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Short Takes: The Childhood of a Leader

(Brady Corbet, U.K./France, 2015)

You can’t fault actor Brady Corbet for lack of ambition in his debut feature, which comes complete with a Scott Walker score. Set during the Great War in rural France, The Childhood of a Leader centers on three progressively vicious tantrums thrown by its prepubescent protagonist, Prescott (Tom Sweet). The son of an aging American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) and a polymath German mother (Bérénice Bejo) who resents tending house, Prescott is isolated from children his own age by language and appearance (he refuses to cut his long, blonde locks, and is frequently mistaken for a girl).

At first, his outbursts appear to be understandable responses to frustration, or ways of testing boundaries, but they quickly turn pathological. Unable to forge friendship or intimacy with his authoritarian parents, the boy counts as his only companions an overly sympathetic maid (Yolande Moreau) and his French teacher (Stacy Martin). When the latter rejects his precocious attempt at groping, he retaliates by becoming a dedicated autodidact and refusing to wear clothes, even while company’s around.

Unlike in the Sartre short story with which the film shares a title (and which was a parable for Hitler), Prescott’s aggression has no clear real-life referent. Even though the Treaty of Versailles, which precipitated the rise of Hitler, is hashed out in his living room with his diplomat father as host, Childhood is less a j’accuse than a bad, half-remembered dream about history.