No guts, no glory. Actor Brady Corbet flings himself off the cliff of his directorial debut with a defiant disregard for safety or convention that is startling, admirable and exceptionally unusual to see from a neophyte filmmaker. It is also categorically lunatic, because for all there are moments when, arms windmilling and “Geronimoooooo!” ringing out, it almost seems like he might make it to the other side, of course he doesn’t: guts will get you so far, but gravity always wins. Alternating immense bombast with long stretches of longueur in its psychologically questionable evocation of the formative years of a future despot, the film is formally confident, stylistically inventive and intensely irritating — all the way up to an ending so extraordinarily bonkers you might find yourself simultaneously snorting at its ridiculousness and clapping at its audacity. That’s if you’re not using your hands to cover your poor ears: it is far from the best film in Venice, but it is certainly the loudest.
Intentions are announced as though through a bullhorn during a pointlessly eardrum-shattering prologue, in which archive footage of WWI devastation plays out beneath Scott Walker‘s apocalyptically discordant score. And then, divided into chapters (or “tantrums” as they’re headed), the story proper begins. It’s 1918 and we’re in rural France as choirboy Prescott (Tom Sweet) bolts from evening mass to hide behind a wall and throw stones at the parishioners as they leave. No doubt there’s a subtler way to put it, using a term like “troubled” or “disruptive” or even the currently favored “ADHD,” but basically, the child’s a dyspeptic little prick from the get-go, an impression aided by Sweet’s unnervingly un-cute performance, despite the Little Lord Fauntleroy curls. Plunging into the woods to escape capture by the irate locals he’s been pelting, he’s chased down by his elegant, highly strung mother (Berenice Bejo) and dragged back to their new home where his father (Liam Cunningham), a high-ranking diplomat for President Woodrow Wilson, is entertaining family friend Charles Marker (Robert Pattinson). The men talk about Marx and Weltpolitik over games of billiards; Prescott is mostly left in the care of Mum, who frequently delegates the more nurturing or instructive duties of motherhood to house servant Mona and local girl Ada (Stacy Martin) respectively. This frees Mother up to have migraines and snap at the help, in time-honored period movie tradition.
But Corbet does challenge at least some period movie conventions, though not always successfully. He has an odd habit of hanging onto shots for a long time after the actors have left, so we spend quite a bit of the film looking at empty rooms or passageways. And the soundtrack is simply insane even between the twin poles of the opening and closing sections when all the knobs are turned up to 11 — this is definitively one of the most interesting scores of the year, even if it’s hard to endorse the sonic-torture way it’s used at times. The film looks impressive too, with “45 Years” DP Lol Crawley making the most of rich, candlelit interiors and achieving a refreshing sense of modernity with a few tracking shots following Prescott as he clatters through corridors and up stairs. But thematically and narratively, the film flounders: both parents’ attempts at discipline yield little result save to harden the pint-sized sociopath even further against them. Hints at Prescott’s burgeoning sexual awareness, or the evolution of his right-wing worldview remain frustratingly underdeveloped. At one point, he gropes Ada during a French lesson, and at another he seems particularly taken with Aesop’s fable about the mouse and the lion — but what either of those things mean for the thrust of the story is unclear.
Perhaps that’s because the story has very little thrust. There’s no forward momentum in these episodes, no sense of anything but a nasty little kid getting nastier while the characters around him more or less turn in circles on the spot rather than experiencing anything as dynamic as an arc of change. This adds saggy, sludgy weight to the middle portion of the film, where Corbet’s more experimental tendencies take a back seat to a grandiose seriousness that the film has done little to earn. Within this mire, the actors apart from Sweet are saddled with fairly one-note roles and only the stalwart Cunningham really makes anything more of what is on the page (written by Corbet and Mona Fastvold). Bejo runs the gamut from pained to petulant, and Pattinson has very little to do in his few short scenes, one of which is perplexingly framed as a gotcha moment, despite the fact that everything in the film has signposted it from the very beginning.
So why is it that despite all its glaring, blaring flaws, there’s something admirable about “The Childhood of a Leader”? Perhaps it’s simply that whether one likes it or not, it feels uncompromised, like it’s completely the film that Corbet set out to make. That might sound like faint praise, but intentionality at this level is rare, and it is ultimately (a few films down the line, mind you) what sets an auteur filmmaker apart from a journeyman. Or perhaps it simply bludgeons you into semi-submission. By the time the camera thrashes and wheels crazily up into the sky and your ears start to bleed to a particular passage of Walker’s music that sounds like someone put a screaming baby, a gun and Bernard Herrmann‘s “Psycho” score into a tin box and threw it down a fire escape, all we can be really sure of, is that “Childhood of a Leader” is not quite something good, but it is quite something. [C+]