I took a boat to France to see ‘The Tree of Life’

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Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’ finally has a release date – July 8 – after a complicated legal wrangle threated to keep it from our screens when it opened across world. But David Jenkins was taking no risks. He decided the only way to see the film was to hop on a ferry to France…

How far would you travel to see a film? I’d heard stories of New York critics jumping on planes to cross the Atlantic to catch a one-off screening of Jacques Rivette’s nororious 773-minute ‘Out 1’ at the National Film Theatre in London, but never for something as small fry as a new release. The long and short of this story is that last month I travelled across the Channel with the sole purpose of seeing a film which I feared might never make it to my local cinema.

Some context: way, way back in the late 1970s, America’s foremost philosopher-poet-filmmaker, Terrence Malick, was planning to make a film called ‘Q’. It was to be about life, God, existence, creation, the cosmos, the whole damn thing. But funds were not forthcoming, a situation which perhaps fuelled Malick’s refusal to pick up a camera in the 29 years between 1979’s ‘Days of Heaven’ and 1998’s ‘The Thin Red Line’.

Malick’s new film, ‘The Tree of Life’, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last month. It opened in French cinemas the same week. It opened in the US two weeks ago. It opened in Ukraine last week and in Taiwan this week. Surely it will be coming to British cinemas imminently? Well, that’s the point. Nobody knew. Right up until last Tuesday, it didn’t have a release date and had fallen prey to a complicated, hush-hush legal wrangle. This Malick fan was getting more desperate by the minute.

If you’ve been monitoring film release schedules closely, you’ll know that ‘The Tree of Life’ was first scheduled to come out in the UK on May 4, a week prior to its premiere at Cannes. That itself was strange. Cannes ordinarily doesn’t allow premieres anywhere else before their own. And why would this hugely anticipated American film be getting a release first in the UK? Something was up. Yet as we inched closer to May 4, clock-watching cinephiles began to believe it was going to happen: UK citizens would sample this work ahead of every other mortal on the planet.

Yet not only did the release come and go, but the UK was nudged from the front of the distribution queue to the back. So, what the hell was a film fan to do? Chain a severed pig’s head to the doorstep of the distributor in protest? Surreptitiously resort to morally dubious internet-based means? Hop on a boat and see the film in France?

Organising the trip was simple: it was a textbook bank holiday jaunt, only with a darkened room as its goal. A handy French website dedicated to all films shown in English across France helped identify the locations where it was being shown in the ‘Version Originale’. Alas, the multiplexes of Calais were not yet catering to British film buffs and were only screening a dubbed version. The road trip would have to extend further inland, to Lille. With timings planned to the minute, ferry tickets booked, petrol purchased, Thermos flasks filled and a stack of Google Maps the size of ‘Ulysses’ printed off, I took to the road with my father at the wheel to see Malick’s elusive latest.

To make it there and back in a day involves strict time keeping, a sturdy constitution and not a little dose of insanity. Eurostar may have taken the sting out of the journey, but it would also have made it prohibitively expensive. So having set off at 5.30am, we arrived in Lille for midday where, in radiant heat, we grabbed some croque monsieurs and a couple of white wines. The car park sat next to a downmarket brasserie called Les 400 Coups, which was a good omen. Also, I liked that the cinema we’d picked – Le Majestic – printed a portrait of the late Claude Chabrol on the reverse of their ticket stubs: can you imagine seeing Michael Powell’s face on Odeon popcorn buckets?

While in town, we also took in Woody Allen’s new comedy, ‘Midnight in Paris’, which was an absolute delight, a whimsical Parisian fantasy with Owen Wilson. But Woody, it turned out, was just an amuse-bouche before the meaty Malick main course. With just ten fellow audience members at the Monday 4.15pm screening, we were treated to what I believe the French call ‘un chef d’oeuvre’, a film unlike anything I’d seen before, and (deep breath) probably the best thing I’ve seen in my career as a film journalist.

The Tree of Life’ is the latter-day progeny of the long-forgotten ‘Q’. It’s a tremendous, semi-abstract symphony of breathtaking sound and imagery which daringly juxtaposes the life of a close-knit suburban family in 1950s Texas with the origins of life on Earth. It’s a film made by someone who clearly has no preconceptions about what cinema should be and someone unafraid to question whether the diverse richness of our experience on Earth can be rationalised by religion or philosophy.

My father was not too hot on it. It was ‘too clever-clever’, apparently. But – questionable, over-priced ferry fry-ups aside – this pilgrimage to kneel at the altar of cinema was a copper-bottomed success. The announcement, a week after the trip, that the film has been given a UK release on July 8 seemed inevitable. But this was still a film whose grand philosophical intimations deserved crossing water for. Would I resort to our culturally enlightened French cousins for my cinema needs again? I’m not sure. When’s the next Malick film out?



Read our review of 'The Tree of Life'

Author: David Jenkins



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