Cannes 2011: The Tree Of Life
Posted on Tuesday May 17, 2011, 08:10 by Damon Wise in Cannes 2011
OK, so the question remains: how good was it ever going to be? Ironically, with every postponement, Terrence Malick's fifth film simply gained more and more momentum. For any other movie, an 18-month delay would be cinematic equivalent of the perfume of a tainted cheese, but with Malick the delay was somehow further proof of his seniority: his films aren't released, they're bestowed. But try telling the audiences here that. Unusually for Cannes, the Palais was besieged a full 45 minutes before the film even started. There were scrummages, raised voices, and the story goes that even the police were called. All this for a film that would be released to the whole of France the very next day. Yep. By the time you read this, it's probably playing in Paris right now.
I must admit that I knew quite a lot about the film going in, and those that liked it tended not to, so if you don't want to know anything about it, stop reading now. This is a film that benefits from ignorance but it's certainly not a stupid movie. In fact, the biggest problem with it is that it is quite maddeningly cerebral. From the opening quote, a line from the book of Job (an out-of-context Bible reference always makes my heart sink), The Tree Of Life is an earnestly intelligent film that never quite takes you where it seems to be going. It falls roughly into three parts, but they aren't the usual three acts; the first deals with grief as the O'Brien family learn that one of their three sons is dead (possibly in Vietnam; it's the kind of film that expects you to work it out). The second part is, oh, the dawn of time and the beginning of creation. And the third part is young Jack O'Brien (Hunter McCracken) recalling his fractious relationship with his controlling father (Brad Pitt).
The framing device, such as it is (and it is is woven in throughout), is that Jack (Sean Penn), now a well-to-do Manhattan businessman (we don't know what he does), is reflecting on his relationship with the old man during a day at work. Some people said it was the anniversary of the brother's death but, if it was, I obviously don't have those eagle eyes. So old Jack starts thinking about his old self, about his free-spirited proto-hippie mother (Jessica Chastain) and his stern, punishing father. McCracken is great in these scenes, and Pitt is especially good too; it's refreshing to see a big star in an art movie where his motivations are reduced to soundbites about money, power and (thwarted) status.
The first section is by far the weakest. Malick uses voice-over, usually hushed, and a LOT of choral music. Some people will say I don't get this and that this is cinema as poetry; I will direct them to the work of the late Derek Jarman and note that it is hardly original. The second section, charting the birth of the universe and the creation of life delivers the goods. But it is so clearly in the shadow of the astral trip scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey that even its sheer, gorgeous spectacle (overseen by Douglas Trumbull) doesn't overwhelm. And then there's the third section; although it's the best, it's also the longest. There are some fascinating and even brilliant details in here, but Malick's zooming camera doesn't stop for a second. Think of the montage scenes in Boogie Nights and you have some measure of the frenzy to expect from this movie; lots of urgent zooms, tracks and dolly shots that never settle down, leading to scenes that are over-edited to slivers. The effect is meant to be Proustian, and you can take it that way, but it's narratively frustrating. And, again, people will say this is a film about images; in which case I will direct them to Godfrey Reggio's unforgettable 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi, which did much of this before, more calmly but just as beautifully.
If I were reviewing this, I don't know what I'd make of it. The sound was muffled, the French subtitles were awful, so I'd see it again before committing. But, as visually outstanding as it is, I do think this a pretty self-indulgent film, and even by Malick's elliptic standards it borders on self-parody – his Days Of Heaven, the film that set the template, had a very defined story arc that The Tree Of Life simply doesn't have. More than anything, though, I have a fear that Malick has made what he thinks is a very sensitive European art movie, when, if anything, what it reveals most are the overbearing neuroses of a very, very, very American filmmaker.