‘The Childhood of a Leader’
Brady Corbet
Stars: Tom Sweet, Berenice Bejo
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

“The Childhood of a Leader” doesn’t beat around the bush. The directorial debut of actor Brady Corbet isn’t five seconds old and it’s already turned the audience into hysterical wrecks. In its monstrous overture, a driving score, by no less than Scott Walker, sports furious strings that stab like a psycho killer at our every nerve. Scratchy archival footage drops us into a post-WWI Europe clearly itching to get back to war. We see marching troops and preaching demagogues and marauding trains. We haven’t even met this pint-sized future leader, whoever he may be, and we’re already spent.

It’s a Barnum-esque way to start a filmmaking career. And for his next trick, Corbet won’t give us what we want. Perhaps we’re expecting “The Omen” recast with the young Hitler or Mussolini. Instead we get some brat named “Prescott,” a cherubic boy with a long, girlish mane, played by the aptly-named Tom Sweet. He’s no frustrated plebe, like Adolf or Benito. He’s someone who may never have existed: the rich kid son of a German mother (Berenice Bejo) and an American official (Liam Cunningham), who’s dragged the family to a lavish French estate while he works on what will become the Treaty of Versailles. 

As expected, Prescott will act up, but not too extravagantly. Instead, he thinks small. He’ll throw rocks at parishioners exiting a church on Christmas Eve. He’ll parade around naked while his father entertains colleagues. He’ll stare lustily at the clothed bosom of his hotcha young tutor (Stacy Martin). It’s an art film version of “The Bad Seed,” where the antics are minor but the outcome is even bigger: One never expects the kid who acts up a little bit will one day almost destroy the world.

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This might not be what you’d expect from an actor whose first gig was an episode of “King of Queens.” And yet it makes total sense. Corbet has spent his adulthood bouncing around Europe, collecting auteurs. He’s an alum of both Michael Haneke (the “Funny Games” remake) and Lars von Trier (“Melancholia”). Two autumns ago he seemed to pop up in every French and even Swedish import. (You could see him nipping by, like an overly-friendly neighbor from a sitcom, in “Clouds of Sils Maria,” “Eden,” “Saint Laurent” and “Force Majeure.”) His previous creative credit was co-writing Antonio Campos’ “Simon Killer,” in which he starred as another budding psychopath skulking about Paris.

“Simon Killer” was so reluctant to ascribe Psych 101 readings to its anti-hero that it was open-ended to a fault. The same goes here. On one hand its vagueness is useful: It reminds us we tend to simplify history’s greatest monsters without truly understanding them. At the same time Corbet can’t help but be reductive anyway. Prescott’s ailments tend to be disappointingly Freudian: an obsession with sex, with his emotionally distant mother, with a kindly maid (Yolande Moreau). The men are, predictably, even more remote, his father a workaholic who tends to spend his home time knocking back brandy and cigars with a politico pal (Robert Pattinson, doing little more than lending his name and again traumatizing Twi-hards who’ve been lured into the theater). It’s almost passive-aggressive: It pretends to not be offering easy explanations about what makes a monster even as it does just that. 

Thank god for style. Corbet bookends his debut with riots of insanity, with a coda even more blood-curdling than the overture. The two hours in between put the intensity on simmer. They’re Visconti-ish hangs among the decadent and clueless, such pawns in the cruel march of history that the camera often ignores them, focusing on the musty decor. It’s a film worth living in, provided you can ignore and maybe even forgive its tendency to go simple. And it might even convince us that Corbet is getting his worst instincts out of the way while developing the ones that are undeniably strong.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge