THE TREE OF LIFE *1/2
Terrence Malick’s Palme D’Or winner at Cannes 2011 is absurdly, spectacularly self-indulgent. Ostensibly a coming of age story with pretensions to great meaning, the story – such as there is one – concerns a man (Sean Penn) remembering a series of events from his childhood, and in particular his relationship with his father and mother (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain). Obviously autobiographical, Malick has gone to extraordinary lengths to re-create his own childhood, and the production design is truly astounding: a fifties-era town in the American South seems to have been created entirely, and every car, hat, house, article of clothing and haircut feels truly authentic – it’s as though the film was actually made someplace that has never grown up. The problem is that the memories Malick has decided to commit to film may have huge importance to him, but they are slight and trivial for the viewer. They don’t add up to a story: we may see young Jack (the charismatic Hunter McCracken) observe his mother wash her feet with the garden hose, but to what end? The film, which is extremely long at two hours and nineteen minutes and feels far longer, is full of these moments: tiny slices of life that not only don’t add to any sense of story or meaning, they are boring and frustrating (indeed, we later see Chastain wash her feet again, this time with a sprinkler: I have no idea why this trope was repeated, unless it was simply Malick liking the visual image itself). A couple of incidents in Jack’s life pose questions that approach the dramatic – in one scene he deliberately hurts his beloved younger brother, which gives him a sense of anguish and does create in us a memory of the development of goodness in childhood – but mostly it’s images, images, images, without dramatic thrust. The father character is obviously the impule for the movie’s existence, and Pitt plays him well, but he’s simply not that fascinating, as a movie character should be: he’s a little bit stern, a little bit hot-tempered, and he espouses views – about money, success, and what a man should be – that are very consistent with the circumstances of his time and place. But mostly he is loving, which is not a great vehicle for conflict (and thus drama), and Chastain’s mother character may as well be a Saint – she is simply, and simplistically, perfect.
It would be nice to be able to comment on Chastain’s and Penn’s performances, but unfortunately they can’t really be said to be acting; for a start, neither is given the opportunity to speak. Malick’s huge stylistic gamble in the film (and one in which I think he makes a fatal error) is to have barely any dialogue in the film: it is mainly composed of visuals, accompanied by strange, obtuse snippets of voice-over, many of which are whispered incoherently (“I search for you” is one I was able to hear clearly, and it left me scratching my metaphorical head: the object of the search is somewhat clear, but where the searching is occurring is as obtuse as much of the movie). Pitt is allowed to speak the occasional line, but Chastain is muted (I think she says one direct line) and Penn never speaks on camera at all. Penn’s inclusion in the film is kind of embarrassing: staring mournfully out windows and staring mournfully into space, he finally gets to stare mournfully while walking through various natural spaces in a beautiful suit. His character is not constructed well and, unfortunately, Penn the actor comes off looking bad: he’s too mournful, too hang-dog, and unsupported by logic: why is he so sad, on this particular day – or is he meant to always be this glum and disconnected?
It could be that the day is meant to be the anniversary of one of his brothers’ deaths, but if so, that goes by unsaid. Yes, a brother dies, right at the beginning of the film: it is the closest event the film has to a dramatic event, and you would suspect it is the inciting incident: but it doesn’t incite anything. Instead, it leads us into a twenty minute depiction of the creation of the universe, Earth, and life on Earth, that is, in my mind, by far the most exciting (possibly only exciting) part of the film. It also reeks heavily of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film with similar ambitions that actually succeeds at every turn. The comparison that is inevitable for anyone who has seen that masterwork does this film no favours.
The depiction of the scientifically accepted process of the creation of life on Earth jars strangely with the quote from Job that opens the film, from the strongly religious nature of Jack’s family and township, and from the oddly “religious-sounding” nature of the voice-over snippets. What Malick is trying to say here is unfathomable, at least to me. It could be that he’s saying “I grew up in a religious family, but my brother died, and now I believe in evolution, not the myth of creation”. It could be “many tenants of religion are incorrect, but the cool thing about religion is the tenants of love and family it celebrates”. It could even be “Can you believe my parents believed this stuff when it’s so obvious the universe was created by a Big Bang and life evolved on earth in a natural, understandable, scientifically definable way”? But Malick remains too stubbornly obtuse for any one of these – or any other – meaning to reveal itself.
With the major exception of the tragic death of one of his brothers, Malick’s childhood seems to have basically been idyllic. Perhaps his father was a little stern, but, really, not of the level of The Great Santini or Nil By Mouth or The War Room or This Boy’s Life (stepfather in that one), and it doesn’t add up to the stuff of drama. It feels like Malick made the film for himself, rather than for an audience. I saw the film not at a critic’s screening but with a general, paying audience. There were titters, chuckles and collective guffaws at some of the film’s more blatantly pretentious moments (many, again unfortunately, involving Sean Penn). As I was leaving the theatre, I passed a pair of middle-aged female patrons, just as one said loudly to the other, “I’m so glad that’s over.” I turned to her, and agreed.
SPECIAL TREATMENT **
An odd film. Isabelle Huppert plays a discreet, high-end, “sole trader” prostitute who operates out of an apartment next to her own. When a client presents potential violence, she is shaken enough to want to pursue psychoanalytic therapy. Meanwhile, a psychoanalyst (Bouli Lanners) is left by his wife, and decides he wants to pursue the services of a discreet, high-end prostitute. What could have been a Woody Allen comedy (“Hilarity ensues when a prostitute seeking a therapist meets a therapist seeking a prostitute”) is played here, by co-writer / director Jeanne Labrune, as straight drama, with nary a joke in sight. Indeed, it’s a very Woody Allen-ish world, set in tasteful, expensive apartments, where almost every character that isn’t a tasteful, expensive, literate prostitute is a tasteful, wealthy, literate psychoanalyst. The tag line for the advertising campaign is bold: “A film that dares to tell the truth about women.” I, unfortunately, missed whatever truth that was: Huppert’s character is extremely specific, with a very particular and exotic profession and very specific problems that go along with it, and I couldn’t cull a wider truth about women from her story at all. Huppert is, as always, terrific and real (I think she’s one of the greatest film actors alive), and so are the rest of the cast, but the script seems oddly pointless: I really don’t know what point it is trying to make, and the drama itself just isn’t particularly intriguing, let alone suspenseful or moving. One for Huppert’s admirers (and she has many) but very limited in its attraction for anyone else.