“Which one?” is the obvious question prompted by the title in “The Childhood of a Leader,” a overweening, maddening but not inconsiderable directorial debut for actor Brady Corbet, which plays as something of a straight-faced parody of a well-upholstered historical biopic. For anyone going in blind, it won’t take long to deduce that the nascent leader in question is a product of Corbet’s heavily Sartre-fueled imagination: a toxic pawn in a grueling bad-parenting parable that only reaches its rather inevitable punchline in the final frames. Distinguished by some virtuosic craft — including a cacophonous orchestral score by Scott Walker that will have certain viewers scrambling for the exit in the opening minutes — but significantly shakier on the writing and performance fronts, this “Leader” won’t find many followers in the distribution racket. Still, it’s an aggressive statement of intent from a filmmaker who, one senses, is just getting started.
One feels for any devoted members of the enduring “Twilight” cult who come for the promised presence of Robert Pattinson — in more than one role, to boot. They’ll find his appearances widely spaced across two hours of portentous psychoanalysis of a future visionary who, even in cherub-faced child form, is a pill and a half to be around. The film appropriates its title from (though is not directly an adaptation of) a 1939 short story by Jean-Paul Sartre that traced the evolution of a young boy from early insecurity through Freudian therapy to an adult embrace of anti-Semitic Fascist ideology. (No prizes for guessing the political allusion there.)
The story’s influence on Corbet’s script — co-written with fellow thesp-turned-filmmaker Mona Fastvold — is plain to see, though “The Childhood of a Leader” also plays to some extent as a burnished, frock-coated “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” focusing less on the intellectual development of its young protagonist’s worldview than the parental negligence that aggravates his rebellion to begin with. Not that the nature-versus-nurture debate here is a particularly nuanced one, in what amounts to a politically-colored adult fairytale. Both mother and father in its distinctly frosty hothouse setup are near-pitiless gorgons of authoritarianism; given their combined genes, it would appear that both nature and nurture collaborated to create a potential monster.
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After an “overture” of scratchy First World War archive footage set to a swirling, spidering mass of instrumentation, the first of Corbet’s three chapters (each one referred to as a “tantrum,” in one of the film’s few stabs of wit) gets under way, with a title card declaring it “A Sign of Things to Come.” Subtlety, then, is not on the agenda, even if the film is oddly coy about naming its young protagonist — as if teasing auds with the possibility that he might be revealed as a true-life titan.
The pic’s historical milieu swiftly rules that notion out. The year is 1918, and seven-year-old Prescott, as he is far later identified, has recently moved to France with his American diplomat father (Liam Cunningham) and German mother (Berenice Bejo). The former, an assistant director to President Wilson’s Secretary of State, is a powerful player in war-ending Paris peace negotations. Much of this is explained in a stodgy introductory back-and-forth between Cunningham’s character and local politico Charles Marker (Pattinson, bearded and disengaged), as they volley academic analogies in brandy-and-cigars tones.
Thus understandably bored in the family’s rented country chateau, friendless Prescott (played with disconcerting poise by hard-gazed British newcomer Tom Sweet, actually outclassing the pic’s entire adult ensemble) passes the time by bloodlessly antagonizing those around him, whether throwing rocks at his fellow participants in the parish Nativity play or grabbing the breast of his gentle French tutor Ada (Stacy Martin). Committed without any semblance of conscience or even sadistic enjoyment, his offenses usually result in thoroughly unconstructive battles of will between the boy and his equally hard-headed parents, whose idle acts of punishment are met with signal disdain. Only kindly housekeeper Mona (Yolande Moreau) seems occasionally able to mediate.
By Prescott’s third lengthily dramatized “tantrum,” there’s scarcely anything further to be identified or explored in this unpleasant impasse — leaving the film, for all its highbrow framing and seriousness of subject, disappointingly short on stimulating ideas. A nightmarish epilogue, set closer to the presumed Second World War and subtitled “A New Era,” barely hints at the net result of all this head-butting; the sequence itself is jaw-dropping in its formal derangement, suggesting just what psychological development (or collapse) has occurred en route to adulthood, though the unsurprising payoff hardly justifies the arduous journey. The writing, meanwhile, gains little subtext from the cast. The peculiarly compelling Sweet notwithstanding, performances mostly register, in familiar Europudding fashion, as bilingual but one-note.
Corbet might not have as much to say here as he did in the very different anatomy-of-a-sociopath study “Simon Killer,” which he conceived with director Antonio Campos, but he has developed an arresting style of expression. The U.S. actor’s recent spell of appearances in major French auteur projects appears to have left a visible imprint on his technique: One suspects Bertrand Bonello, in particular, would approve of his grandiose, swaggering mise-en-scene, though it’s equally in thrall to a century-spanning bevy of past masters, from Orson Welles to Raul Ruiz.
That’s not to say Corbet is always in control of his ambitious visual and sonic impulses. Lol Crawley’s handsome, Old Master-textured celluloid lensing — aesthetically on a different planet to his tissue-delicate work on Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” — goes from a gracious, gravity-defying pan in one sequence to showily haywire juddering the next. And while veteran avante-garde pop icon Walker was an inspired choice of composer, the pic isn’t wholly in sympathy with the unique disorder of strings, horns and kitchen sinks grafted onto it. Corbet should leave this exhaustingly auspicious freshman effort with plenty of notes; one suspects, with some intrigue, that he’ll return with far more for us.