May 30, 2011

The Tree Of Life

This winner of this year's Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival is a unique moviegoing experience that some people may think is either a transcendent work of art of sublime beauty, or the most beautiful Hallmark postcard ever made. I think the truth lies somewhere in between, edging closer to the first option. It is certainly gorgeous and magnificent, and I recommend that you buy a ticket (do not wait for the DVD), sit down in the dark and let the flood of images and the swelling music wash all over you. Allow yourself to be transported. 3-D is boring compared to this.
Terrence Malick's latest film (he's only made five films since the mid-Seventies) is not a conventional narrative, although it has a story. It has very little dialogue, most of it actually whispered in voice over. We are to understand the story from the editing, the actors' faces and their actions, not from words. Malick and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (Academy Award hopefully guaranteed this time) create a world of intimate sensory images, with the camera recreating the point of view of a child who experiences the every day miracles and painful obstacles of life. Malick seeks to faithfully recreate the texture of memory in film. This is imagery that creates emotion without words, and it is stunning, lyrical, sensual and deeply moving.
The movie shows the past of a family and the childhood memories of Jack (Sean Penn -- I love every wrinkle in his grizzled face) who grew up in a town in Texas in the 50s, with an ethereal mother (the lovely Jessica Chastain), a tough, embittered but loving father (a very good Brad Pitt) and two younger brothers.  But this is not Leave it to Beaver. The Tree of Life is no less than a meditation on grace and nature and God and the origins of life, both human and on Earth. Intertwined with the images of the family are magnificent sequences of images of the universe, life forms being created, extreme close ups of the sun, the meteorite that brought on the Ice Age, deserts, forests, beaches and water in many forms.
Some of it may not make total sense (but it also does not not make sense), and some of it comes perilously close to new age corn. It never does because Malick's images convey complicated feelings and the movie is conceived as a sensory experience in which he gets us as close as possible to the characters' emotions, almost as if he'd like us to seep into their skins. (People always have the most beautiful skin in Malick's movies. Think of Badlands or Days of Heaven.)
Some critic complained that childbirth was a fantasy in pristine white with no blood, sweat or tears. That is, that everything is too beautiful. I did notice that Jessica Chastain, who always looks naturally ravishing, had three children without gaining an ounce, but that is not the point. After all, Malick is the guy who gave us Days of Heaven, the most beautiful movie ever made about the depression. One does not expect gritty realism from him. There were also rumblings that there is no sex in this movie. There is sex. But it is as it comes in life, a bit scary, without warning (and in those days, without explanation) from the point of view of a maturing boy.
Jack (Hunter McCracken), the older brother, suddenly notices female bodies, he steals a camisole from a neighbor and in an elliptical but powerful close up, feels stirrings of lust that then make him feel guilty and confused. There is more truth and depth to sex in this scene than if it had been acted more explicitly. Yet the movie is tremendously sensual and emotionally powerful.
The tone of Tree of Life is prayerful, elegiac, meditative and mystical. It is a movie that explores religiosity, faith and personal belief. The father prays in church and is strict and authoritarian (clearly Jack's feelings of guilt and fear come from that side of things), but the mother is more of a pantheist. It is her system of belief (here comes a bit of the new agey Hallmark card), that you have to love every being and every leaf and that the only way to live is to love -- which is equated with grace and transcendence. I think that Malick may be expressing his conviction that a belief both in God and in evolution are not mutually exclusive, and are actually complementary.  Even if you are a committed anti-spiritualist like me, you can marvel, as I did, that Malick celebrates belief, and chooses to share it with us with great generosity of spirit. The Tree of Life feels expansive and bountiful. It is a deeply compassionate film.
The movie has a rhythm that ebbs and flows like waves. There is an enormous amount of visual richness in every frame. The camera, most of it loose and dynamic, sometimes gets a bit vertiginous, but it also stays the right amount of time very close to the human face: tearful, joyful, loving, fearful, angry. The three boys are natural and lovely presences.  There are wonderful scenes of a toddler jealous at the arrival of a baby brother, of two children crying together at the thought of leaving their house behind, or playing dangerous games, of a family in the thrall of an unhappy man and their joyful release when he is out of the house for a few days. Time seems to float in these memories as if suspended, does not seem to pass by. Days are a jumble of moments and sensations that break the spell of innocence. Life happens. Illness and death happen too. This is a deeply personal film on a very ambitious scale, intimate and grand at the same time. It is a remarkable achievement. It makes me very happy that this is an American film. It shows that not everything has to come from the same sausage factory with the same tired, insidious marketing. American stories can still be told with artistry and integrity, even if they don't make gazillions at the box office. And Terrence Malick is still around and making amazing American films.

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