Family and fascism march in lock step in “The Childhood of a Leader.” A visually sumptuous, slow-boil freakout set in France in the aftermath of World War I, it hinges on an unruly boy, Prescott (Tom Sweet), who goes to battle with his authoritarian parents as his American father (Liam Cunningham) is helping negotiate the peace terms with Germany. Having arrived as part of President Woodrow Wilson’s political retinue, the unnamed father has moved into a sprawling, dilapidated farmhouse. There, he and his European wife (also nameless, and played by Bérénice Bejo) settle into their own uneasy peace, one increasingly disturbed by their eccentric son.
In his landmark study “The Mass Psychology of Fascism,” Wilhelm Reich does what the poet Philip Larkin and quite a few others do: he blames mom and dad. It is the family, Reich argues, that is “the factory in which the state’s structure and ideology are molded.” Reich’s book was published in 1933, the year that Adolf Hitler assumed power in Germany. Given the ideas swirling in “The Childhood of a Leader,” it wouldn’t be a surprise if its young director, Brady Corbet, had dipped into Reich’s book while conceiving the movie, which takes its title and some ideas from a 1939 story by Jean-Paul Sartre. (Mr. Corbet shares screenwriting credit with Mona Fastvold.)
After a sensational, direct opener — a quick-sketch newsreel history lesson set to Scott Walker’s powerhouse score — “The Childhood of a Leader” settles into smudgy mystery and ominous foreboding. An American actor whose credits include the television show “24,” Mr. Corbet has in recent years appeared in a number of high-profile European art movies. He also had a role in “Funny Games,” Michael Haneke’s 2007 English-language remake of his art-house shocker. Mr. Haneke’s influence and particularly his film “The White Ribbon” — a study of patriarchal domination set in German just before World War I — is evident in “The Childhood of a Leader.”
Mr. Corbet also seems to have spent some time perusing the work of the Russian director Alexander Sokurov, specifically his tetralogy of power, which concluded with an adaptation of “Faust.” Certainly, the crepuscular beauty of “The Childhood of a Leader” evokes Mr. Sokurov’s expressionistic style in his tetralogy, with its visual intimacy, softness and somewhat queasy hues. Working with the cinematographer Lol Crawley, Mr. Corbet goes for a more straightforward look with a dark palette characterized by bottomless blacks that make the occasional sun-kissed images — as in the shot of a woman’s nipple peeping through a luminous white blouse — all the more striking.
Divided into chapters, the movie tracks Prescott through his everyday life and relationships, notably with a few women caretakers (a flirty tutor, a nurturing maid) whose warmth will never make up for his mother’s coldness. It’s a persuasive portrait of a monster-to-be, one etched in thrown tantrums and rocks, and heavily supported by an excellent cast that includes Robert Pattinson and Yolande Moreau as well as a driving score that occasionally threatens to upstage the movie. (Mr. Walker’s instrumentals fill the track with thunder and at times ring out like shots.) Mr. Corbet’s final embrace of allegory feels like an evasion, given how history looms here, but it scarcely matters.
“The Childhood of a Leader” is not rated and runs 1 hour 56 minutes.
An earlier version of this review misstated the given name of a former United States president. He is Woodrow Wilson, not Woodward. That version also referred incorrectly in one instance to the title of the film. It is “The Childhood of a Leader,” not “The Childhood of Shadows.”