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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Childhood of a Leader
The Childhood of a Leader
IFC Films // Unrated // November 22, 2016
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Oktay Ege Kozak | posted November 22, 2016 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

When we look at the relentlessly narcissistic and sociopathic qualities of any dictator, it's hard not to think about how they became who they are. Just like a lot of other defining personal qualities, their destructive tendencies are usually rooted in their childhood. That's why, especially during this period in our world when autocratic and fascist leaders have been making an oh-so-delightful comeback, Brady Corbet's The Childhood of a Leader is an important film the seek out, regardless of whether or not I think it fully succeeds in its vision (Or if its vision was the right approach for this story to begin with).

The film is a character study of Prescott (Tom Sweet), an entitled brat who the film states will grow up to be a dictator. He lives in the French countryside right after World War I with his somber mother (Berenice Bejo). His father (Liam Cunningham) is a powerful politician from the US, who's mostly gone from home in order to figure out how to use the resources left after the war for his country's benefit. The Childhood of a Leader's pure art house pedigree immediately presents itself though the film's lack of plot or any kind of a conventional story.

Apart from the overture and the epilogue, the film is split into three "tantrums", each one showing destructive acts by Prescott, each one becoming more and more troublesome as the child tests the extent of his cruelty and indifference towards the humanity of those around him. The first tantrum shows him throwing pebbles at churchgoers. A minor act of childish rebellion perhaps, but Corbett focuses more on Prescott's indifferent reaction to being punished, rather than on the motivation of the act itself. A long take of Prescott flatly apologizing to the people he hurt communicates, without any direct exposition, how little he thinks of them.

The second tantrum shows the child more in tune with his powers within the class system. He purposefully ruins the life of a servant, while grabbing his teacher's (Stacy Martin) breasts as a way of coping with his newfound sexuality. When the teacher protests his action, he doesn't understand why he wasn't supposed to do what he did, since everything else has been offered to him on a silver platter. A narcissistic, soon-to-be-dictator child who grabs female body parts because he thinks he's owed them. Sound familiar?

It's in these subtle moments where the moral coldness of Prescott is put on display when Corbett's film truly shines as a character study. Like Haneke's The White Ribbon, about a town full of children who will one day become Nazis, it tries to show how the first steps into an evil mind begins. However, it's the in-your-face art house style that possibly fails the kind of audience that might benefit from such a direct character study, as Corbett ends up with a niche audience as he preaches a bit to the choir. The film's languid pace, abrasive score, and abrupt slides into seemingly unimportant and arbitrary sub-plots and scenes make it hard to focus on Prescott's story.

The DVD:

Video:

We say this about a lot of DVD-only releases, but it really bears repeating here: Why isn't there a Blu-ray release of The Childhood of a Leader? With an almost-monochromatic look that relies heavily on harsh blacks, the look of the film perfectly accentuates the bleakness of the subject matter. The SD transfer looks fine when upconverted, with minor aliasing issues, but this film really deserves an HD physical media release stateside (There's a Region 2 UK Blu-ray already available).

Sound:

The lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 track is vibrant and bombastic, sometimes to the film's detriment, since Scott Walker's score often takes over the mix and disorients us. Perhaps that was the intended effect, but especially on a downmixed 2.0 viewing through a TV, it's really jarring and takes us out of the experience. It's during the subtle, dialogue driven scenes where the sound mix shines.

Extras:

We only get a Trailer.

Final Thoughts:

With his first feature, Corbett definitely shows an assured direction, full of both a stylistically unique voice, and a deft understanding of character. Even though I think this film's subtle approach to character development clashes with its harsh tone, I look forward to what he will direct next.

Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com

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