A 27-year-old dude from Scottsdale, Arizona, Brady Corbet has somehow become the go-to guy for major European auteurs in need of a young American who can pick up what they’re putting down. We may never fully understand how he parlayed a one-episode cameo on “The King of Queens” and a recurring appearance in the fifth season of “24” into a series of brilliant collaborations with titans of international cinema like Michael Haneke (“Funny Games”) and Lars von Trier (“Melancholia”), but it’s clear why Corbet might have a special appreciation for how public figures are often seen through the lens of their beginnings. With his unusually accomplished directorial debut “Childhood of a Leader,” Corbet delivers a strange and startling film that reflects the unique trajectory of his career, as well as the influence of the iconoclastic directors with whom he’s already worked.
The first strains of Scott Walker’s panicky score slice into the soundtrack like Penderecki having a heart attack, the strings cutting into archival footage of World War I troops marching in formation. The opening titles are draped in terror, and they steel audiences for an ominous origin story on par with the horrors presaged by “Max” or “The Omen.” And on that promise, Corbet delivers — albeit it in his own elliptical, psychically tormented, and increasingly hypnotic way.
“The Childhood of a Leader” tells the story of a young American boy (Tom Sweet) coming of age in a snowbound pocket of rural France circa 1918. His young yet severe mother (“The Artist” star Bérénice Bejo) is fed up with her son from the start, and takes out most of her frustration on the various employees who rear the boy for her by proxy. The child’s father (Liam Cunningham, who “Game of Thrones” fans will better recognize by the name of Davos Seaworth), is an assistant on President Wilson’s staff, and is often away in Versailles working on the peace treaty that would ultimately end the war. On the rare evenings during which he returns home, the boy’s father is sometimes accompanied by a widower politician played by Robert Pattinson (a glorified cameo during which he willfully melts into the musty furnishings of Corbet’s sets).
The film seldom ventures outside of the boy’s house, pushing deeper and deeper into the opaque void of its protagonist’s malleable young mind. Corbet’s doggedly anti-dramatic script (co-written by his partner, Mona Fastvold) stakes the boy’s future on a debate between nature vs. nurture in which neither side ever seems to earn a clear advantage. Sweet, whose character is outwardly defined by a blank expression and a head of flowing blond hair (he’s often confused for a girl), delivers a tense performance that often feels modeled after his director’s seething turns in “Simon Killer” and “Funny Games.” You almost never know what the kid is thinking, but it’s telling that his moments of paranoid anxiety are by far his most visceral — an early nightmare sequence suggests that Corbet has a natural talent for eerie visual abstractions.
He also has a natural talent for the strain of winking, comically exaggerated gravitas that makes it tempting to suspect that hyper-severe auteurs like Haneke and von Trier are actually just taking the piss. Ostentatiously divided into five sections (an overture, three ‘Tantrums,’ and a coda), and refusing to speak the boy’s name until late in the film (so that viewers might tie themselves into knots trying to work out which fascist leader the kid will grow up to become), “The Childhood of a Leader” pits the intensity of its context against the banality of its incident.
The first two Tantrums are all portent and no plot; the most exciting thing that happens is when the boy paws at the breast of his pretty young French tutor (“Nymphomaniac” ingenue Stacy Martin). There’s much talk of language skills, and fluency becomes its own kind of power, but how that factors into Corbet’s grand design is no better explicated than the fact that Sweet’s character is exclusively raised by hired help, or the tidbit that his dad had been hoping for a daughter. And yet, the raw anxiety of Corbet’s vision only grows more palpable as Sweet retreats further from our understanding; by the time the film reveals itself to be more of a mind-fuck than a historical drama, you’re too rattled to feel tricked.
On one hand, the indelibly disorienting final scene feels like a hit from behind; on the other, it feels as though the film has been building to it from the start. Either way, “The Childhood of a Leader” leaves behind a squall of unanswered questions that linger in the mind long after it squelches to a finish. Is this a story about the merits of Freudian psychology, or its limitations? Is it about the making of a monster, or is its distance meant to mock the thinking that sociopaths can be so easily explained? Early in the first Tantrum, Pattinson’s character lifts a quote that novelist John Fowles would ultimately coin in regards to the Holocaust: “That was the tragedy. Not that one man has the courage to be evil, but that so many have not the courage to be good.” Other than Corbet’s promise, that sentiment may be the film’s one clear takeaway: Whether born or raised, leaders are only as powerful as the people who neglect to stop them.
“The Childhood of a Leader” plays at BAMcinemaFest on June 23rd. It opens in theaters and on VOD on July 22nd.