Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 21, 2016 9:13 am 
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Starting small

What some might call a period, costume version of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Brady Corbet's precocious, ambitious, but incompletely rewarding directorial debut purports to be more the story of the post-World War I childhood, or a moment in it, of a boy who was to grow up to become a "leader," or more likely a terrible dictator. It's a fascinating, stifling, claustrophobic and given how brilliantly it presents itself, disappointing work.

But Corbet's The Childhood of a Leader is elegant and original, and one hopes it is a promise of much good to come. Hidden in minor or obscure roles, as an actor Brady Corbet has already seemed to have a rock hard grip on cool. Not counting TV work, he's played key roles in Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen, Greg Araki's Mysterious Skin, Michael Hanneke's English remake of his own Funny Games, Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene, Lars von Trier's Melancholia, Antonio Campos' Simon Killer - quite a lineup. (Influences of Haneke and von Trier are strongly evident in the style and conception of this new film.) Recently he may have relaxed a bit, playing minor roles, but in such prestigious and interesting films, one after another, as Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent, Ruben Östlund's Force Majeure, and Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria. This is really quite an extraordinary list. So now that he has turned to directing, one would expect something special. And Childhood of a Leader, with its exquisite cinematography, unignorablly musical music by Scott Walker, declares itself to be a work of art. The opening credits, consisting of nothing but artfully tinted and distressed film footage of the First World War with music by Walker, is a superb little art film; I could have watched and listened to more of that alone. There's a stunning final passage of impressionistic, surreal images of the young adult dictator meeting the public, Walker's music very loud and brassy, the images terrifyingly blurred and askew. (It's here that we see Robert Patinson as the grown up child-dictator. He also appears in another minor role) Whenever Scott Walker's portentous score resumes, there is a surge of energy in what otherwise is a torpid, stiffly acted film.

After that nice prelude comes the cloying, claustrophobic focus on the naughty, uncooperative boy (the very talented Tom Sweet, a commanding presence in his every scene). He speaks French and English. That is because hIs father (Liam Cunningham) is an American diplomat, but he has a French-speaking German mother (Bérénice Bejo). They live somewhere in the country away from Paris. The father is mostly away negotiating the War's end, and orders his wife to mete out severe punishments on the boy for his misbehavior. The old and humble maid, a fixture of the house (Yolande Moreau, the only other actor besides the boy who's emotionally convincing) takes pity on the boy, and for that is dismissed, to her despair. Likewise the boy's psychologically fragile French teacher (Stacy Martin), who he touches inappropriately, then refuses to see, eventually gets fired by the mother. The boy shows talents (the little fable he writes in French) and grandiosity (his imperious behavior and idiosyncratic dress-and-undress habits) and a tendency to isolate himself in his room away from everyone. All this, while impressive in its way, is not without its maddening longeurs. More needs to be happening.

The darkly lit, richly colored images are exquisite. But while the treaty-making the father has been working on has advanced to Versailles, little progress has come about through part one, "The First Tantrum," or part two, "The Second Tantrum." Things do ramp up in "The Third Tantrum," with a brutal beating of the boy by his father and his outrageous behavior at a grand celebratory dinner after the treaty signing, at Versailles, which is introduced with more elegantly presented tinted stock footage. The transition into "A New Era, or Prescott, the bastard" is abrupt, The finale is abstract and non-narrative. It will leave many viewers unsatisfied, especially given the static nature of the early sections. Still, so fine are the technical aspects and so grand is the conception that this feels like a distinguished debut. Loosely based on a short story by Jean-Paul Satrtre intended to refer to Hitler; but obviously Robert Patinson, who briefly appears as the grown-up boy at the end, has become a demagogue, but not like Hitler.

The Childhood of a Leader, 115 mins., based on a 1939 short story by Jean-Paul Sartre, debuted at Venice 5 Sept. 2015, winning the Orizzonti Award for Best Director and the Luigi De Laurentiis Award; some other festival nominations and awards and showings at eight other international festivals. US theatrical (NYC, IFC Center) and VOD release 22 July 2016. Metascore 68.

The powerful music by Scott Walker alone makes it worth a look (and listen). Rex Reed (Observer) states it right: "The Childhood of a Leader is a dark and creepy work, flawed but ambitious and well worth seeing." No mistaking the flaws but also no mistaking the level to which he aspires and how often he reaches it. Which considering Corbet's youth and that this is a directorial debut adds a thrill.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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