Brady Corbet has already forged a pretty good career as an actor, appearing in a range of commendable films from Melancholia to Martha Marcy May Marlene. In Venice he makes his directorial feature debut with The Childhood of a Leader, and what an explosive and thrilling debut it is.

The story is based on a Jean-Paul Sartre short story set at the end of World War I. The setting is France and a child, Prescott (Tom Sweet) is son to a US state official (Liam Cunningham) working for Woodrow Wilson on the Versailles Treaty, and his half-German polyglot wife (Bérénice Bejo), who likes to think of herself as “a citizen of the world”. Having moved from the US to the devastation of post-war France, the child is alienated and unhappy in his surroundings, as are his parents, though they are never honest enough to say so explicitly. Their only friend is the widower journalist (Robert Pattinson) in a deceptively small role.

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With his father often away and his equally distant mother locked in her room, the neglected Prescott is placed in the hands of a compliant servant (Yolande Moreau) and a pretty young French teacher (Stacy Martin). Cast as an angel in the local parish nativity play, we see Prescott’s first act of violence: he’s caught throwing stones at parishioners as they leave the church after rehearsal. This is just the first of escalating acts of violence perpetrated by this Little Lord Fauntleroy with a severe personality disorder. Tom Sweet is astonishing in this role, his Prescott – all golden locks and ruffled smocks – diabolic and terrifying.

Scott Walker’s score is one of the main characters in the film, the ominous booming overture a portent of what’s to come. The thunderous opening accompanies archive footage depicting the devastation of the war. Like Sokurov’s Francofonia, it reminds us of the chilling similarities between conflicts past and present. The link between the devastation of the Great War and how it sowed the seeds for the tyrants of the 20th century are clear to see. And as the film nears the end, it is Walker’s astounding score that leaves you stunned and terrified in your seat.

The Childhood of a Leader

Corbet is unafraid to take cinematographic risks with his film, thanks to the skills of Lol Crawley. There are some amazingly shot sequences, particularly towards the film’s denouement. The strange family house is as gloomy as its occupants, the dark tones pressing down on the characters. The final scene left viewers scratching their heads in bewilderment and some have accused Corbet of being overly ambitious.

But in a festival that has thus far served up fairly tame films, particularly in competition, an overly ambitious director is precisely what I wanted to see and I look forward to his next directorial venture.