The Childhood of a Leader, Brady Corbet, 2015
“You put blood on my dress. Why would you do that?”
Who among us can really chart the forces that make us into the person we are? Are we driven by our primal natures or the lessons of our childhood? Brady Corbet’s debut film The Childhood of a Leader attempts to answer these questions through an impressionistic study of the childhood vicissitudes of a future fascist dictator, showing how the impulse for independence clashes with the voices that surround us, in creating man.
As a child, Prescott, the eponymous leader (Tom Sweet, and later, Robert Pattinson) fights the people around him with the wilfulness of any pre-pubescent boy, but it is his quiet, solitary ruminations that tell us the most about who he will become. The viewer can watch the actions in his life percolate in his brain as the camera lingers, inviting us to interpret any small action around him as a building block that makes the man.
Back in 1762, French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau had published his treatise on education, Emile, a work which he had called “the best and most important of all my writings”, in which he too notes the forces that define a person into adulthood. Rousseau constructs, through the novelistic story of the education of a small boy, a unified theory of pedagogy and human nature that is epic in its scope. But for now, we must focus solely on Book I, in which Rousseau deals with the early years education of a child.
Rousseau notes that if one is to raise a well-rounded and socially productive adult, one must strike a balance in early childhood between protecting and allowing freedom, and between showing love and admonishing bad behaviour. This is a task for the mother and father, because if left to the work of a nursemaid or a tutor, the child will only look down on these people with contempt.
Indeed, in Prescott’s childhood, we can see how the two very different styles of education might cause problems. Prescott’s mother (Bérénice Bejo) distances herself from her child’s love, living her own life and curtly rejecting (or at best tolerating) any maternal interaction. When she allows her son’s nanny the night off and takes on the bedtime duties herself, Prescott is so perturbed as to have a nightmare (tellingly, of his mother not being by his side at all times) which leads him to wet the bed.
Rather than seeing this with compassion and love, the mother sees this as an inconvenience to her. The same theme is repeated numerous times, with the mother pushing away the child until he sees her as nothing more than an obstacle herself. Furthermore, the child’s father (Liam Cunningham) only admonishes him through beatings, something which Rousseau would strongly reject as a sound method of punishment.
Rousseau remarks upon his seeing a child being beaten, and worries that the child will grow up to be a servile man, cowed into meekness by the harsh hand. In fact, what Rousseau notes is that all this does is produce in the child “every sign of the anger, rage and despair of this age”, an impotent and visceral fury that will lead him down a much darker path. This is one of the first suggestions of the fascist to come, nursing his swollen injuries to forge them into strengths.
Of course, this is not the only form of education given to Prescott. For he also receives unconditional love. But rather than coming from his parents, this love comes to him through his nanny, Mona (Yolande Moreau). When she is instructed to punish Prescott, she cannot bring herself to do this, preferring to treat him like a prince, bowing down to his stubbornness and letting him win in every battle. Rousseau, again, warns against this form of education:
“The more he cries the less you should heed him. He must learn in good time not to give commands to men, for he is not their master.”
Yet of course this is exactly what Mona does. She teaches him that he can bend people to his will, and that if something goes against his own individual wishes, then if he remains stubborn it will eventually go his way. This is, surely, one of the core psychological beliefs at the heart of all fascist dictators?
So here we have presented a perfect storm of striking the child to increase their rage, and coddling the child to increase their sense of entitlement. It is no wonder that this will lead to a man that sees himself not only above society, but contemptuous of it, seeing others as either enemies or servants, sowing the seeds of fascism even from this early age.
While Rousseau’s work on education and human nature now seems a little dated in the face of modern psychology, it is no doubt hugely influential in these fields. He offers a comprehensive overarching theory of the forces that make a person who they are, drawing in areas as disparate as infant feeding habits and the role of a tutor.
But what Corbet’s film highlights is the fact that education is much more than just tuition. In fact, any direct tuition Prescott receives is mainly irrelevant to him, and he learns more from his early sexual impulses informed by the beauty of his tutor Ada (Stacy Martin) than he does from any of her lessons. Within the claustrophobic chiaroscuro and soft edges of the frame, we see that the real education of a man is hidden more in what we do not see than in what we do. There is a hidden story behind every childhood, and it is in this story that we find the true beginnings of who we are to become.