By Michael Allard
Once upon a time, being booed at the Cannes Film Festival was a badge of honour. It meant that you were a visionary, your work was radical and the establishment couldn’t handle what it had to say. Those who turned their noses up and their thumbs down were misguided, or hiding their inability to understand art.
In the 00s, Cannes was as impolite as ever, except this time the booers were usually spot-on, and especially when they were angered by Hollywood nonsense; whilst history has been kind to the often reviled Antonioni and David Lynch, it doesn’t seem likely that Southland Tales or Marie Antoinette will be rediscovered as forgotten classics any time soon.
Having been jeered at before it was given the 2011 Palme d’Or, The Tree of Life (2011) begins to redress the balance between booing and brilliance. Brad Pitt might be its biggest selling point, but that probably wasn’t what bothered its Cannes detractors. It is the most bewildering film ever made by Terrence Malick, a wonderfully creative and famously unproductive writer/director forever ahead of his contemporaries and his critics. Set in his childhood neighbourhood, as well as prehistoric earth and outer space, it is also Malick’s most personal film. Despite this, unlike his genre-bending The Thin Red Line and The New World, it shed much light on a particular subject. Rather than outraged, its Cannes detractors might have just been a little bored, though if so they were being a little unfair.
His Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) are two of the most engaging stories of 1970s cinema. Now, Malick is interested in creating unique, steady aesthetic experiences, and The Tree of Life, viewed in the right frame of mind, is immensely absorbing. At its core is the 1950s boyhood of Jack O’Brien, played by a talented child actor called Hunter McCracken. From the different personality traits McCracken’s features might suggest to a stranger, Malick attentively creates a very believable psychology and family dynamic. Jack is the son of a strict father (Brad Pitt) and more carefree, affectionate mother (Jessica Chastain). He loves playing with his brothers, though as the eldest sibling, he is subject to feelings of superiority and envy. He reaches an age where he is pulled into emotionally contradictory states, and in a quasi-Oedipal scenario, begins to despise his father.
Most of the action takes place in Waco, Texas. We rarely leave Jack’s childhood street, but The Tree of Life is anything but claustrophobic, as the floating camera occupies hundreds of different angles in the space of the O’Brien front yard alone. The family lives in a paradise of play that requires no TV or radio to offer endless imaginative engagement for the boys, making the accidents and arguments that befall the family all the more upsetting.
This central narrative is fantastic, and will reward your patience. There are, however, many other elements that inform it. Before Jack is born, there is an already infamous sequence of what appears to be life before humankind, beginning with images of cosmic light and ending roughly around the time a huge asteroid hits the earth. On its own terms, this is enthralling, and the juxtaposition between the birth of the universe and the birth of a child makes a kind of sense.
The Tree of Life’s epigraph, dialogue and many narrators offer ways in which the film can be read symbolically, and far too restrictively. My personal line of choice could only be the moment when Pitt explains the meaning of the word “subjectivity” to his boys whilst leaving a restaurant, because the narrative only makes much sense as a unique subjective experience.
It seems to exist because of Sean Penn, who appears in a contemporary setting at the start of the film and is reconciled with his childhood self and family at the end. The heavily-edited opening jumps between Waco, the cosmos and the adult Jack’s workplace, and its central event sees the O’Brien parents discovering that one of their sons has died in combat. The film thus searches for something beyond this brutal example of death. Those interested in the transcendental might be interested; thanks to the churchgoing upbringing of Jack, however, it is at times an inevitably Christian exploration.
Underneath this, though by no means completely separate from it, there is a far more fascinating psychological journey. Yet the film’s producers and actors insist that the film is about Life, the Universe and Everything. Technically outstanding, and rightly acclaimed for its ambition in comparison to the average movie, The Tree of Life nevertheless shares the same problem as most films that try to be serious. It is unprovocative, vaguely uplifting and, excepting its portrait of childhood, not especially insightful.