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« Charlize in F8 of the Furious | Main | Best Tweets on the Globe Nominations »
Monday
Dec122016

The Furniture: The Cruel, Curtained Childhood of a Leader

"The Furniture" is our weekly series on Production Design. Here's Daniel Walber...

We love to collectively pore over the biographies of history’s most monstrous figures, usually in search of both meaning and sensationalism. Our fantasies are full of vindictive parenting, traumatic events and uncanny brilliance. It’s as if we want to reverse Freud, using psychoanalysis as a tool to craft new mythology. And they certainly are myths: Fascism can’t be blamed on paternal cruelty alone.

But what if the protagonist weren’t real? With The Childhood of a Leader, Brady Corbet has contributed a fictional allegory to this evergreen genre. Loosely based on a short story by Jean-Paul Sartre and a novel by John Fowles, the film chronicles a short period in the life of Prescott (Tom Sweet), a very moody child. The year is 1919, in the midst of the post-Armistice treaty negotiations. The boy’s father (Liam Cunningham) is an American diplomat, his mother (Bérénice Bejo) a “citizen of the world.” They’re both miserable...

The “distant father, cruel mother” stuff isn’t exactly revelatory, but that hardly matters. The real star here isn’t an actor. It’s the house, a grand but aging mansion of the French countryside. It hovers above the actors with the malevolence of a poltergeist, threatening the brutality of mid-century Europe. And while for the most part the family ignores its presence, one moment is telling. Prescott’s father, upon discovering that the maid (Yolande Moreau) has left his son unattended, reacts with horror. “He’s just a boy,” he growls. “You cannot allow a child to roam this household.”

The atmosphere is owed in large part to the work of production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos (Amour), art director Nora Takács (The Lost City of Z) and set decorator Panni Lutter (White God). The location also helps, especially the interiors of Hungary’s Buda Castle. The rooms are dominated by dark colors, typically very deep greens. The light fixtures, often ornate, do not illuminate much. Instead, they hover in the darkness like preoccupied ghosts.

The house’s walls suggest decay and malaise. Prescott’s parents’ bedroom in particular looks ripe for exorcism. Its colors, which would fit perfectly into one of James Wan’s Conjuring films, extend from the ceiling down to the rug and across the pillows. The setting dwarfs the actors.

Prescott’s own room broods with equal weight, further complicated by a peculiar assortment of objects. The boxing gloves are a bizarre proof of oblivious parenting. The jars suggest the capture of insects or small animals, perhaps a hint at Ivan the Terrible. The Ferris wheel and the enormous abacus are harder to explain.

But even these objects do not dominate the house like the curtains do. Nearly every doorway of the ground floor is interrupted by these massive, tapestry-like obstructions. Cinematographer Lol Crawley frequently shoots the actors through these shrouded portals, approaching voyeurism. This framing suggests clandestine behavior, as if the house were inhabited by a criminal conspiracy or an order of witches.

This mood only heightens when Prescott’s father invites a team of diplomats to the house. They gather in secret, strategizing behind the back of President Wilson. This act, which borders on treason, turns the house into an even more blunt metaphor for the impending catastrophe. The men debate restraining Germany’s industrial future while Prescott quietly takes in the enormous maps that now stretch across the walls.

All of this tense travel between rooms hints at the influence of Alexander Sokurov, who applies a similarly labyrinthine style to biopics of Hitler, Lenin and Emperor Hirohito. But while Moloch, The Sun and Taurus all look back at totalitarianism from the end of life, The Childhood of a Leader looks forward. Which means that, unlike Sokurov, Corbet is able to extend his historical fantasy into the realm of speculative graphic design.

The film’s coda, a vision of Prescott’s apex, supplies him with a logo. It takes the form of a wild cat in the midst of a shriek, its mane quite bluntly recalling the long hair of Prescott’s childhood. It’s the most delightful, least subtle design touch of the year.

previously on The Furniture

The Childhood of a Leader is nominated for two Spirit Awards and is available to stream on Netflix.

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Reader Comments (4)

Just got around to watching this last week, and I loved it. Very pleased to see this appreciation of it. As you note the house - and its walls, the chairs, the beds - is such a precise universe. The design is immaculate, and it was shot to great effect. Can't wait to see what Corbet does next. Would never have expected something like this from the other boy in Mysterious Skin.

December 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

Great observations, and this continues to be my favorite thread of articles on this site. Eye opening stuff.

December 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDan

I watched the trailer after the Indie Spirit nominations came out and it immediately went on my to-watch list. This article only makes me anticipate it more. Great write-up!

December 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

another brilliant writeup and i haven't even seen this movie. Brady Corbet sure has had an interesting career though.

December 12, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

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