American actor Brady Corbet’s directorial debut is an aesthetic tour de force, but it’s also a film of exceptional vacancy. Based on a 1939 short story of the same name by Jean-Paul Sartre, The Childhood of a Leader deemphasizes its source’s psychological complexities. The film poses as an exploration of European malaise in the early 1910s, and of its responsibility for the rise of fascism during World War II, but it’s actually closer, in its suggestion of a child’s inherent evil, to a bad-seed horror flick like Richard Donner’s The Omen, or to Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.
In a very early scene, the unnamed-until-the-end delinquent (Tom Sweet) at the center of The Childhood of a Leader camps outside a church, casting stones at priests and parishioners alike. While the enfant terrible’s German mother (Bérénice Bejo) sternly scolds him, his father (Liam Cunningham), a U.S. government official who’s moved his family to France to work on what’s to become the Treaty of Versailles, engages in a long drawing room conversation with Charles (Robert Pattinson), a widowed politician. Charles, contemplating the evils of humanity, recites a quote eventually claimed by the Sartre-influenced novelist John Fowles: “That is the tragedy: Not that one man has the courage to be evil, but that so many have not the courage to be good.”
It’s telling that, in this film ostensibly about a youth poisoned by his era’s traumatic violence, social disparity, and egoism, it’s not the boy’s behavior, or the subsequent lecturing he earns from the church’s head priest, that exerts the most influence on the narrative, but rather the musings of Pattinson’s character-cum-mouthpiece. In a cheap bid for thematic heft, Corbet and co-writer Mona Fastvold suppose these words will do their work for them. The Childhood of a Leader then proceeds to catalog a series of minor disciplinary infractions, all calculatingly Freudian, inside the home of its story’s disaffected family: The boy develops a sexual curiosity for his charming French teacher (Stacy Martin) and gropes her breast; parades naked through his house during one of his father’s important meetings; and finally, locks himself in his room, rebuking the attentions of his family.
Corbet articulates emotional repression with his formal choices—as in the wide, static shots of the boy suffocated by the prewar architecture and interior design of his family’s lavish but stuffy home. The filmmaker’s clear aim was to ape Kubrick’s stark compositional intensity (he’s cited Barry Lyndon as an inspiration), and The Childhood of a Leader gets at least as close as Jonathan Glazer’s Birth came to capturing the chilly, austere atmosphere of a Kubrick film. But just as Birth, which also had a mysterious child at its center, got a lot of mileage out of an Alexandre Desplat score, Corbet’s is propped up by Scott Walker’s half-classical, half-avant-garde industrial music—one of the great film scores of this decade. A fleet genre effort would be this dynamic composition’s ideal vessel, but instead Corbet reaches for a dreary self-importance akin to that of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. The film’s ludicrous, pseudo-historical finale ultimately undoes whatever good will Corbet’s virtuosic visuals could have earned him.