"Childhood of a Leader" by Brady Corbet (USA)

​ Venice Film Festival 2015 - Orizzonti Section

Writer Profile

After Freud and Jung it became common (and probably slightly overused) knowledge that our childhood has an inevitable impact on whom we become. Where we came from, how we grew up and what kind of relationships we had with our parents, deeply influences our personality. In reference to this theory, Brady Corbet's first feature film poses a question: where did the dictators of the twentieth century come from?

An American family comes to France right after World War I, the biggest war Europe had seen up to that point. They settle down in the countryside, since the father works in Paris in President Wilson's team, negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. Meanwhile the mother is trying to cope with her disobedient son.

The Childhood of a Leader is Brady Corbet's first feature film as a director, but he already has a quite impressive filmography as an actor. One of his most recognisable roles was in Funny Games (US) by Michael Haneke.  His directorial debut is not about a specific dictator, it does not strictly follow someone's biography. It is more of an essay or a tale, a variation on the subject, a commentary, loosely based on a short story by Jean-Paul Sartre with the same title.

The film starts with loud, dynamic orchestral music brilliantly edited with the real footage of the World War I and its long awaited end. It puts the family's story in context and the viewer in unrest. The film is very distinctive visually. The cold, harsh French countryside, where the house is located, seems to represent Europe after the war: destroyed, starved, barren. The house is a huge, old-fashioned mansion, full of heavy wooden furniture. With the austere set-design and minimum lighting, the cinematography resembles realistic paintings of Dutch and French masters. Sometimes the camera moves, flows freely in a very long take, showing seemingly unimportant elements until it stops to point out something or someone crucial.

Bérénice Bejo is brilliant as a harsh, ambitious mother, with conservative upbringing and strong catholic convictions. Together with the talented young actor Tom Sweet, who plays the son, they create a remarkable acting duet, where they fight each other for power. Also Liam Cunningham is convincing in his role of a typical patriarch: strict, dominant and sometimes violent. Regrettably, the film does not manage to keep the high quality of acting for the whole time. That and the pacing, which slows down slightly too much at times, make the film a bit unbalanced.

Considering Corbet’s previous co-operation with Michael Haneke, it cannot be accidental that the film carries traces of inspiration with the works of the Austrian director, especially with The White Ribbon. The shot through the door, when the father wants to teach the son a lesson, seems to be a direct reference Haneke's film. Corbet leaves the door open, while Haneke makes his characters close it.

The Childhood of a Leader is a film that will polarise the audience. Some might say that it’s pretentious, which is not unheard of in a case of a first-time director, but I think it’s a brave and intriguing beginning of a young filmmaker’s career.


Name: Zuzanna Grajzer

Nationality: Poland/Germany

Contact: z.grajzer@gmail.com