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The Tree of Life: in the beginning, there was a mystery

 

The Tree of Life: in the beginning, there was a mystery
Brad Pitt © CR

Thirty two years after receiving the award for Best Director for Days of Heaven (1979), Terrence Malick returns In Competiton at Cannes with his fifth film, The Tree of Life, an enigmatic feature film with an ambitious synopsis.
Originally planned for the 2010 Selection, The Tree of Life directed by Terrence Malick will, in the end, be screened this year In Competition. Once again, the director offers a stellar casting with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, who he already directed in The Thin Red Line. Audiences will also get to know the actress, Jessica Chastain, in her first major film role. Malick entrusted Français Alexandre Desplat, member of the Jury at Cannes last year, with the task of composing the film’s music.
Very little is known about this feature film besides the few images that appear in its trailer and its synopsis. The American director depicts the memories of Jack, a boy raised in the 1950s by an authoritarian father and a loving mother. Following the birth of his two brothers, Jack must learn to share the unconditional love he receives and face up to the exaggerated individualism of his father who is obsessed with the success of his offspring. Then one day a tragic incident tips this already precarious balance…
Alongside this storyline, Terence Malick offers a view of humanity since its creation. The Tree of Life is an ambitious project which is as mysterious as Malick himself, a man known for his reserved nature. His infrequent cinematographic works – only 5 films in 36 years – and the 20-year gap between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line have served to heighten anticipation of The Tree of Life. The recent release of a collection of fragments of the film on its official website has in no way diminished this excitement: a mosaic made up of 70 stills in which a dinosaur, a lava flow, a waterfall and diverse family scenes are all juxtaposed… A multiple photo frame that tells an enigmatic story. The Festival de Cannes will today unlock the secret of this feature film by screening it the day before it premieres in cinemas across France.

Brad Pitt gives one of his finest performances in Terrence Malick’s drama about the beginnings of life on Earth and the travails of a 1950s Texas family, writes Todd McCarthy.

CANNES — Brandishing an ambition it’s likely no film, including this one, could entirely fulfill, The Tree of Life is nonetheless a singular work, an impressionistic metaphysical inquiry into mankind’s place in the grand scheme of things that releases waves of insights amidst its narrative imprecisions. This fifth feature in Terrence Malick’s eccentric four-decade career is a beauteous creation that ponders the imponderables, asks the questions that religious and thoughtful people have posed for millennia and provokes expansive philosophical musings along with intense personal introspection. As such, it is hardly a movie for the masses and will polarize even buffs, some of whom may fail to grasp the connection between the depiction of the beginnings of life on Earth and the travails of a 1950s Texas family. But there are great, heady things here, both obvious and evanescent, more than enough to qualify this as an exceptional and major film. Critical passions, pro and con, along with Brad Pitt in one of his finest performances, will stir specialized audiences to attention, but Fox Searchlight will have its work cut out for it in luring a wider public.

Shot three years ago and molded and tinkered with ever since by Malick and no fewer than five editors, The Tree of Life is shaped in an unconventional way, not as a narrative with normal character arcs and dramatic tension but more like a symphony with several movements each expressive of its own natural phenomena and moods. Arguably, music plays a much more important role here than do words — there is some voice-over but scarcely any dialogue at all for nearly an hour, whereas the soaring, sometimes grandiose soundtrack, comprised of 35 mostly classical excerpts drawn from Bach, Brahms, Berlioz, Mahler, Holst, Respighi, Gorecki and others in addition to the contributions of Alexandre Desplat, dominates in the way it often did in Stanley Kubrick’s work.

Indeed, this comparison is inevitable, as Tree is destined to be endlessly likened to 2001: A Space Odyssey, due to the spacy imagery of undefinable celestial lights and formations as well as because of its presentation of key hypothetical moments in the evolution of life on this planet. There are also equivalent long stretches of silence and semi-boredom designed, perhaps, to provide some time to muse about matters rarely raised in conventional narrative films.

That Malick intends to think large is indicated by an opening quotation from the Book of Job, in which God intimidates the humble man by demanding, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” Job is not cited again but is more or less paraphrased when, in moments of great personal distress, a smalltown mother cries out, “Lord, why? Where are you?” and “What are we to you?”

Tree doesn’t answer these questions but fashions a relationship between its big picture perspective and its intimate story that crucially serves the film’s philosophical purposes. Much of the early-going is devoted to spectacular footage of massive natural phenomena, both in space and on Earth; gaseous masses, light and matter in motion, volcanic explosions, fire and water, the creation and growth of cells and organisms, eventually the evolution of jellyfish and even dinosaurs, represented briefly by stunningly realistic creatures, one of which oddly appears to express compassion for another.

Juxtaposed with this are the lamentations of a mother (Jessica Chastain) for a son who has just died, in unexplained circumstances, and for a time it seems that placing the everyday doings of the O’Brien family of a quiet Texas town in the shadow of the seismic convulsions pertaining to the planet’s creation represents an inordinately elaborate way of expressing what Bogart said in Casablanca, that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

But while that may be true, it is also the case that those very problems, and everything else that people experience, are all that matter at the time one is experiencing them and are therefore of surpassing importance. Whatever else can — and will — be said about it, Tree gets the balance of its extraordinary dual perspective, between the cosmic and the momentary, remarkably right, which holds it together even during its occasional uncertain stretches.

Least effective is the contemporary framing material centered on the oldest O’Brien kid, Jack, portrayed as a middle-aged man by Sean Penn. A successful architect, Jack looks troubled and preoccupied as he moves through a world defined by giant Houston office towers and atriums shot so as to resemble secular cathedrals. While the connection to Jack’s childhood years is clear, the dramatic contributions of these largely wordless scenes are weak, even at the end, when a sense of reconciliation and closure is sought by the sight of flowers and disparate souls gathering on a beach in a way that uncomfortably resembles hippie-dippy reveries of the late 1960s.

But the climactic shortfall only marginally saps the impact of the central story of family life. Occupying a pleasant but not lavish home on a wide dirt street in a town that matches one’s idealized vision of a perfect 1950s community (it’s actually Smithville, population 3,900, just southeast of Austin and previously seen in Hope Floats), the family is dominated by a military veteran father (Pitt) who lays down the law to his three boys seemingly more by rote than due to any necessity. He’s compulsively physical with them, playfully, affectionately and violently, and yet rigidly holds something back.

Within Malick’s scheme of things, Dad represents nature, while Mom (Chastain) stands for grace. Great pals among themselves, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Pitt look-alike Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan) range all over town and would seem to enjoy near-ideal circumstances in which to indulge their youth.

But working in a manner diametrically opposed to that of theater dramatists inclined to spell everything out, Malick opens cracks and wounds by inflection, indirection and implication. Using fleet camerawork and jump-cutting that combine to intoxicating effect, the picture builds to unanticipated levels of disappointment and tragedy, much of it expressed with a minimum of dialogue in the final stages of Pitt’s terrific performance.

Embodying the American ideal with his clean-cut good looks, open face, look-you-in-the-eyes directness and strong build, Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien embodies the optimism and can-do attitude one associates with the post-war period. But this man had other, unfulfilled dreams — he became “sidetracked,” as he says — and as his pubescent oldest son begins to display a troublesome rebelliousness, fractures begins to show in his own character as well, heartbreakingly so.

Voice-over snippets suggestive of states of mind register more importantly than dialogue, while both are trumped by the diverse musical elements and the rumblings and murmurs of nature, which have all been blended in a masterful sound mix. Emmanuel Lubezki outdoes himself with cinematography of almost unimaginable crispness and luminosity. As in The New World, the camera is constantly on the move, forever reframing in search of the moment, which defines the film’s impressionistic manner.

Production designer Jack Fisk and costume designer Jacqueline West make indispensable contributions to creating the film’s world. That not a single image here seems fake or artificial can only be the ultimate praise for the work of senior visual effects supervisor Dan Glass and his team, while the presence of Douglas Trumbull as visual effects consultant further cements the film’s connection to 2001.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Competition
Release: May 27 (Fox Searchlight)
Production: River Road Entertainment
Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Fiona Shaw, Irene Bedard, Jessica Fuselier, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan
Director-screenwriter: Terrence Malick
Producers: Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Grant Hill
Executive producer: Donald Rosenfeld
Director of photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Production design: Jack Fisk
Costume designer: Jacqueline West
Editors: Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, Mark Yoshikawa
Music: Alexandre Desplat
PG-13 rating, 138 minutes

THE TREE OF LIFE

Terrence or Terry Malick

Terrence Malick was not on hand for the Tree Of Life press call, press conference and red carpet today in Cannes.

Producers Grant Hill, Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Dede Gardner, Brad Pitt (who also stars in the film) and female lead Jessica Chastain were all present. The reason given for Malick’s absence was simply that he is “Mr Malick is very shy.” Sean Penn came in from Haiti in time for the red carpet premiere. Pitt waxed lyrical on Malick’s shooting style saying he had been inspired. “He’s jovial, sweet. He finds pleasure in the day,” and later added that working with him “has changed everything I’ve done since.”

 

Dir/scr: Terrence Malick. US. 2011. 138mins

A cinematic symphony more than a classic narrative film, Terrence Malick’s long-awaited The Tree Of Life has moments of breathtaking visual and aural beauty, but in the end it has us longing for the days of Badlands, Days Of Heaven or The Thin Red Line, when the Texan auteur also knew how to spin a good yarn. In his previous films, a sense of wonder at the mysteries of nature, the human spirit and the cosmos was always there in the background, lifting, contrasting and sometimes ironically critiquing the main story. In The Tree Of Life, it very nearly is the story — and the result is a cinematic credo about spiritual transcendence which, while often shot through with poetic yearning, preaches too directly to its audience. If ever a whole film were on the nose, this is it.

Smoky nebulae, gushing lava, the corpuscular pulse of flowing magma, sunrise and star-rise, amoeba and jellyfish, hammerhead sharks and CGI dinosaurs all feature.

The reputation of Malick, the presence of Brad Pitt (who also co-produced), and the packaging of the film as a unique cinematic experience – though not, it should be noted, a 3D one – will help at the box office. And the mixture of boos and applause that greeted the film’s Cannes press premiere suggest that some media reactions will be more upbeat than this one. But if it’s true, as some reports suggest, that the film’s budget exceeded the $32m initially announced, breaking even is going to be a struggle. The Tree Of Life is a more focused film, and a better one, than Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain – but that pompous New Age saga’s poor box-office performance is still probably a good benchmark for a film that requires a serious leap of faith, and poker-straight faces, from its audience.

The quotation from the Book Of Job that introduces the story signals the fact that we’re in Biblical territory, in the field of parable rather than the muddy swamp of narrative realism. In the first of the film’s four movements – to use a musical metaphor that is touched on more than once in the story – fragments of the lives we will be following are woven together impressionistically, linked by Malick’s familiar poetic, rhetorical voiceovers: characters (not always identifiable at first) talk about the two opposing life forces, strong but selfish nature and vulnerable but selfless grace, which are soon identified respectively with the stern father (Pitt, solid in the role) and the radiant, loving mother (a bravura performance from Chastain) of the 1950s suburban family we begin to follow.

A tragedy – the death of their 19-year-old son – is announced via telegram; we cut to a city scene, where a drawn and intense Sean Penn drifts between his boxy modernist steel and glass house and the New York skyscraper where he works, apparently as an architect. We work hard at first to connect these plot scraps — the task not being made any easier by the almost complete absence of dialogue.

The second part of the film, designed with the help of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner special-effects veteran Douglas Trumbull, is the most audacious: an impressionistic cinematic history of the universe in around 20 minutes, from its beginnings in cosmic dust to the appearance of life on earth. Smoky nebulae, gushing lava, the corpuscular pulse of flowing magma, sunrise and star-rise, amoeba and jellyfish, hammerhead sharks and CGI dinosaurs all feature in a virtuoso peformance that stands in the same relation to the rest of the film that a flashy guitar solo does to the main melody.

It’s only after around 55 minutes that the main narrative kicks in. We’re back with the family we met earlier, but years before that telegram. Three boys are born to a couple who live in a classic American suburban house with a lawn outside dominated by a spreading oak tree. Dad, a former air force officer, works in a factory and hopes that certain patents he has taken out will make the family rich, though his real passion is classical music (he plays the organ in church). Mom is a housewife and homemaker. Gradually conflict develops between the authoritarian father and his eldest son, Jack (an excellent, intense debut by young McCracken).

We’re in Oedipal territory here, and in case we don’t get the message, Jack is given on-the-nose, character-defying lines like one he delivers to pa: “I’m as bad as you are – I’m more like you than her.” By now, we have realised that the Sean Penn character, who has taken to wandering anguished in his designer suit through rocky deserts, is Jack in adulthood. The film’s short final movement has him greeting all those he has known on a beach, in a valedictory dream sequence that does pack a certain elegiac punch.

The camera is always moving, panning, gliding away, as if impatient to get to the imminent truth that lies behind this shabby reality – a truth that finds its expression in the soundtrack of transcendental choral or stately orchestral music by composers from Respighi and Mahler to Taverner and Gorecki. The problem is, we need a little shabby reality every now and then. That’s how cinematic poetry is earned.

Production companies: River Road Entertaiment, Plan B Entertainment, Brace Cove Productions
International sales: Summit Entertainment, http://www.summit-ent.com
Producers: Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Grant Hill
Executive producer: Donald Rosenfeld
Co-executive producers: Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz
Co-producer: Nicolas Gonda
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Editors: Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, Mark Yoshikawa
Production designer: Jack Fisk
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Main cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Fiona Shaw, Irene Bedard, Jessica Fuselier, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan
 
 
Brad Pitt Tree Of Life

 

 

It’s not often that Hollywood gets to review a Terrence Malick film, so when the opportunity arises, most everyone will be shouting their opinions from the rooftops.

The intense scrutiny and madhouse press scramble is a juxtaposition with its filmmaker, the enigmatic Malick, for whom “The Tree of Life,” is his fifth directorial feature released in an over forty year career. In “Tree of Life,” his first film since 2005′s star-studded “The New World,” Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain star in what is, at least in part and at its most reduced, the story of a man whose parents’ polar-opposite personalities and techniques lead to a confused and troubled adulthood.

Pitt plays the hard-scrabble father and Chastain the generous and free spirited mother, with Penn their eventual progeny.

There’s much more to the film, however, and after its debut screening at the Cannes Film Festival, critics were eager to give their take. Here’s a sampling of what a number of notable film voices have said about “The Tree of Life,” which opens to the general public on May 27th.

While big muscles, superhero bluster and wedding-related insanity are already heating up the box office this summer movie season, it’s a long-awaited tale from a legendary filmmaker that is serving as the most highly anticipated release for true movie connoisseurs.

Terrence Malick, a two-time Oscar nominated writer and director who makes up for the sparcity of his releases with their often lush textures and stories, is set to debut his eighth directorial feature, “Tree of Life.” Sporting an all-star cast featuring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, it tells the story of a child growing up in the 1950′s with parents practicing wildly divergent personalities and methods.

In this exclusive clip, Pitt, the father, teaches his son Jack — who will grow up into Penn’s character — to fight and defend himself. The aggression straddles the border between caring and reckless, with Pitt’s determination and clenched jaw leaving the viewer questioning whether he’s nurturing or something darker.

Here’s the film’s synopsis; check out the clip below it. The film opens May 27th.

From Terrence Malick, the acclaimed director of such classic films as BADLANDS, DAYS OF HEAVEN and THE THIN RED LINE, THE TREE OF LIFE is the impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950′s. The film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn) finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith. Through Malick’s signature imagery, we see how both brute nature and spiritual grace shape not only our lives as individuals and families, but all life.

The Tree of Life

'The Tree of Life'Fox Searchlight will release ‘The Tree of Life,’ starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, on May 27th in the U.S.
sean pennSean Penn also stars in ‘The Tree of Life.’
 
A Fox Searchlight release presented with River Road Entertainment. (International sales: Summit Entertainment, London.) Produced by Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Grant Hill. Executive producer, Donald Rosenfeld. Co-producer, Nicolas Gonda. Co-executive producers, Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz. Directed, written by Terrence Malick.
Mr. O’Brien – Brad Pitt Jack – Sean Penn Mrs. O’Brien – Jessica Chastain Grandmother – Fiona Shaw Messenger – Irene Bedard Guide – Jessica Fuselier Young Jack – Hunter McCracken R.L. – Laramie Eppler Steve – Tye Sheridan

Few American filmmakers are as alive to the splendor of the natural world as Terrence Malick, but even by his standards, “The Tree of Life” represents something extraordinary. The iconoclastic director’s long-awaited fifth feature is in many ways his simplest yet most challenging work, a transfixing odyssey through time and memory that melds a young boy’s 1950s upbringing with a magisterial rumination on the Earth’s origins. Result is pure-grade art cinema destined primarily for the delectation of Malick partisans and adventurous arthouse-goers, but with its cast names and see-it-to-believe-it stature, this inescapably divisive picture could captivate the zeitgeist for a spell.A magnum opus that’s been kicking around inside Malick’s head for decades and awaited by his fans for almost as long, the film will certainly invite even-more-vociferous-than-usual charges of pretension and overambition, criticisms that are admittedly not entirely without merit here. Taking the director’s elusive, elliptical style perhaps as far as it will go, “The Tree of Life” is nothing less than a hymn to the glory of creation, an exploratory, often mystifying 138-minute tone poem that will test any Malick non-fan’s patience for whispery voiceover and flights of lyrical abstraction.

Critical response will be passionately split (judging by the noisy mixture of boos and applause at the Cannes press screening), even among those who share Malick’s poetic orientation and appreciate his willingness to place A-list stars and visual effects in service of unapologetically spiritual and philosophical concerns. Still others may find the picture underwhelming in light of its epic journey to the screen — a troubled six-year gestation period replete with casting woes and editing delays; the shuttering of U.S. distributor Apparition before Fox Searchlight swooped in; and a last-minute tussle over whether its U.K. release date would trump its world premiere in competition at Cannes.

And so it’s only fitting that “The Tree of Life” should demand a measure of patience. The same could of course be said of Malick’s four other features, all veiled parables of man’s fall from grace and the corruption of an irretrievable innocence. With his new film, Malick has essentially parted the veil. He has abandoned the oblique historical narratives of his previous two pictures, “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World,” to tell an intimate wisp of a story that allows him to address his cosmic concerns in the most direct, least compromised manner possible. Yet far from feeling slight, the film surprisingly emerges as Malick’s most emotionally accessible work since 1978′s “Days of Heaven,” so primal and recognizable are the childlike perceptions and feelings he puts onscreen.

An opening quotation from the book of Job (“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”) lays the celestial groundwork as the film eases the viewer into the preadolescence of Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken), the eldest of three boys in midcentury small-town Texas. The first of numerous narrators speaks of two possible paths through life: the way of nature, embodied by the boys’ stern taskmaster of a father (Brad Pitt), and the way of grace, represented by their sweet, nurturing mother (Jessica Chastain).

The early reels convey the arc of Jack’s life as a series of subjective impressions, leaping ahead to the pivotal moment when Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien receive word that one of Jack’s brothers has died at age 19, an occurrence that is neither lingered on nor really explained. Before long, Jack is a grown man (a weary-looking Sean Penn), seen roaming the executive offices of a Houston high-rise and speaking on the phone with his father, who has clearly not mellowed with age.

Emmanuel Lubezki’s continually mobile camera, occasionally using wide-angle lenses, prowls through these early scenes as though observing them from a side angle; the visual restlessness mirrors Jack’s own inner turmoil, echoed by the inchoate voices we hear in his head. Time and space themselves seem to destabilize, and the film, as though unable to abide the present any longer, retreats into the ancient past.

It’s at this point, roughly 20 minutes in, that “The Tree of Life” undergoes arguably the most extreme temporal shift in the history of cinema. Comparisons to “2001: A Space Odyssey” are perhaps intended, not least because Stanley Kubrick’s special-effects creator Douglas Trumbull served as a visual consultant on Malick’s eye-candy evocation of the dawn of time (conceived by several visual-effects houses but designed with minimal reliance on CGI). We observe a flurry of awe-inspiring images at astronomical, biological, macro- and microscopic levels: a nebula expanding in outer space; cells multiplying in a frenzy; a school of shimmering jellyfish; darkness illuminated by a volcanic eruption; a bubbling primordial ooze.

Viewers may not always be sure of what they’re looking at during this sequence, but that’s no hindrance to appreciating the sublime imagery or the rhapsodic force of the accompanying choral and orchestral tracks. Yet the director isn’t inclined to linger, not even on the stunning occasional glimpse of dinosaurs, whose presence on Earth is observed as matter-of-factly as the cataclysm that brings their chapter to a close.

Texas suburbia comes back into focus, and the film devotes its remaining 100 or so minutes to a sensitive portrait of Jack’s upbringing, rendered here as a sort of symphony with many movements, often set to Alexandre Desplat’s sometimes majestic, sometimes ominous score. As raggedly structured as this portion of the film is (five editors handled the disjunctive yet intuitive cutting), Malick couldn’t be more attuned to the personal joys, sorrows and insecurities of this boy’s life, and his tactile images seem suffused with a Norman Rockwell-esque nostalgia even as they seek to deconstruct it.

From the tension that sets in whenever Jack’s father appears to the boys’ exhilarating sense of freedom as they run through DDT clouds billowing from a spray rig, scene after scene brims with intimate, tenderly observed details, while the rural locations enable the helmer’s signature shots of rustling grass and water-reflected sunlight, abetted by richly textured sound design. The camera whips through the family’s Craftsman-style house (lovingly appointed by Malick’s longtime production designer Jack Fisk) until it comes to seem like home.

The link between Jack’s story and the film’s prehistoric reverie is never made explicit, though its essential meaning could scarcely be plainer or more deeply felt. The rare film to urgently question, yet also accept, the presence of God in a fallen world, “Tree of Life” understands that every childhood is a creation story unto itself, and just as a new planet is formed by the elements, so an emerging soul is irrevocably shaped by the forces that nurture it.

No one exerts a more domineering influence in Jack’s life, or on the film itself, than his father. Played with iron-jawed intensity by Pitt, Mr. O’Brien is the very picture of intimidation — a strict, upright disciplinarian who, though not immune to affection, is not above using hugs and kisses as instruments of control. One moment, in which Jack considers a retaliatory act of violence, is both amusing and shockingly blunt. And yet Malick extends the father the same compassion he grants the mother, played with heartrending vulnerability by Chastain as a woman who strives to protect, defend and console her children at all times.

Young McCracken makes an outstanding screen debut, his eyes seeming to reflect a sad wisdom beyond his years; thesp captures Jack’s fear of his father as well as the disturbing ways in which he takes after him. As his younger brothers, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan are wonderfully authentic.

Penn’s Jack receives the least screen time of the three adult principals, and he figures into the film’s most abstruse, surreal passages, which frame him against a series of desert backdrops and make direct use of biblical imagery. In these moments, “The Tree of Life” seems to grope desperately, if movingly, for the sort of grand resolution its mysteries by definition cannot offer. But by that point it’s clear Malick, after five films over nearly 40 years, hasn’t given up his search for new ways of seeing truth and beauty — in life, or in cinema.

Camera (Deluxe color prints), Emmanuel Lubezki; editors, Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, Mark Yoshikawa; music, Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Jack Fisk; art director, David Crank; set decorator, Jeanette Scott; costume designer, Jacqueline West; sound (DTS/Dolby Digital/SDDS), John Pritchett, Kirk Francis; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Craig Berkey; co-supervising sound editor/sound designer, Erik Aadahl; supervising re-recording mixer, Berkey; senior visual effects supervisor, Dan Glass; visual effects, Prime Focus VFX, Double Negative, One of Us, Method Studios, Evil Eye Pictures; stunt coordinator, Jeff P. Schwan; line producer, Susan Kirr; associate producers, Sandhya Shardanand, Ivan Bess; assistant director, Bobby Bastarache; second unit camera, Paul Atkins, Peter Simonite; casting, Francine Maisler, Vicky Boone. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 16, 2011. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 138 MIN.

Contact Justin Chang at justin.chang@variety.com

Brad Pitt: “This film is universal. Terrence Malick wants to speak to all cultures.”

 

 

 

 

Brad Pitt: 'This film is universal. Terrence Malick wants to speak to all cultures.' 

Brad Pitt © CR

The actors Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain attended the Press Conference for Terrence Malik’s latest flim, The Tree of Life, accompanied by the film’s four producers: Sarah Green, Dede Gardner, Bill Pohlad et Grant Hill.

Brad Pitt on the film:

“It would take many days to explain the film’s creative process. The screenplay was wonderfully written, very intense, but Terrence Malik didn’t want to follow it slavishly. He likes to capture the truth between the lines. That’s why this film feels so fresh. On top of that, it was almost entirely shot in natural daylight.”

“This film is universal, Terrence Malick wants to speak to all cultures.”

Bill Pohlad on the fact that Terrence Malick was not present to discuss his film:

“He doesn’t want to discuss his film. He wants the public to see it as a poem, for everyone to interpret as they see fit.”

Jessica Chastain describes her collaboration with Terrence Malick:

“I worked with Terrence for 3 months before shooting. He suggested I study paintings which captured the idea of grace. During shooting, we didn’t think about the final result. We let go and lived entirely in the present. At one point in the film, a butterfly comes to rest on my hand. It wasn’t in the script, but Terence creates the kind of set on which such things can happen.”

Bill Pohlad onTerrence Malick:

“He is someone who consults everyone. While shooting, he wanted to know how this story affected us personally. He loves to hear a rangeof opinions on everything, even the editing. That’s why he used many editors. He loves having fresh input at every moment.”

Brad Pitt explains the link between the film and his childhood:

“I was raised as a Christian and when I was young, I asked a lot of questions in order to understand things. These same questions are asked in the film, which is why it moved me.”

 

Cannes 2011: The Four Star Review — Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life

Posted: 05/16/11 09:59 AM ET
 
 
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THE TREE OF LIFE **** out of ****

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth…. When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

— “The Book Of Job,” 38: 4-7

It’s brilliant. Let’s get that out of the way. If you like director Terrence Malick, rest assured his new film fits in snugly alongside Badlands, Days Of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World. It features extensive voice-overs musing on the nature of life, stunning images that convey a wealth of emotion and a surprisingly detailed storyline conveyed almost entirely without conventional narrative. If you’re not a fan, this certainly won’t win you over. But if you’ve never seen a Malick film in the movie theater, this look at growing up in Waco, Texas in the 1950s may be the perfect entry point when it opens on May 27. That’s not to say the movie isn’t polarizing. It looks certain to be the most hotly debated film of the festival. No film buff can afford to miss it, and I can’t wait to see it again.

It begins with a telegram, and a telegram is never good news. In this case, a mother (Jessica Chastain) gets word that her 19-year-old son has died. Why bring a child into the world if its life is going to be snuffed out so soon? Why give a parent the joy of creating a new person if you then rend their hearts by taking that person away? Why is there pain and sadness in the world? The rest of the movie answers those questions in ways both beautiful and strange. It’s no surprise the film begins with a quotation from “The Book Of Job,” one of the great poems of all time and the section of the Bible that directly addresses the eternal issue of suffering.

At the simplest level, The Tree Of Life focuses on childhood. Three brothers grow up under the stern tutelage of their father (an excellent Brad Pitt) and loving mother. It can take a few minutes to adjust to the flow of a Malick film. I was won over when those boys were running with abandon through the yards and streets of their neighborhood and the music swelled with excitement and fervor, capturing with a rush the sheer joy of youth, the endless possibilities of endless summer days and the perfect freedom of no responsibility. They live in a world where you are always safe and your parents will always take care of you. (It was the 1950s, after all.)

Pitt is not a cruel father, no Great Santini, but his sons are a little afraid of him. Pitt thinks the best way to raise a boy into a man is to expect a man’s behavior, to demand discipline. He can always criticize and find room for improvement; he can rarely praise or seek out the good. When he hugs his sons or asks for a kiss, it’s an order. You never doubt his essential love for the boys. He’s simply of the generation that thought feelings and warmth were unmanly.

The eldest boy (played marvelously by Hunter McCracken as a child, Sean Penn as an adult in brief glimpses) has the most troubled relationship with his dad. I mean “father.” At one point Pitt angrily insists that his son always call him “father.” “And don’t interrupt!” he adds. “But you always do,” says the boy. When Pitt goes away on a business trip, the look of happiness that transports the kids is infectious. Suddenly, they’re all running through the house, whooping it up and even their mother is bouncing on the beds and laughing.

Few movies have ever captured so well young boys at play or the quicksilver changes in their relationships. When a group of kids are running down a street and come upon a shed, one of them says they should throw a rock through the window. The boys circle warily, knowing it’s wrong but too afraid to speak up and too certain the delicious thrill of breaking the rules will be worth it. They do smash the window in and the cheap pleasure is immediately followed by guilt.

Another time, the eldest son sneaks into a neighbor’s home when the woman of the house goes out. He sneaks tentatively from room to room, every squeak of the floor freezing him with fear. He finds her lingerie drawer and lays a slip on the bed. Soon he’s running out the door and towards a river, first hiding the slip under a board and then tossing it in the water, flushed with shame. When he goes home, he can’t even look his mother in the eye. “What have I started?” he wonders in voiceover, consumed with the fear that this act– which we recognize as just curiosity rather than theft or perversion — might in fact mean he’s a bad boy. He’s disappointed his father in so many ways; will this be the next one?

Those are just two scenes of many. They rush by in vivid detail, typically carried along by music and the open faces of the actors with only a minimum of dialogue. There’s so much more: a fight at the dinner table, playing with a water hose and a brief flash of danger when father is working under the car and the boy eyes the jack holding the body of the automobile high off the ground and a “what if” lightnings through his brain.

There’s even a flashback to the dawn of life on earth that is eerily realistic. Prehistoric creatures wander about, with one creature dominating another by knocking it down, placing its foot on the other’s head and keeping it on the ground. The smaller creature lays still, panting with fear. The bigger one holds it down with a foot, releases the foot just a tad and then taps the head of the smaller one again. “Stay right there,” it’s saying, proving its superiority. The little one stays motionless, trembling, long after the bigger one has moved away. Some things never change. We even watch a meteor crash into the earth, wiping out all the life we’ve just seen flourishing. Why did the dinosaurs exist at all if they were going to be wiped out?

What the heck is going on? What are these scenes of the afterlife that appear during the final moments, the many characters of the movie wandering a beach and approaching each other with tentative warmth? Why does the mother say in voiceover, “I give you my son,” echoing the words about Jesus Christ in the Bible. And the crashing waves? The repeated glimpses of life coming into being? The images of what might be the dawn of the universe?

In a very simple way, Malick is saying that life is shot through with glory. Time and again, we are struck dumb with a beautiful image, be it the water of a sprinkler or the sun bursting through the clouds. Anyone can create a pretty picture; Malick suffuses them with pregnant meaning. When a boy can live a thousand lifetimes in one afternoon, when each hour is crammed full of sensation, what need is there to worry about how long it lasts? Each moment is precious.

Every act of creation is also an act of sacrifice, whether you’re giving birth to the universe itself or just a little boy. The longest speech in the film comes during a funeral for a child who died suddenly at the local swimming pool. How can such a terrible thing happen? Why? The priest struggles for an answer but knows only this for certain: pain and sadness will come to us all at some point. We can’t protect our children from it, no matter how much we struggle. No one ever could. In the Bible, when Job’s woes are just beginning, he wishes he’d never been born. “I should have been carried from the womb to the grave,” he laments in chapter 10. Why live at all? Malick’s answer: just look around you.


MOVIES AT CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2011

Movies rated on a four star scale

Arirang no stars out of four
The Artist *** 1/2
The Footnote/Hearat Shulayam *** 1/2
Habemus Papam/We Have A Pope ***
Jeane Captive/The Silence Of Joan ** 1/2
Michael ***
The Kid With A Bike/Le Gamin Au Velo *** 1/2
La Fee/The Fairy ***
La Fin Du Silence/The End Of Silence **
L’Apollonide/House Of Tolerance * 1/2
Martha Marcy May Marlene ***
Michel Petrucciani ** 1/2
Midnight In Paris **
Polisse ** 1/2
Restless * 1/2
17 Filles/17 Girls **
Sleeping Beauty * 1/2
The Slut **
Take Shelter ***
The Tree Of Life ****
We Need To Talk About Kevin ** 1/2
Wu Xia aka Dragon aka Swordsmen

Cannes
 
Un Certain Regard

Outside Satan

(Hors Satan)

(France)

'Outside Satan'‘Outside Satan’
 
A Pyramide Distribution release (in France) of a 3B production, in co-production with CRRAV Nord-Pas de Callais, Le Fresnoy, in association with Cinemage 5, with the participation of Canal Plus, Cine Cinema, Contact Film, Centre National du Cinema et de L’Image Animee (CNC), with the contribution of La Region Nord-Pas de Calais. (International sales: Pyramide Intl., Paris.) Executive producers, Jean Brehat, Rachid Bouchareb, Muriel Merlin. Directed, written by Bruno Dumont.
With: David Dewaele, Alexandra Lematre, Valerie Mestdagh, Sonia Barthelemy, Juliette Bacquet, Christophe Bon, Dominique Caffier, Aurore Broutin.

Another “WTF?” film from Gallic writer-director Bruno Dumont (“L’Humanite”), “Outside Satan” will leave plenty of viewers scratching their heads, with some of them thinking the pic’s titular evil is the auteur himself. Maddening, pretentious, hypnotic and transcendent in roughly equal measure, Dumont’s minimalist study of an oddball poacher and the farm girl who keeps him company contains only a dozen “dramatic” events, but they all register indelibly, such is the director’s talent for making the minor appear momentous — and maybe religious. Word-of-mouth about the pic’s grisly violence and unsolvable mysteries should make “Satan” a must-see among artfilm aficionados.Set in and around a scruffy hamlet near Boulogne sur Mer, the film opens with a guy — actually, the Guy, as he’s known in the credits — receiving a sandwich from an unseen person behind a door, then kneeling to pray as the sun rises over the marshland. The Guy (David Dewaele) then meets up with the Girl (Alexandra Lematre), and the two walk silently down a long road. At roughly the 10-minute mark, the film’s first words — “I can’t take anymore,” says the Girl — will fairly describe the sentiments of any viewer who stumbled in unaware of Dumont’s austere provocations.

After awhile the director does reveal what the Girl can’t take — a problem solved by the Guy in what he’d reckoned was the “only way.” Dumont loves to introduce patterns, narrative and formal, and then modify them in subtle and sometimes inscrutable ways. The Guy, who might bear a vague resemblance to Jesus were it not for his perpetually glum expression, goes back to the door for another sandwich, which this time we see is given by the Girl. The Guy prays again, too, but accompanied by the Girl, who dresses all in black and sports spiky hair.

Then, disturbing the bucolic landscape, with its mountains, sand and sea, there’s a string of violent deaths, most of which Dumont reveals incrementally so that at first (or even later) they appear merely as very nasty injuries. There are also a few events so supernatural that they can only be described as miracles — religious ones, if you will, but such an interpretation isn’t required. Halfway through the pic, the Guy knocks on a door yet again in trade for food — but this time it’s a different door! Among the film’s more stubbornly withheld revelations: What’s behind door No. 2?

Like Dumont’s “Twentynine Palms” and “Life of Jesus” (give or take the Cannes Grand Prix-winning “L’Humanite”), “Outside Satan” flirts with all-out absurdity, as if managing to keep it at bay will be the director’s own miracle, highly subject to interpretation. Less debatable are the film’s technical merits, with d.p. Yves Cape delivering naturalistic beauty on a wide canvas, and the on-location sound work capturing every minute nuance of bird-chirps, cock-crows, and blasts of both wind and, uh, shotgun.

Camera (color, widescreen), Yves Cape; editors, Dumont, Basile Belkhiri; costume designer, Alexandra Charles; sound (Dolby Digital), Emmanuel Croset; line producer, Muriel Merlin; assistant directors, Claude Debonnet, Cyril Pavaux; casting, Debonnet. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 16, 2011. Running time: 110 MIN.
Cannes
Competition

House of Tolerance

L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close

(France)

 A Haut et Court release of a Les Films du Lendemain, My New Picture production in association with Arte France Cinema, with the participation of Arte France, Canal Plus, Cinecinema, CNC, with the support of Region Ile-de-France, Media, in association with Soficinema 6 Development, Soficinema 7, Cinemage 5. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Kristina Larsen, Bertrand Bonello. Directed, written by Bertrand Bonello.
With: Hafsia Herzi, Celine Sallette, Jasmine Trinca, Adele Haenel, Alice Barnole, Iliana Zabeth, Noemie Lvovsky, Xavier Beauvois, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Jacques Nolot, Laurent Lacotte.

Arguably writer-helmer Bertrand Bonello’s most straightforward pic, and none the worse for it, “House of Tolerance” explores life in an upmarket brothel at the turn of the last century. Although there’s heaps of nudity, disturbing violence, weirdness and a general air of bored erotic lassitude, all hallmarks of Bonello’s work (“The Pornographer,” “Tiresia,” “On War”), pic also presents an accessible, credible portrait of what life was like for sex workers way back when, with all the career’s pleasures (few) and perils (many). Subject matter and comely cast should get offshore distribs casting come-hither looks in the pic’s direction.Unfolding mostly within the confines of a single building and featuring a would-be utopia not unlike the commune in “On War,” the story takes place in the Apollonide, a bordello run by former hooker Marie-France (helmer-thesp Noemie Lvovsky). Madame Marie-France treats her femme staff relatively well for the time, apart from the fact that she docks money from their earnings for all their fancy finery, keeping them permanently in debt and therefore virtual slaves to the “house of tolerance,” as such places were known then.

Of the 12 femmes working there, about six come to the fore as defined characters. At 28, embittered Clotilde (Celine Sallette, “Regular Lovers”) is nearly on the scrap heap, but her great legs still make her a favorite of a dilettante artist (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), with whom Clotilde is half in love. Cheerful Julie (Italian thesp Jasmine Trinca) also has a regular john (Jacques Nolot) who dotes on her, but not so deeply that he’ll help her out of her debt, despite his fortune. Statuesque beauty Lea (Adele Haenel) has many admirers whom she quietly despises; Algerian Samira (Hafsia Herzi) is more easygoing, and is happy to show the ropes to new girl Pauline (Iliana Zabeth, whose zaftig curves are perfect for the period).

Unluckiest of all is Madeleine (newcomer Alice Barnole), a sweet-natured naif whose trusting nature ruins her career when one client (Laurent Lacotte) ties her to a bed and then slashes her cheeks with a knife, leaving her hideously scarred and thus earning her the nickname “the Woman Who Laughs,” an allusion to the Victor Hugo novel “The Man Who Laughs.” Even so, she becomes an object of fascination to some of the clients, including one (helmer Xavier Beauvois) who pays just to sit and talk with her.

Bonello leaves the aud in no doubt that theirs is a hard, risky job. A chilling scene depicting the women being examined by a doctor (played by a real gynecologist, per press notes), searching for any traces of disease or pregnancy, underscores the potential deadliness of the profession at the time. Elsewhere, mention is made of ridiculous scientific studies from the period, then accepted as fact, that prostitutes had smaller heads than average, just like thieves, a supposed sign of low intelligence.

These women, however, are clearly not stupid, just desperate, although the script makes it clear that most of them freely chose this profession rather than become seamstresses, servants or agricultural workers. They may fake their pleasure for the clients, but there are still good times to be had downstairs before retiring to the bedroom, chatting, playing games and drinking endless bottles of champagne while wearing the fanciest, gaudiest outfits high-class brothel money can buy. If the Cannes competition jury gave out prizes for costumes, Anais Romand would be a prohibitive favorite for her intricate, lusciously detailed work here.

Bonello’s regular d.p. and partner Josee Deshaies does similarly exquisite work with the lensing, subtly modulating the lighting schemes from warm, golden hues to colder tones for the moments of quirky surrealism that give the pic a distinctive flavor, even if they’re a bit silly. Likewise, onetime musician Bonello’s self-penned score alongside use of playfully anachronistic soul music and ’60s garage-band tunes inject a contempo sensibility that keeps the period flavor from becoming too cloying. Without these perverse (not in the sexy sense) touches, the pic might have risked playing like “The Best Little Whorehouse in Paris” or a violent reworking of Louis Malle’s “Pretty Baby.”

Camera (color), Josee Deshaies; editor, Fabrice Rouaud; music, Bonello; production designer, Aude Cathelin; set decorator, Alain Guffroy; costume designer, Anais Romand; sound (Dolby Digital), Jean-Pierre Duret, Nicolas Moreau, Jean-Pierre Laforce; visual effects supervisor, Cedric Fayolle; assistant director, Elsa Amiel; casting, Deshaies. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 15, 2011. Running time: 125 MIN.
 

World class directors like Lars Von Trier, Aki Kaurismaki and Pedro Almodovar are still to come. So it doesn’t seem quite fair but the most anticipated movie of the Cannes Film Festival finally debuted. Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life provoked at least one singular act: all five of the people in my rental apartment got up and out the door at the same time, which has never happened in the history of my attending the festival. We all bolted out the door at 7:15 and were in line at the Lumiere before 7:30, with only a dozen people in front of us, waiting to be let in a full hour before the movie was set to begin. We wanted to take no chances, get good seats and not face the tension of a crowd surging towards the guards at 8:10 or so. No croissant or coffee at the corner boulangerie, no trade newspapers from the Majestic Hotel, just a straight line for the cinema.

One tradition of the fest is that someone will shout out “Raul!” right as a screening begins. It began one year when the pickings of the first few days were especially grim and disappointing. Critics faced an overload of movies that should never have been made, much less accepted for screening at Cannes and frankly they were losing heart. As people settled in for a movie directed by Raul Ruis, someone called out almost plaintively, “Raul!” as in “Raul, please save us and deliver a good film!” (I’d like to think the year was 1999 when he delivered Time Regained but I can’t swear to it.) Waves of laughter greeted this spontaneous prayer and “Raul!” soon became an enduring catchphrase. Annoyed by the hype surrounding Malick (people who merely saw the trailer began insisting The Tree of Life would be his masterpicece), my friends had a more belligerent air. Whaddaya got, they were saying. And finally, succinctly, one said quietly to us as the lights went down, “Bring it, b***h!” Well, Malick did.

THE TREE OF LIFE **** out of ****

It’s brilliant. Let’s get that out of the way. If you like director Terrence Malick, rest assured his new film fits in snugly alongside Badlands, Days Of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World. It features extensive voice-overs musing on the nature of life, stunning images that convey a wealth of emotion and a surprisingly detailed storyline conveyed almost entirely without conventional narrative. If you’re not a fan, this certainly won’t win you over. But if you’ve never seen a Malick film in the movie theater, this look at growing up in Waco, Texas in the 1950s may be the perfect entry point when it opens on May 27. That’s not to say the movie isn’t polarizing. It looks certain to be the most hotly debated film of the festival. No film buff can afford to miss it, and I can’t wait to see it again. To read the full review, go here.

HORS SATAN/OUTSIDE SATAN ** out of ****

Writer-director Bruno Dumont’s latest film is a typically flat, affectless work in which you spend much of the film puzzling out exactly who is who and what is going on. Nonetheless, I found it a tad more plot-driven than most of his films and thus more engaging. Plus, I’m a sucker for itinerant preachers and the like. The Guy (David Dewaele) is certainly saintly, quietly dropping to his knees in prayer at the drop of a hat. He lives outdoors in a rural area of France, depending on The Girl (Alexandra Lamatre) for food and friendship, though he’s not one much for talking. When he takes a shotgun and kills her stepfather, we quickly realize she was being sexually molested. Even her mother begs the Girl for forgiveness since she didn’t step in and put a stop to it. Things get more puzzling when a local woman begs The Guy to see her catatonic daughter whom the doctors can’t help. Turns out he’s a Sin Eater of some sort, sucking out the girl’s demons and taking the burden upon himself. This almost makes Hors Satan an action film by the standard of Dumont’s movies. Things get terribly murky in the third act when Dumont loses the thread of his story completely. Everything we think we know about the Guy, the Girl and his special talents is confounded in an uninteresting and messy manner. Still, the two leads are strong, the visuals typically striking and for a while at least the plot was unexpectedly penetrable.

SNOWTOWN ** out of ****

Many people had a problem with the film Michael, which meticulously showed a pedophile on his daily routine while a boy is trapped in his basement. What’s the point, they said? I felt the aesthetic of the film, the terrific performances and an uneasy fascination with the process — seeing exactly how this mild-mannered creep gets away with it — kept me engaged. All those people can make the same complaint in spades with this Australian film about the worst serial killer in that country’s history. Here’s hoping the clearly talented director Justin Kurzel can more fully illuminate whatever story captures his attention next time around. Snowtown is grim, grim, grim and easily holds the record for most walkouts at a movie so far this festival. That’s what happens when you blithely shoot a dog and soon are torturing, beheading and otherwise killing people. The one sympathetic character in this nightmare is poor Jamie. This kid from a broken home is preyed upon by the pedophile next door who takes nude pictures of him and his brothers, raped by Troy and then has the bad luck to get befriended by John Bunting, a man who seems obsessed with perverts. (Jamie is played by Lucas Pittaway and John by Daniel Henshall — both are very good and the central real reason to see the film.) John begins by harassing the pedophile until the guy moves away but soon escalates to beheading junkies, torturing and killing others and turning on anyone who might spill the beans. It’s a relentlessly dour experience, I must say. The good performances and solid tech work all around can’t turn it into an edifying one. What’s the point?

 

 

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