CANNES, FRANCE — Much improved since I last posted, the Cannes Film Festival celebrated its midpoint in train-wreck fashion, its wagon to hitched to The Tree of Life.
The first screening of Terrence Malick's long-awaited new movie, three years in the editing, ended with a moment of near total silence, followed by a short fuselage of irate boos and an answering burst of applause — thin, but impassioned. Were the international critics gathered early Monday morning to bear witness to The Tree stunned or stupefied? (To judge from the instant raves found in the trades, the answer is both.)
Malick goes one on one with God, not to mention Stanley Kubrick, and on both counts comes up short — very short. Tree of Life, which opens with God addressing Job from out the whirlwind (“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”), is nothing if not overweening in its spiritual ambition. It's essentially a religious work and, as such, may please the director's devotees, cultists, and apologists. I doubt however that it will make many new converts.
Less a narrative than a symphonic praise-song, The Tree of Life has middle-aged Jack O'Brien (silent, anguished-looking Sean Penn), revisiting in memory his intermittently idyllic childhood, played out in a bucolic suburb of Waco, Texas; it's a past dominated largely by the high-handed antics of his autocratic father (producer Brad Pitt) and the capers cut by his elf-princess mother (Jessica Chastain). There are also two younger brothers, one of whom dies in his late teens. Jack meditates on this, as well as the nature of creation, intermittently visualized in a flood of IMAX Discovery Channel images that range beyond the moon and under the sea, across the desert sands and even to a world populated by CGI dinosaurs.
More than any other Hollywood filmmaker, Malick has a capacity for the sort of off-center compositions, small camera moves and sudden blurs or shifts in light one might associate with Stan Brakhage. Unlike Brakhage, Malick is not a man to keep his sense of perspective or his big ideas to himself. The word “cosmic” is insufficient to characterize his notion of the O'Brien family or describe the movie's audiovisual bombast. (Malick accompanies his images with Mahler, Bach, and — after Mom points to the sky and says, “that's where God lives” — a bit of Hatikvah.) There are many whispered pensées and, in the movie's oddest sequence, a brief trip downtown where young Jack and his brothers get to see the real world of drunks, poor people, and miscellaneous geeks.
The Tree of Life has plenty of incident but, despite Pitt's memorably bullying performance, very little human interest. (The best bit has a bunch of boys launching a frog in a bottle rocket.) Malick's craftsmanship may be everywhere evident but, however flashy and intermittently beautiful, his filmmaking can be shockingly banal. Inspired scenes (a toddler relating to a baby) or shots (a mega close-up of a can kicked out of the frame) arrive as morsels floating in the movie's primeval soup.
Whereas Malick's The Thin Red Line maintained a dialectic tension between James Jones's novel and Malick's adaptation, as well as battlefield combat and Emersonian transcendentalism, the tension here seems to exist in Malick's head. The Tree of Life is less profound than profoundly eccentric, while too solemn, pompous, and genteel to be truly crazy. The movie disengages the mind, even as it dulls the senses.