If actor-turned-director Brady Corbet’s post-World-War-I saga, The Childhood of a Leader, did little more than send American readers to Jean-Paul Sartre’s lesser known short story of the same name, one would be thanking the cinematic gods for its appearance.
The final story in his Sartre’s 1939 collection, The Wall, “The Childhood of a Leader” chronicles the life of Lucien from his rebellious potty training days as a lovely, long-haired tot, son of a rich industrialist, to his transformation into anti-Semitic murderer. There goes Holden Caulfield but for the grace of God.
When we first meet Lucien, with his lustrous blond curls and attired in a blue angel’s costume, he is mistaken by his mother’s consorts as a girl.
“What’s your name? Jacqueline, Lucienne, Margot?”
The embarrassed boy blushes and sets the record right, but “[h]e was no longer quite sure about not being a little girl . . . . he was afraid that the people would suddenly decide he wasn’t a little boy any more; he would have protested in vain, no one would listen to him, they wouldn’t let him take off his dress any more except to sleep . . . and when he wanted to wee-wee during the day, he’d have lift it up like Nenette [the family maid] and sit on his heels . . . maybe it’s happened already, and I am a little girl.”
This is just the first of Lucien’s continuous identity problems over the next two decades. Soon he hates God “because God knew more about Lucien than Lucien himself. God knew that Lucien didn’t love his mama or papa and that he pretended to be good . . . .”
The boy keeps feeling as if his being was “fog rolling back on itself, indefinite. ‘Who am I? I look at the bureau, I look at the notebook. My name is Lucien Fleurier but that’s only a name . . . . What am I . . .? . . . ‘Now I have it!’ he thought, ‘now I have it! I was sure of it: I don’t exist!’”
Lucien, in his angst-ridden fight to dispel the fog, becomes a poseur, adopting friends’ and acquaintances’ philosophies. He feigns to have an Oedipal Complex when his friend Berliac has one. He accordingly engulfs himself in everything Freud, declaring that he is “a sadico-anal and that fundamentally he [doesn’t] love anything and that everything in him [is] a comedy.”
At this point, he meets Bergère, a handsome, anti-Semitic, homosexual surrealist, who when told Lucien wants to kill himself, responds, “My God! . . . I should hope so.” Then when at home, Bergère points out the oddities collected on one of his shelves that included itching powder and an “artificial turd.” “These jokes have a revolutionary value. They disturb. There is more destructive power in them than in all the works of Lenin,” he avows, and Lucien accepts the argument before eventually being seduced and anally plowed. Oh, no! Is he now a pederast? Can everyone recognize that he has crossed the line against his will, although, of course, against his will?
Not to worry, a heterosexual affair ensues along with his acceptance by a group of fascist peers, and Lucien has finally found a philosophy that has dissipated his fog.
The story is one of the finest fictional examinations of childhood and adolescence, but readers of Sartre’s autobiographical reminiscences of his own youth, The Words, will not be surprised. His mastery of rendering child’s perception of the word has seldom been surpassed nor has his exploration of the human condition through his existentialist-tinted glasses (e.g. Nausea; the Roads to Freedom trilogy).
In their adaptation of this work, Corbet and his co-writer Mona Fastvold utilize just the beginning and finale of Sartre’s tale. Lucien, now monikered Prescott (indelibly portrayed by the 9-year-old Tom Sweet), is no longer the son of French bourgeois industrialists. His father
(Liam Cunningham) is now an American statesman, working for the Woodrow Wilson administration on a reparations treaty, and his mother (Berenice Bejo) is a rather frigid mixture of transplanted European gene pools. Robert Pattinson briefly shows up as Charles, a widowed journalist who’s a friend of the family.
In a fireside chat with Lucien’s dad, that brings up Pontius Pilate and the hundreds in the crowd before him when he sentenced Christ, Charles notes, “The tragedy was not that one man had the courage to be evil, but that so many didn’t have the courage to be good.” This is the core line of the film, and afterwards, Pattinson basically disappears until a late party scene, and a pivotal shot in the finale that you might not comprehend until a second viewing. Pay attention closely.
Besides the original text, Corbet has incorporated tidbits of Mussolini’s childhood behavior into his tantrum-heavy hero, plus references to the works of Robert Musil, John Fowles, Hannah Arendt, and others.
But the film grabs your senses whether you are familiar with any of these writers or not. First, there’s the seismic score of Scott Walker, England’s Jacques Brel and former pop star (“The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More”). Sometimes you won’t be sure if the visuals are accompanying Walker’s notes or the other way around. Psychologically complex, eerie, and transformative, his music is worthy of winning every award this year that a score can win.
The contributions of cinematographer Lol Crawley (Ballast) are nearly as vivid. He paints the screen as if it were an Old Master’s canvas. Note especially the stark blacks that pop out that capture the mourning of the past war and the forewarning of an even more frightening future.
But most of all, there is Corbet and this, his feature debut. This is film of such artistic merit, that even those who might not be swept away by this tale, will nonetheless have to admit here is a major new talent, whose future promise seems without boundaries. Especially if you saw Antonio Campos’s Simon Killer (2012), in which Corbet starred and for which he contributed the storyline, you can tell here’s an auteur willing to go over the edge to depict the dark side of his fellow mortals.
In Simon Killer, he portrays a recent American college graduate licking his wounds in Paris after his girlfriend drops him. You understand why almost immediately. He is so self-pitying, so needy, and such a fabricator, that when he meets a young prostitute, who allows herself to fall for him, you are not surprised when he pulls her into his emotional hell. If fact, if Lucien had been born a century later or Simon one hundred years earlier, you could see how the pair would be able to switch scenarios with ease.
Sartre once wrote, “We are our choices.” A scary observation, one as discomforting and wise as these two exhilarating, unsettling films. - Brandon Judell
(The Childhood of a Leader, winner at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival of the Best Director and Best Debut Film Awards/Horizons Section, is currently available on VOD and on Amazon.)
Mr. Judell has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, the New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.