“…Parfois, on me traitait comme si j’étais un chien, guili-guili sur le ventre et sous leurs doigts, je devenais une poupée, un enfant poupée, un poupon qu’on met tout nu dans la baignoire pour le laver avec les mains de toutes ces dames, de tous ces messieurs, et le mettre au dodo dans un p’tit berceau comme un bébé qui rit quand on le touche…”

Jean-Paul Sartre, L’enfance d’un chef (The Childhood of a Leader, 1939)

Childhood is intended as a time of innocence. A period of one’s life that is free from worry, anxiety, and trepidation about the life yet to come. It is where life is lived in the present, and parents’ love is a shield from the corrosive realities of the indifferent world. In Brady Corbet’s astonishingly capable and self-assured hands however, childhood becomes something else entirely. It is a nasty, brutish thing, cold and dark and utterly lacking in warmth. It is here that the origins of the depraved depths of human cruelty are pried apart; it is here that evil begins.

Corbet has made a career of appearing in deeply psychologically unnerving films, and so it is no surprise that he channels this experience into his directorial debut. The Childhood of a Leader is a period film without the hackneyed trappings of period cinema. Corbet takes a singularly more austere approach that is very much more in the French tradition of film d’époque. It is winter in rural France, the lanes are muddied with dirt, and snow falls steadily like a hymn upon the placidly devout village. In the midst of this affected pious restraint however, lurks the unease of unrest. It is this wary atmosphere of disquiet humming beneath the veneer of quietude that evokes those present in the films of Haneke and Sokurov’s rustic, gloomy studies of Russian dictatorship (and even curious parallels with The Omen). The influence of Haneke’s Das weisse bande is particularly felt here, similarly sombre and sinister in its portrait of youth disillusionment in pre-war Europe. Moments of deceiving calmness are effectively punctuated by unexpected chaos, the aftershocks of which linger long after the characters have left the scene, as the camera forbiddingly lingers in an empty decrepit room or corridor.

Prescott (Tom Sweet) is unruly and undisciplined, recalcitrant and insubordinate. The Freudian psychoanalytic themes present in Sartre’s short story are alluded to here as well: undecipherable, dystopian nightmares of steel and symmetry, and fledgling Oedipal episodes. His Damien-esque, increasingly agitating behaviour is set out amidst a gloomy, misted backdrop of religious piety and coolly bourgeois parenting, while his father (Liam Cunningham) and mother (Bérénice Bejo) engage with their son only to discipline him. Even the attempts at kindness from servants and governesses do not seem to assuage his burgeoning instability, the stolen moments of banality (recall Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil [incidentally, Arendt is listed in the film’s acknowledgements]). We are never provided direct answers for Prescott’s behaviour, and the film does not make an aborted move to do so. Rather, it allows us to merely consider what may have happened in this boy’s life to lead to such a drastic finale, in the same way that we regard the 19th century portrait paintings of noble families, coolly and impassively surveying the audience. In such portraits, no family member is smiling, lending a further shiver to the child’s likeness, all solemn and almost disconcerting vacancy in its gaze.

The real star of the film, however, is the score. Scott Walker evokes the discordant, post-apocalyptic urgency of Jonny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood soundtrack combined with the scratching, erratic dread of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho and Mark Korven’s The VVitch. The film opens with a thundering overture, immediately setting the uneasy, psychologically distressing tone for the rest of the film. Like Prescott’s tantrums, the cataclysm of the string orchestra is sudden and unpredictable, but appears only selectively to highlight certain key moments. When applied to the Clockwork Orange-esque chaos of the final scene, it is electrifying. Aside from this anachronistic score, music in the film is aligned to the period, including late 19th century phonographs. Incidentally, in one scene, Prescott is heard to hum the second allegretto movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony. It is a curious thing, for the symphony was composed after one of the most tumultuous decades in Austrian (formerly Prussian) history, in which Napoleon’s occupations of Vienna in 1805 and 1809 nearly devastated Vienna – a fitting “tribute” to Napoleon’s particular brand of leadership, and within the context of the film, a twisted sign of things to come with the rise of twentieth-century fascism: evil is not born, but made.