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“You looked with disgust and terror at your squealing baby and whispered: “Can’t you die soon? Can’t you die?” The boy screamed day and night. And you hated him.”
This speech, taken from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, gives us a painful insight into the terrors of motherhood. In it, the main character Elisabet is forced to admit that she feels no love for her child and is frightened about the impact this animosity could have. As the saying goes, “little pitchers have big ears” and it is a parent’s nightmare to think that their actions, decisions, and habits could potentially have a negative influence on their child. Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Childhood of a Leader by Brady Corbet take this fear to an extreme, raising the question that when it comes to serial killers or dictators, who should we blame? The child, the parent or both? The two films focus on the maternal role and ask the viewer to consider whether mother knows best.
We Need to Talk About Kevin narrates the struggles of Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), a mother whose son perpetrated a school massacre in 1999. The film alternates between the future and the past, as Eva punishes herself by trying to remember the events that lead up to the creation of her monster, Kevin is portrayed in different stages of his life by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller. Based loosely on the short novel of the same name by Jean-Paul Sartre, The Childhood of a Leader focuses on a year in the life of a boy (Tom Sweet) growing up in 1919, during the political turmoil of the Treaty of Versailles.
Kevin Khatchadourian has almost taken a separate identity beyond his role as a fictional character. Starting out as a literary creation in the best-selling book by Lionel Shriver, Kevin was written in such a chilling and vivid manner that his persona quickly became an archetype associated with infamous real-life killers. In fact, after the release of both the book in 2002 and the film in 2011, the name “Kevin” plummeted in popularity for new-borns, reflecting the uneasiness even a name can instill. In contrast, Brady Corbet decided not to give his film’s antagonist a specific identity. Part of what makes The Childhood of a Leader so unnerving is that the audience knows that the main character will grow up to become a dictator, but it does not know which one. And when the child’s name (Prescott) is finally revealed at the climax of the film, we discover that the protagonist is neither Hitler, nor Mussolini nor Franco, but a metaphor for all three.
We are introduced to Kevin as a devilishly difficult infant, the product of a highly painful birth and a source of constant strife for Eva. Lynne Ramsay brilliantly manages to draw a fine line between the moments of frustration and exhaustion every parent feels and the warning signs indicating that the child’s behaviour goes beyond expected patterns. For example, there’s a sequence in which Eva is taking baby Kevin out for a walk in the pram. His screams are so loud that even the deafening noise of construction work can’t drown them out. When she gets back home and finally manages to get him to sleep, her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) arrives and lifts his son up and cradles him without Kevin making so much as a peep. Even as a baby, Kevin is already picking sides and playing his parents off against one another.
The Childhood of a Leader’s Prescott is first shown on screen as an angel. Dressed up for the local Nativity play, ten-year-old Prescott’s bashful eyes and long locks belie a mischievous demeanour as he proceeds to throw small stones at a group of children and their parents. This misdemeanour foreshadows the violent act that marks the end of the childhood scenes in the film, where he smashes rocks on his mother’s head after she reprimands him at a dinner party.
In both narratives, the impact of travel is a crucial factor in the upbringing of the two children. Eva is a famous travel writer who, before having Kevin, enjoyed the freedom of visiting remote places. Prescott’s mother (Bérénice Bejo) is a diplomat’s wife who facilitates her family’s move to France by virtue of speaking the language. Kevin’s sharp and cruel wit quickly gauges that travel makes his mother happy and when she decides to decorate a room full of maps to “make it special”, Kevin retaliates by loading a water gun full of ink and spraying it all over the room. In a similar manner, after moving from America to France, Prescott uses his mother as a target for punishment, especially as his father (Liam Cunningham) is often away on government business. As a result, Prescott’s mother is so hesitant to interact with him that, despite being fluent in French herself, she hires a private tutor to teach him the language.
Not only are the two films based on works of fiction, but books and stories also feature heavily as a trigger in the minds of the two protagonists. As a toddler, Kevin is enthralled by the tales of Robin Hood. However, rather than extracting the message of stealing from the rich to give to the poor he is encouraged to start shooting arrows: his future weapon of choice. In The Childhood of a Leader, Prescott’s tutor Ada (Stacy Martin) asks him to learn the fable of The Lion and the Mouse, which bears the motto “A kindness is never wasted”. Prescott struggles with the pronunciation and is more interested in the beauty of his new tutor, mimicking the lascivious behaviour he sees in his father. By the end of the film, the audience is left with the feeling that Prescott has twisted the message of the fable to justify utilizing the weak to do his bidding.
Moreover, following a dramatic conflict with his mother, Prescott locks himself up in his room for days, behaving so badly that his mother ends up firing all domestic staff who have contact with him. When Prescott finally lets his mother into his private sanctuary, he astonishes her by giving a near-perfect recitation of the fable in Old French. There is a strikingly similar scene between mother and son in We Need to Talk About Kevin when Eva tries to teach six-year-old Kevin how to count. Initially, he baits her into thinking he is giving out the wrong answer: “What comes before nine? “Fifty-three” but then proceeds to drone a perfect sequence of numbers from 1 to beyond 53 after sensing her exasperation.
We Need to Talk About Kevin builds a fascinating portrait not only of the child but of the mother as well. Eva Khatchadourian is just as complicated as her son, but the book and film versions of her highlight her complexity in different ways. In the novel, Lionel Shriver digs deeper into Eva’s past, placing the spotlight on her career as a travel writer and how Kevin takes over that space. She also gives Eva a meaner streak, as she sprinkles homophobic and racist comments into her conversations. When Eva visits Kevin in prison in the book, she often plays along with his sarcastic remarks, even mocking the victims of his atrocious attack: “Soweto’s basketball career is no longer a slam-dunk”, evoking an uncomfortable sense of complicity between mother and son.
Lynne Ramsey offers a more sympathetic approach to Eva, by centering on her life in the aftermath of Kevin’s arrest. Eva in the film is harsh and snappy but this is usually as a consequence of her son’s reactions, as opposed to her own nasty character rising to the surface. Ramsey cuts out many scenes from the book showing Eva’s past before Kevin, and when she does show glimpses, they’re intimate moments between her and her husband. The only time we see Eva without her family is right at the beginning, where she is taking part in “La Tomatina”, the famous festival held in Buñol, Spain, where participants throw tomatoes at one another until they are drenched through. Even then, the viewer is filled with a sense of dread, as we intuit that the red juice spilling from the fruit will become bloodshed in Eva’s life. When we see Eva post the school killing, she’s a hollow fragment of her former self and Swinton’s portrayal is haunting and gaunt but strikingly forceful at the same time. I was one of those people who saw the film before reading the book and was shocked at how callous and dispassionate Shriver’s Eva was in comparison to Ramsey’s.
Indifference and aloofness links We Need to Talk About Kevin’s Eva with the mother in The Childhood of a Leader. Unlike the protagonist of the film, the mother is not given a name, and this reflects the fact that the movie does not concentrate on drawing a psychological portrait of her but relies on atmosphere and music to create a picture of the family landscape surrounding Prescott. Whereas in We Need to Talk About Kevin, red, white, yellow and blue shades bathe each scene (the colours of an archery target), The Childhood of a Leader distils the colour palette down to the sombre tones of grey and black. Prescott’s mother is seen draped in thick black clothing, contrasting directly with the light, white dresses Prescott’s tutor Ada wears. Prescott himself alternates between white and black clothing, visually signalling his two-sidedness.
Understanding the music of both films helps enhance the overall experience. The soundtrack to We Need to Talk About Kevin is largely made up of American and British pop and traditional songs. Unsurprisingly, many touch upon the theme of love (Buddy Holly’s “Everyday”) or childhood (Lonnie Donegan’s “Nobody’s Child”). During a Christmas scene where Eva is decorating the house with her children “Once in Royal David’s City” plays on the radio, a carol that is renowned for its opening solo, sung by a boy chorister of King’s College Cambridge. The pure, crystal-clear voice tenderly singing about motherhood is juxtaposed with what we witness on screen as Eva sharply reprimands Kevin for tying his sister up with tinsel to the point of suffocation.
The Childhood of a Leader does not use pre-existing tunes to accompany the film but turns instead to the talents of Scott Walker, whose score makes the audience jump right out of their seats every time the music erupts. Where We Need to Talk About Kevin uses songs that are ironically calm and upbeat, Walker composes a soundtrack that is boisterous and resounding. Brady Corbet asked for Walker’s score to be “5% louder” than the cinematic standard, fully aware that the instruments would eclipse the conversations of the characters. The movie is divided into different chapters, or “tantrums” and for each section the music thunders and roars, overall creating a thrillingly ominous effect.
The tensions between mother and son in both We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Childhood of a Leader can be compared to performance artist Marina Abramović ‘s “Rest Energy” (1980). In this radical art piece, Abramović and her partner Ulay positioned themselves so that they were separated only by a bow and arrow. Abramović held the bow and Ulay flexed a single arrow so that, if let go, would pierce Abramović ‘s heart. Microphones were hooked up to Abramović and Ulay’s heartbeat, the pounding rhythm increasing as the performance came to a close. The video recording of the events lasts just 4 minutes, but it feels much longer, as the viewer constantly questions the on-screen trust between the two artists. Watching We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Childhood of a Leader is just as powerful as viewing Abramović ‘s artwork. They are two films that are brutal to witness, but necessary to comprehend, striking at the very core of mother-son relationships and delving deep into the betrayal of trust between the two.