As my A-Level History teacher never tired of reminding us, history has a habit of repeating itself, and perhaps not just in the judgemental failures that mark significant moments in the timeline of humanity, but also the themes that bring these about.

Set during the immediate aftermath of World War I, and in the map re-drawing exercise that formed the Treaty of Versailles negotiations, this audacious film by the staggeringly young writer and director, 28-year-old Brady Corbet, grasps not just one nettle, but a whole bunch of real stingers to create a haunting piece of work that has a worrying contemporary relevance.

Xenophobia, religious dogma, egotistical power struggles, political ambition and more than a touch of hubris rub together to create an electrifying tour de force in a film of four acts. At the heart of the piece is the precocious son of an American couple, a breathtakingly sure-footed performance played by Tom Sweet. The father (Liam Cunningham), a poor French-speaker who is often frustrated by his limited understanding of the language, appears to have secured a pivotal diplomatic role in the Versailles negotiations, largely thanks to the linguistic dexterity of his European-minded wife (Berenice Bejo), who is accomplished in four languages, and all the more confident for it.

The conceit at the heart of this film is the strong-willed personality of their son who, in three separate incidences, is shown to portray some behaviours that might, the film implies, show the formative traits of a dictator. The emergence of psychological theory by Freud around this time is a significant parallel, but not actually alluded to.

The only attempt at psychological counsel appears after the first incidence, when the young boy is taken by his mother to see the local priest, where he has to explain his decision to pelt worshippers with stones at the local church after he’d given a touching performance as a young angel in the Christmas nativity play. His punishment is to stand alongside the priest after the next Sunday service to apologise individually to each parishioner as they leave the church.

With his father making repeated trips to the city (Paris is rarely mentioned by name), his competent mother manages her domestic domain with assured authority, overseeing a small household team which includes the young boy’s school mistress (Stacy Martin), tasked with improving his French. Young, lithe and sophisticated, she dutifully works with her young charge by reading Aesop’s fables, notably The Lion and the Mouse, a story which has obvious significance later on. A reluctant pupil, he is chastised when his sexual urges, precipitated by the sight of his tutor’s nipple under her silk blouse, lead him to grapple with her breast during one of her lessons. This brief scene of sexual awakening takes place against a backdrop of underlying sexual tension, made manifest by an implied sexual relationship between his father and his tutor, and seen more explicitly when, before one of his trips to the city, he attempts to seduce his wife with the demand that he wants a second child, and more precisely a daughter that is “as beautiful as his mother”.

French lessons aside, the young boy’s wider education takes place in a household with a frequently harassed, and often absent, father, surrounded by women who, through his behaviours, ultimately lose power to control him.

Part of his self-empowerment takes place when he undergoes a personal transformation, deciding after a period of self-imposed exile in his room that he no longer needs his tutor’s services. His mastery of the Aesop fable, not just from his linguistic command, but from understanding its philosophical significance, comes in a piercing epiphany which he explains to his now hapless mother. At this pivotal moment, it becomes his manifest belief in the power of secularism. Who needs religion if you believe ultimately in yourself?

The power of this film is the way in which Brady avoids a linear narrative and instead challenges the audience to piece together a range of clues as to what its prevailing messages are. The Freudian analysis may be a red herring and the final abstract, hallucinatory ending is arguably a copout, but this is not a film that attempts to find answers. It merely throws a range of challenging questions at its audience. The screenplay is littered with subversive incidental comments that have almost an equal power as the set piece disturbances by the young Prescott, while composer Scott Walker’s musical score brings a haunting dimension to many scenes.

For instance, his father shows a vehement dislike for his close male friend’s (Robert Pattinson) use of the German language. One of his colleagues makes reference to the part of Europe being redrawn as having an abundance of different religions: “The trouble is, which one should we give priority to?” Even Muslim artefacts in his friend’s house come under unwelcome scrutiny. But this apparently powerful American, seated at the centre of treaty negotiations, is at war with his son, cheating on his wife and powerless to control his French-speaking domestic staff.

At a time when we’re about to see a new US President – possibly one who has a childlike sense of right and wrong, coupled with a disturbing sense of self-purpose – The Childhood of a Leader is a film of our time and must be seen.

Tom Warman