I present to you the biggest surprise of the Sydney Film Festival so far. This is an incredible film, and an understandable winner of Best Debut Feature and Best Director awards at the 2015 Venice Film Festival. As an actor, the 28-year-old Brady Corbet has displayed a taste for working with master filmmakers like Michael Haneke, Olivier Assayas and Lars Von Trier, appearing in films such as Mysterious Skin, Funny Games, Force Majeure, Clouds of Sils Maria and Melancholia. He has also written and edited several feature films, so after a decade of what seems to be grooming from some of the world’s élite directors he has been given the opportunity to produce and direct one to rival them. The result is an extraordinary debut achievement – a stylish, ambitious, and audacious period piece which feels like a lost great work from Louis Malle or Stanley Kubrick – which also offers mesmerising, precisely composed visuals and an assaulting orchestral score that immediately demolishes any expectations you may have for the film. Having seen thousands of films it is always exciting when one takes you aback, and offers such a whirlwind of intellectual and sensory impact.
The film’s structure; an overture, three chapters titles as ‘Tantrum #1’ etc, and a coda, is immediately jarring, and Corbet doesn’t necessarily subvert the expectations of escalating mayhem, or the child’s (Tom Sweet) further descent into rebellion. There isn’t so much as a plot, but a very focused study of several incidents in his seventh year, while living in France in 1918. He throws rocks at parishioners, refuses to eat his dinner and parades around the house naked when his father (Liam Cunningham) is conducting a meeting with high-ranking government officials. These involve everyone present in the child’s life, and influential developments such as his father’s involvement with the Treaty of Versailles, and his mother’s (Berenice Bejo) increasingly callous fight for power over the household. What he witnesses shapes his beliefs and builds a terrifying ego.
Cleverly, the young boy’s name is not revealed until the third ‘tantrum’, proving to be an agonising challenge for the audience to guess just who this little shit grows up to be – and whether or not it is a direct historical recount. The time period, the ending of the ‘Great War’ and the events directly preceding the Treaty of Versailles, is clear, but this is a Fascism origin story with roots tied to France, Germany and the U.S.A – a young citizen of the world who finds he has the power to influence his own influential parents and subvert the balance of power in his family.
Audiences will likely be left with a lot of questions – there is so much to unpack and I’m not going to pretend they can all be answered. The narrative is so pared back that you feel like everything you are witnessing is essential. There is so much to absorb from the visual details; and even fleeting blink-and-you-miss-it references that gain meaning the further you step away. I immediately wanted to watch it again – but that’s absolutely nuts because it is the sort of film that you have let settle.
The cinematography by Lol Crawley – using 35mm film – is amazing; a visually appealing work of great timing, grace and spatial precision, often operating of strict vertical or horizontal planes and reminiscent of the work of Zsigmod or Nykvist. Every composition is faultless. Scott Walker’s blaring, discordant orchestral assemblage feels like a hard punch to the face – a punishing assault that could potentially send you running for the exit if it weren’t so unusual and arresting. The house is its own character; with features such as a twisting staircase that seems to lead into another dimension, a level now governed by the child. The performances are strong; Bejo, and Robert Pattinson (in only a few key minutes of screen time) especially.
I was blown away by this film. The confidence in the craft, the ambition and the willingness to take chances, to be surreal and provocative. One of my favourite cinema experiences of the year.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Brady Corbet
Writer(s): Brady Corbet, Mona Fastvold
Starring: Tom Sweet, Berenice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Robert Pattinson, Stacy Martin
Country: UK, Hungary, France
Language: French, English
Runtime: 116 minutes