Easily one of my favorites from 2016, Brady Corbet’s directorial debut, The Childhood of a Leader, is so accomplished. It reminds me at different times of The Conformist, Brazil, The White Ribbon, and The Omen. In fact the opening shot (hard to see here, but that’s a CU on railroad tracks racing by), reminds me of the same opening, with Max von Sydow’s amazing voiceover, from Zentropa:
So maybe the tone and themes are clear from those references. Wartime, dictators, and bureacuracy. The year is just pre-1918, so war echoes throughout the film. Of course, as anyone knows, the title character is in between wars. As the title tells us, he’s going to be “someone” starting into the 1930s.
Corbet moves his camera a lot, and while much of the film takes place in the French estate of the unnamed American/German/French family (he – Liam Cunningham as “The Father” is American and works for Woodrow Wilson; she -Bérénice Bejo as “The Mother” had a German father and a traveling childhood), some of the more interesting movements are exteriors. Here’s one.
The Child – soon to be known as Prescott (and played by Robert Pattinson, who plays an entirely different character earlier in the film, and that character may be having an affair with Bejo’s character, etc) – now played ridiculously effectively by Tom Sweet – walks with his Mother. Corbet frames them in a 2-shot from behind and follows them in steadicam:
This is probably the most common shot in The Childhood of a Leader (though it’s often a single, not a 2-shot). A horse and carriage crosses in front of them, and Corbet cuts to the horse, marking the beginning of a digressive long take:
We just catch Bejo and Sweet pass around that corner, as this new group of women emerges. The camera continues to follow them:
Like so much of this film, they’re dressed in black, move silently, and feel funereal. It reminded me a bit of this sequence, where young Prescott walks with his tutor, Adelaide, played by Stacy Martin. We start with this semi-profile 2-shot, before cutting to the second frame below, a really unnerving vignetted extreme wide:
Back to the 2-shot where Prescott gets ahead, and then the camera lingers and leaves, finding a farmer in the background:
Similar mise-en-scene and camera expressiveness from each. I’ve been teaching Taxi Driver lately, so this reminds me of Scorsese’s references to Sam Fuller and Jean Renoir – a camera that departs from its protagonist to show the surrounding world, likely either to show the isolation (seems to be certainly apt here), or maybe also to show Prescott’s world as monochrome, torpid, and grim.
Corbet and cinematographer Lol Crawley concoct other forbidding images. Here’s one that any viewer wouldn’t be able to erase to from their mind:
But aside from the great costume (from Andrea Flesch) and production (from Jean-Vincent Puzos) design, the meaningful lighting of, for example, Adelaide and young Prescott-
-gives us plenty of information on characters (heavenly and the opposite, for example; that silhouetted moment of young Prescott is scary in the film).
Corbet’s film is divided into four parts and the last skips ahead in time. It’s probably the 1930s, and Prescott, now played briefly by Pattinson, has risen to the level of some kind of dictator. The mise-en-scene has also changed, as has the camera. Things are so much more symmetrical. Different colors (red and dull green, for sure) now pop. The camera pulls back dramatically and on a wide lens:
While there are so many highlights of Corbet’s film, one of them is undoubtedly Scott Walker’s score. It is so good. It’s ominous and loud. It’s the score that has shaken me the most since Mica Levi’s for Under the Skin. I will listen to it independent of the film and get scared.