I was actually quite keen to see this directorial debut from the charismatic actor Brady Corbet, ("Mysterious Skin", "Funny Games", "Melancholia" et.al) which won the DeLaurentiis Award and the Best Director gong at the Venice Film Festival when Corbet was still in his mid-twenties. Another Orson Welles I wondered. No way! The film is a heavily flawed, pretentious slog, put together by someone who has bitten off far more than he can chew.
The picture begins with an overture from composer Scott Walker, former lead singer of the Walker Brothers, and his ear-jangling score remains intrusive throughout. Corbet's film is further hindered by the largely murky cinematography, with its often dark and barely visible interiors and static shots held for no good reason. Then there is the script itself with the director credited as co-writer. The title comes from a short story by Jean Paul Sartre -- who is not credited --arguing that childhood identity and sexuality are factors in producing the eventual adult. The movie is divided into three chapters outlining the three 'tantrums' of child actor Tom Sweet's Prescott over a relatively short period of time, before moving many years forward for an ending that takes the viewer by surprise.
The story begins in 1918 when American envoy Liam Cunningham (a "Game of Thrones" regular) and his fragrant wife Berenice Bejo (in a role originally intended for Juliette Binoche) move into a French chateau with their young son, as Father heads the talks leading to the Treaty of Versailles. The family consider themselves 'citizens of the world', proud and invincible. Prescott is something of a handful, generally ignored by his busy father and distracted mother, whose care is left in the hands of a local teacher and the household servants, especially the matronly and doting Yolande Moreau (a great favourite of mine). The teacher whose job is to teach the child French, despite his mother being fluent in the language, is played by Stacy Martin, star of von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" films. She takes her work seriously, even if the camera does not, lovingly lingering on the nipple visible under her see-through blouse (highly unlikely for 1918.) The only other character given brief screen time is family friend Charles, a nothing role for Robert Pattinson -- no treats here for his 'Twilight' groupies.
Prescott's first manifestation of bad behaviour is to throw rocks at the parishioners of the local church, soon followed by his deciding that he no longer needs his teacher (after grabbing her breast), by his refusing to dress or leave his locked room, and finally by declaring his hatred for God and prayers at a high-powered dinner. Mother can only respond by firing whichever staff displays any sympathy for the child and Father can only respond with corporal violence. Perhaps his parents should have considered cropping his flowing locks, since he is constantly taken as the daughter of the house by the diplomatic guests.
Prescott's bad behaviour takes up the bulk of this draggy film, but the next thing we know is that the unsympathetic child has morphed into a Mussolini-like dictator (also played by a nearly unrecognizable Pattinson for some reason). We are meant to think that everything we have seen previously is a fable on the rise of fascism. The director's message is that one's childhood makes one's adulthood a fait accompli. However it is hard to fathom how a rich, obnoxious, spoiled brat can develop into a revered and god-like figurehead. It just does not scan in any believable way and Corbet's parable does not manage to credibly hit home.