The Childhood of a Leader is would-be deep cinematic wankery at its most puerile. This is a two-hour-long attempt to construct a metaphor that ends at a place where it steps back and smugly makes a “shocking” pronouncement of something so concretely literal that it is, well, literally the fact of the matter that everyone already knows. If actor turned director (and screenwriter, with Mona Fastvold) Brady Corbet had, with his feature debut, given us 120 minutes of the sun setting and then boldly concluded that this is why it gets dark at night, he would not have been more obvious and inevitable and pointless. Childhood rings with the pride of an adolescent who has done a bit of reading and “independently” come to a conclusion that the entire world uncontroversially came to decades ago. And while it may be charmingly precocious for a child to put together pieces of a puzzle that the grownups have already solved, movies by adults don’t get a gold star for doing that.
The setting is France, just after the end of Great War hostilities. While a young unnamed brat (Tom Sweet) is throwing rocks at priests for fun and engaging in beginner’s sexual assault of his tutor (Stacy Martin: Nymphomaniac), his father (Liam Cunningham: Game of Thrones, Doctor Who), an American diplomat with the Wilson administration, is working on treaty conditions for the defeated Germans, trying to work out just how punitive they should be. So Dad is barely around, and the brat’s German mother (Bérénice Bejo: The Past, Populaire) is cold, distant, and upfront about how she never wanted to be a mother anyway. (Also there’s a hint that she has cuckolded her husband. Just like a woman!) I would say that I’m not sure whether we’re meant to fret over how the sociopathic tendencies of the brat are dealt with badly by his parents or whether Corbet is just throwing up his hands and saying that sociopaths gonna be sociopathic. Except that after two hours’ worth of vignettes of bad behavior on everyone’s part, we are invited to witness where the brat has arrived at as an adult, and there’s no ambiguity about it. The brat’s childhood is meant to mirror the history of Europe between the wars, and how World War I gave birth to World War II, and it does so with a universally acknowledged hindsight that the entire planet is already in 100 percent agreement with.
This ending can be shocking, incisive, and intriguing only if you were born yesterday and haven’t got the slightest clue what happened in the 20th century.
The cast is great, the movie looks great, the score (by Scott Walker) is particularly good — love those dramatic strings — but what is it all for? To “reveal” what we already know?