Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Childhood of a Leader - raising a monster (QFT 19-25 August)

The Childhood of a Leader depicts a series of episodes in the childhood of a young boy who is growing up in a big house in a French village towards the end of the First World War. Collectively the ‘tantrums’ demonstrate the rising manipulative nature of the child.

Tom Sweet plays the long-locked boy (only once named as Prescott) who is repeatedly mistaken for a girl. Mumbling his lines for a Christmas performance, the audience are thrown the clue that he may have a Messiah complex.
“Why would you want to hurt anyone?”

The child gets a kick out of throwing stones at people leaving the nearby church. At first he seems to be a vulnerable soul, but soon you’ll wonder whether his bed wetting is more about attention seeking than fear. Over nearly two hours, you’ll watch his stubborn personality develop along with his grasp of the inappropriate and a brutal ability to calculate how to dispense with those who get in his way.

His German mother (played by Bérénice Bejo) speaks four languages but still employs a local woman Ada (Stacy Martin) to school him in French. Bejo portrays an anaemic wife who is ill at ease with her husband and a mother more comfortable running a house and hiring and firing, than bringing up a child.

While the residence’s cook is firmly wound round his little finger, Ada proves to have stricter boundaries to her friendship with the little tyrant. Yet both characters suffer the same fate. 

His father is Irish-American, a US diplomat who spends a lot of time away in Paris working on the Treaty of Versailles. Liam Cunningham plays an at first clean cut character whose sinister side is later revealed when we discover he can follow up his threats with violence.

While the two parents – one absent geographically, the other mentally – together weave the beginnings of a pattern of dysfunctionality, their less wholesome traits don’t feel sufficiently weighty to create the monster who occupies the child’s bedroom upstairs.

Writer/director Brady Corbet serves up a number of plot points that feel under-cooked, either red herrings or very broad hints at inappropriate behaviour or relationships (eg, the father caught talking to Ada) in the house. The version of this film running in the QFT subtitles the conversations in French, though at times the English is indistinct.

There’s a consistently dark mood across the film. The musical score is heavy and somewhat reliant on ominous-sounding low tonal strings. Every scene is darkly lit. The war together with the related power struggles in the father’s work overshadow talk at the dinner table. And on top of that, at times Liam Cunningham’s dialogue sounds like it has been dubbed over by Liam Neeson and may break out into “I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you” at any moment.

Spiralling camerawork near the end suggests that world affairs and the family are spinning out of control. But the very final shots are much more disorientating and hard to read. Also perplexing is the issue of which – if any – historical fascist leader the boy is supposed to grow up to become?

The Childhood of a Leader is not a feel good film. But it is a curious, slow-moving inspection of a disturbing family life that isn’t so far removed from ordinary households to be unfamiliar. The film is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre between 19 and 25 August.

No comments: