♦Tripwire’s Contributing Writer JAMES DC reviews Brady Corbet’s The Childhood Of A Leader, out on DVD now…
The Childhood Of A Leader
Director: Brady Corbet
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Stacy Martin, Liam Cunningham, Berenice Bejo
On DVD now
What we have here is a hybrid film: a serious-minded, but ill-conceived and badly executed attempt to intermingle the horror genre with the art house, historical costume drama. Sometimes such genre mash-ups work, but often the end results are revealed to be contrived, boring and fatuous, as with this intermittently very annoying film. But, according to some critics (who should know better) this film is ‘astonishing’ and a ‘masterpiece’. Well, don’t believe the ridiculous hype – they are just plain wrong and seem to have lost their critical sensibilities.
Supposedly based on stories by Jean-Paul Sartre and John Fowles, the plot (what there is of a plot, anyway) illustrates the development of a seemingly sociopathic young boy into an adult fascist dictator, who – possibly – has been possessed by a malevolent force of some kind. But this is never clearly spelled out, so it’s anyone’s guess, really; maybe he is just a nasty little bastard, and that’s it? It’s pretty hard to tell with this muddled film.
We first see the boy on the cusp of puberty, living with his wealthy American family in a mansion house in the French countryside, in the latter stages of the First World War. The boy’s father is an important government diplomat, and often has VIP guests arriving for dinner and conferences at his home to negotiate and discuss possible pathways out of the war. Right from the start, the boy seems to be an incorrigible little brat of the Damien/Omen/We Need to Talk About Kevin type, and he gradually gets more belligerent and horrible until a violent denouement, when he physically attacks his mother. Unfortunately, because we never get to identify with the kid before he gradually becomes possessed, either by his darker, primal self or some kind of evil, external spirit, we never get to actually care about him. Moreover, none of the other characters are sufficiently fleshed out or interesting enough, hence we do not identify with any of them, either. This is a major fault, at the heart of the film. Basically, right from the start, nothing is at stake, consequently we do not care whether the child eventually turns totally ‘Satanic’ or not, and this is the crux of the problem.
So, what we get – in between a few mildly diverting scenes when the boy is acting up or being punished, plus a few dream-like moments of seemingly ghostly reverie – is a series of understated tableau which elliptically delineate his increasing self-possession and opposition to civilised authority. And that’s about it. Everything else is kept rather hazy and dissolute, and in the hands of a master director like, say, Herzog, Kubrick or Tarkovsky, the slow pace, vague plot and minimal narrative would be offset, and indeed enhanced by, an otherworldly, surreal atmosphere, itself becoming the central pull of the film. But Brady Corbet, making his feature film debut here, doesn’t quite know how to pull off such a feat; there is a particularly interminable, long scene near the start which consists of the father and his friend, who is on leave from the army, playing billiards and mumbling so quietly and incoherently that hardly anything can be ascertained or gained from it. This would be fine if there were some kind of frisson or ambience to the goings on, but there isn’t – it’s just a pedestrian, pointless, tedious scene which neither clarifies the protagonists’ motivations or sufficiently elucidates the background story – too much of the film is like this: willfully murky, inchoate, frustrating, pompous.
There are a few nice touches, like the aforementioned ‘camera reveries’ (which are nevertheless too in thrall to horror masterpieces like The Shining or Don’t Look Now to be entirely original or refreshing). These are detached viewpoints which ‘hover about a bit’, twirling camera movements focusing, at length, on decorative reliefs on a mansion house ceiling, or very slow zooms into the face of the troubled boy, all whilst incongruous, bombastic orchestral music, with electronic overtones, plays extremely loudly over it all. These stylistic flourishes are done – I assume – in an attempt to create a bizarre, abstract juxtaposition of image and sound, thus creating a ‘spooky’, expressionistic atmosphere. But it just doesn’t work. The inventive music, without the imagery, would be fabulous, but as with a lot of this film, the tone is all wrong and out of synch. Nothing quite ‘gels’ properly, and hence none of it is either scary, disturbing, or meaningful. And to top it off, the finale comes across as ludicrous, over-egged, purposely opaque and confusing. (Using Robert Pattinson for dual roles, for no apparent reason.) In other words, the climax is pretty damn irritating and stupid, like most of this film.
One point for effort, but overall, an inconsistent, bland, pretentious, messy misfire.