Cannes 2011: The Tree of Life
Mon May 16 2011
It started before the end credits rolled and the final smeary, multicolored shaft of light morphed in front of our eyes: a symphony of loud boos, emanating from somewhere along the right side of the Thtre Lumire's orchestra section. A round of shushing followed, then more boos, then sporadic applause. As you shuffled out of the theater, slowly and with Malick aforethought, what followed was the sound of thousands of fingers tapping away on mobile phone keyboards. The Tree of Life had just screened for its first public audience. Commence your hosannas and/or start sharpening your knives.
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Boos at Cannes screenings are a well-reported tradition, so hearing a chorus of disapproval at a high-profile showing isn't the end of the world. But given that we'd just watched a film that plays out with the solemnity of a Christian high mass—and that actually opens with a biblical quote—it was a little like hearing someone offensively hoot in a cathedral. This is a work of art whose leaps of faith and fantastic flights of fancy invite equal parts are-you-serious? derision and deep-thought contemplation, as Terrence Malick asks his audience the biggest questions of them all: What is life? How do we become who we are? How did we get here? What does it all mean? An even larger query looms at the center of The Tree of Life, however: What are you willing to put up with to attain a few moments of genuine Terrence-scendentalist bliss?
(Here there be spoilers, so consider yourself warned.) This decades-in-the-making epic will certainly push your tolerance levels for pretension to their limits, as a prologue involving small-town parents caught up in grief suddenly switches to nothing less than the beginning of the universe. Gaseous matter erupts, vague light shapes flicker across the screen, clouds of stardust billow and reconfigure before your eyes; one Big Bang later, we've got our Big Blue Marble. Take that, Discovery Channel! It's a visual feast of cosmic slop, undeniably awe-inspiring and arguably unnecessary—though the Jurassic lark that follows, with CGI dinosaurs (yes, we can now confirm there are dinosaurs in the mix) traipsing through primitive scenes of nature, makes the big-budget head-trip scenes seem downright relevant.
Once the action switches back to small-town USA circa the mid--20th century, The Tree of Life truly begins, and this is where things get complicated. Malick's films have been raked over the coals for their tangential nature and nature–ber alles tangents—a field of wheat blowing in the breeze will always get preferential treatment—as well as narration that reminds you Malick once taught philosophy at MIT. ("You can choose the way or nature...or the way of grace....") But those same things that have earned him a vociferous fan club, and these scenes make you see why. Unfolding as a stream-of-conscious story involving a young boy (Hunter McCracken), his loving mother (Jessica Chastain), his brothers and a father (Brad Pitt) that's the embodiment of strict, stoic masculinity, these domestic sequences evoke a time period, a place and the sensation of being young so vividly and sensually that they make you feel as if you were there. Note the past tense: Malick filmed these bits in Waco, Texas, which several sources list as the region he spent his formative years, and the scenes of kids watching drunk-tank denizens acting out and dinner-table blowups feel as if they've been plucked directly from his memory banks. He has the uncanny ability to make these microspecific incidents of joy, pain, wonder and rage feel like your memories, too.
Rooting around in Malick's bakery of Proustian madelines, it's impossible not to be moved. Almost as impossible, in fact, as not feeling like the coda, in which poor Sean Penn caps off a meditatively frowny (Pennsive?) turn by strolling around a beach with his loved ones, is merely one gigantic ad for Calvin Klein's Afterlife Aftershave (TM). You can't have one without the other here, which makes The Tree of Life the single most conflicting two-plus hours I've spent at Cannes. There are moments in this magnum opus that made me well up with emotion, followed by choral-music-scored vignettes of such maximum perfume-commercial ridiculousness that I could feel my cheeks burning with embarrassment for the director; then rinse, repeat. My first impression is almost as schizophrenic as the movie itself. I have no idea what I'll think of it tomorrow, next week, ten years from now, but it demands a repeat viewing. One that won't be followed by booing.