young tendrils of our budding protagonist by overloading with metaphors. In the end, it all becomes too in-your-face and the relation between the childhood of a leader and his becoming a leader is even more obscure.
But I did like the acting. Corbet sets up a dark and atmospheric setting that his characters thrived in. Mom,played by Berenice Bejo (The Artist),is great portraying the matron of the house who feels her son is quickly slipping away from her control. The father (Liam Cunningham) is the distant father removed from the experiences and feelings of his family and all too involved in matters of war and diplomacy. The repressed tone and mood help to catalyze the terrifying id of the protagonist as a reaction/rebellion to the structures placed on him. In this aspect, I’m quite impressed with the film. Tom Sweet definitely nailed his role and constantly challenges the authority placed on him as well as our perception of his innocence or lack thereof.
The movie borrows some stylistic elements from Kubrick (wide-angles) and Von Trier (complex and hand-held camera movements). The story is heavily freudian. But the movie had to cut off two characters midway through which reduced the freudian message. The maid, whose good-intentions and soft spot for the boy, undermines the authority of his mother. And there’s the french teacher who’s the center of the boy’s sexual frustrations; The surprising scene where he finds her and his father in the same room could have been built to a much greater extent. Two of the most innocent characters function as the unlikeliest and ironic figures that stir up confusion and chaos in the boy’s growing mind. And it’s so damned powerful because it’s not intentional, so Corbet could emphasize an even more haunting truth; That good-intentions in not so good environments to begin with could lead to disastrous results. So I’m really disappointed both of them didn’t feature heavily because it would have made the story more impactful and provocative. Yolande Moreau(maid) and Stacy Martin(french teacher) were superb and should have been given more screen time.
For art-house fans, this is one to watch. And for a debut film, Brady Corbet’s attempt at taking on a different perspective is refreshing. In my limited knowledge, I don’t think any,if very few,have made the childhood of leaders/dictators the main subject of their film. So props to him. But I have problems with how the story went about from instance to instance without structure. There’s also a whole lot of suggesting and implying in trivial scenes which seemed forced. If only the film kept two of its most intriguing characters to the end, and framed it around them, we could have gotten a more insightful film.