Terrence Malick’s eagerly awaited "The Tree of Life" was held in rapt attention when it screened in Cannes this morning. But when the credits rolled it was greeted with boos and and applause, as is sometimes the case with more challenging films here.
There is little doubt that the film is a disappointment to those who were expecting something maybe a little less “thin.” You probably aren't going to hear the word "masterpiece" thrown around much. All are in agreement about how beautiful it is to look at and how well the film was made. It’s worth seeing for the cinematography alone.
Having gotten the bad news out of the way early, let me say that I am not nearly willing to dismiss "Tree of Life" because it was hard to digest in one go. I look forward to ruminating on it over the next ten years.
Set in the 1950s, the film tells the distincitively non-narrative story of a family led by a stern father, Brad Pitt, and a beatific mother, Jessica Chastain raising three boys. But they lose a son. The film spends much time as the family grows into a loving unit, the boys bonded closely, the mother devoted in every way, the father insisting on being called "Sir."
The film is intercut with scenes of lovingly shot nature – trees, desert, ocean, waterfall. Malick ignores usual cinematic boundaries: there is a scene with dinosaurs. And many others of astoundingly beautiful cosmic images, that will have to be explained in greater detail later.
Little time is spent on the loss of the child itself. Instead, behind the operatic score, a woman's voice whispers existential questions of the universe in the wake of their tragedy: Why? How did I lose you? We cry to you.
It seems to me Malick was getting to something about his own evolution as a man, mortality, religion, the afterlife – what is it to be born? What is it to die? The film offers up no answers to these questions.
Sean Penn plays one of the sons as a grown man, also struggling to cope with the loss of his brother.
Watching the film is at times like being in a religious service, walking through an art gallery, meditating, listening to a poetry reading or dreaming. To that end, it is like a psychic caress. It’s one of the most soothing works you’ll see here. It soothes the soul, even if it doesn’t exactly engage the brain.
The reaction has so far been mixed with bloggers and critics. Some want to think about it more before coming to a conclusion – others feel it was repetitive and said everything it needed to say in its first breathtaking hour.
Sharon Waxman adds:
Meanwhile, the elusive Malick disappointed hundreds of journalists when he failed to show up to the press conference following the packed screening early morning in Cannes.
"Mr. Malick is very shy," said his producer Sarah Green at the news conference. "I believe his work speaks for him."
Moderator Henri Behar was not satisfied. "That's not good enough," he protested, and then asked the cast, including Brad Pitt: "Does he laugh, does he talk, is he stern, is he jovial? Does he like food?"
Pitt responded, "Yes, he even goes to the bathroom." But that's all the group learned about the director's personal habits.
(Sean Penn wasn't there either, but producer Bill Pohlad promised he would be there "momentarily," on his way in from his humanitarian work in Haiti.)
Chastain and Pitt both explained that Malick worked in a loose, unstructured way. He rented an entire street, roped it off, dressed it for the 1950s and then had the cast just live there as a family for weeks.
He would then spontaneously choose the moments that ended up in the film.
"He's like a guy with a big butterfly net, he sees what he catches," said Chastain. "It's like capturing an accident."
Said Pitt: "I don't know that I could do all my films that way, but – you see what you get."