From left, Liam Cunningham, Tom Sweet, Bérénice Bejo and Robert Pattinson in 'The Childhood of a Leader'
From left, Liam Cunningham, Tom Sweet, Bérénice Bejo and Robert Pattinson in 'The Childhood of a Leader'

A first feature film is always an event, at least for its maker. With his amazing The Childhood of a Leader the 28-year-old Brady Corbet, a modestly known American screen actor (Thunderbirds, Funny Games, TV’s 24), sets up conventional audience expectation and throws the book at it. The “book” may be small, a same-title 1939 Jean-Paul Sartre story about the infancy of an imagined demagogue, but the impact still smacks and thrills.

Sharp-honed irony is mixed with assaultive power. The last of four sections is like a Shostakovich scherzo come to life: manic, martial, sarcastic. The camera gyrates around a city’s skyline with abstract-expressionist verve while Scott Walker’s music delivers a febrile homage to the Russian composer’s Eighth Symphony.

The preceding episodes — “First Tantrum”, “Second Tantrum”, “Third Tantrum” — are directed with a grandeur both classical, or mock-classical, and ferocious. The little boy (Tom Sweet) is a blond, angelic-looking terror born to a US diplomat (Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham) and his German-born wife (Bérénice Bejo). We are in a mouldering palatial mansion outside Paris during the peace negotiations after the first world war.

The boy throws stones at locals leaving church (as the young Mussolini did) and that’s just the start. The more that the script, by Corbet and his wife Mona Fastvold, sets in place a pre-Versailles Treaty atmosphere of fragile political expectancy, the more the boy runs amok or anarchic in this china shop. Like Sartre’s infant hero he’s guided by some infernal or supernal instinct of revolt. Sometimes he won’t speak, sometimes he won’t stop speaking. He shows up near-naked at a dinner. He locks himself away to read Aesop’s Fables, that allegorical child’s guide to human nature and frailty. He spurns a private tutor (Stacy Martin) but rages at the dismissal of a long-serving maid (Yolande Moreau) who has become his protector.

Corbet’s film never gets bombastic in its symbolism. Yet the boy stands, we know, for that growth of vicious political bewilderment in between-wars Europe that led to totalitarianism. The mansion’s sickly grandiosity is explored by the camera as if we are trapped in some Marienbad of geo-historical crisis and catastrophe-doomed global resolve. Is it an overambitious directing debut? Perhaps. But how much better than underambitious. And bully for the 2015 Venice Film Festival judges who gave this picture about the breeding of a bully the Lion of the Future prize.

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