Cannes: Ears to the Ground (5)

By Robert Koehler

Well, some of those well-sourced rumors proved to be on the mark, others less so. As predicted, Terrence Malick’s <emThe Tree of Life, his semi-autobiographical meditation-cum-space odyssey on the Meaning of It All, wins the Palme d’Or. The Grand Prix is a tie between Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s widely admired murder-mystery-in-the-night-darkness, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and the Dardenne Brothers’ well-reviewed The Kid with the Bike, thus continuing Ceylan’s run (after his best director prize for Three Monkeys) as the bridesmaid and not the bride in Cannes. One of the most wildly loved competition films was Nicholas Winding Refn’s Melville-influenced thrilled starring Ryan Gosling, Drive, and he wins best director for going American. Genre dominates the prizes, so it’s no surprise that Maiwenn’s policier, Poliss, received largely with a shrug from the Cannes critical press corps, wins the jury prize, which always amounts to the third runner-up after the Grand Prix (though, this year with the Grand Prix tie, that makes
it #4).

Unlike what our sources told us, Berenice Bejo didn’t win best actress for The Artist; rather, it goes to Kirsten Dunst for Melancholia, a surprise to many since Lars Von Trier’s status as a Cannes “persona non grata” may have presumably pushed the film out of any consideration in any category. Clearly, Robert De Niro would have none of it, and pushed for Dunst. As predicted, Jean Dujardin wins best actor for The Artist.

In what is one of the most significant though consistently overlooked prizes in Cannes, the Camera d’Or for best feature debut goes to Pablo Giorgelli for Las Acacias screening in Critics Week, for which I had heard excellent advance word in Buenos Aires. This marks yet another new name from the Argentine cinema, and is a bit of a swipe at Directors Fortnight, which was loaded with debuts that resulted in disinterest or outright dismissal from many Cannes observers. This will be the year when Critics Week, with Take Shelter and Las Acasias, finally dominated the Fortnight, after being in Fortnight’s shadow for a decade or two.

Cannes: Ears to the Ground (4)

By Robert Koehler

Woody Allen’s Paris tourism promotion film, Midnight in Paris, clearly caught its Cannes audience–who saw it opening night, some 100 films and what may seem like a century ago–in a forgiving mood. A few, perhaps sufficiently jet-lagged, drunk, who knows, were actually willing to call it a masterpiece, and the same willingness to let Allen slide was something I witnessed the other night at the Academy Theatre, where Midnight made its U.S. premiere. A strange goodwill continues to hover around the character of Allen, whom some believe has made many good films, some great, and even go so far as to claim that he’s the greatest American comedy filmmaker since Chaplin. (These were precisely the foolish words of AFI President Bob Gazzale, not known for his cinephilia, when he introduced the film at the Academy. One can only imagine what bon mots Thierry Fremaux tossed to Allen in the Palais.) Some critics are calling Midnight in Paris things like “his best film in the past fifteen years,” which would mean his best since that world-beater from 1996, Everyone Says I Love You. In more than a few film cultures, had Allen issued as many bad films as he has, he would have long ago been barred from getting anywhere near a movie camera. As it is, he’s effectively no longer an American director, and now officially a Spanish filmmaker: Spain is the primary producing country of Midnight, just as it was of his previous bad films, like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and the risibly awful Vicky Christina Barcelona, which depicts a Barcelona where nobody speaks Catalan.

As if Spain needed another bad filmmaker. There is this: Midnight in Paris does start with the only cinema Allen has managed in years (more than fifteen), and for once, he’s not imitating one of his avowed masters. This opening montage of city scenes in Paris looks dull enough, certainly touristic: The Tuileries, Champs d’Elysees, the Madeleine, Montparnasse, the Tour d’Eiffel, even (in his only tip of the cap to Paris modernity), I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre. Just as the montage seems sure to end, it keeps going, showing various views of mostly anonymous streets during an afternoon rain, which then stops, and gives way to night, and what amounts to a third movement of edits around the city leading up to midnight. This is Allen imitating himself, the montage at the beginning of Manhattan, his love letter to New York City, and his first indicator that he had a thing for potentially underage girls. But it does unfold an environment, observes the course of time, and might be likened (particularly in cadence) to montages in some of Heinz Emigholz’recent architecture films.

Nice; some cinema for once. Then the rest of the movie unfolds, and it’s one more time into the crapper with Woody. Owen Wilson plays Gil, a hack screenwriter from Los Angeles visiting Paris with his obnoxious fiance Inez, played by Rachel McAdams, and he’s swooning for the place. She can’t imagine what he’s talking about, which instantly sets things utterly wrong. Inez, it quickly becomes clear, isn’t a human being; she’s both a bourgeois Republican monster and a construct designed such that Gil may easily run away from her. Unlike Ernst Lubitsch, whom Allen sometimes mimics here and who is actually the greatest comedy director since Chaplin, Allen can’t set up an honest relationship, and the Inez monster figure is one of many ways in which he provides Gil with the perfect excuse to escape into his fantasies of Paris in the 1920s.

This comes in the form of a beautiful motorcar that rolls up to the curb at midnight, and in an exact reversal of Cinderella, Gil goes to the ball. It’s hosted by Cocteau, but Gil is taken in by Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, given something approaching life by Corey Stoll. Allen clues the viewer much too early that Gil is imagining this, thus leaving Midnight in Paris hanging unresolved between fantasy and some sort of reality. This nostalgic time-travel device is something he’s done before; this variation most directly recalls The Purple Rose of Cairo, but Allen has long had one foot in the 1920s through his references and musical love of Dixieland jazz. He’s long noted that he sometimes feels that he was born in the wrong era, which is what Gil feels. Until Allen feels the compulsory urge to set things straight, as it were, via Gil as he falls for Adriana (Marion Cotillard), lover of Picasso and Hemingway. The message is delivered that we never know when we’re living in a golden age (Adriana certainly doesn’t, and yearns for the earlier La Belle Epoque), since we’re yearning for the past, which we know only through received wisdom and not the quotidian grind of direct experience.

Some Cannes-goers want to take this as a great breakthrough for Allen, who has supposedly wrenched himself free of his silly romantic notions of a past where all the best art (movies, literature, jazz) has already been made, and we’re just here as recyclers. (It’s hard not to view his entire opus in this light, except for his early, crazy and best comedies, like Bananas, which are mostly firmly rooted in the present.) Yet in the end Gil is a free man in Paris and able to have a chance encounter with a (younger, naturally) woman who runs a–guess it–antiques shop at an open street market. Two nostalgics, made for each other, walking in the rain, which always makes the Paris streets prettier in photographs don’t you know. Woody Allen hasn’t budged an inch, but Cannes loves him anyway.

Cannes: Ears to the Ground (3)

By Robert Koehler

Surprisingly, the general critical response out of Cannes to Lars Von Trier’s end-of-the-world, end-of-a-wedding romance, Melancholia, has thus far been generally positive. In our track of the current reviews rolling out, including a few from the French press, the pros outnumber the cons 16 to 8, with very few mixed. As can be seen in the responses thus far, the views of Melancholia are frequently seen under the looming shadow of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, specifically in the two films’ contrasting depictions of the beginning and end of planet Earth. This is because Malick’s film screened Monday, while Von Trier’s screened Wednesday, and in the kind of reflective effect that frequently occurs for film festival attendees, one film in a program begins to have a dialogue with another, and both are viewed inside a joint prism which, seen in different conditions and different times, wouldn’t exist. From a programming standpoint, it may be the first interesting thing I’ve read out of this year’s Cannes, while being certain that the better films in Cannes (such as Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, one of the highest scoring films in the critics’ daily roundup at are far from the Palais.

Below is a roster of Melancholia reviews so far, with links.  But first, this word from Lars Von Trier in the film’s pressbook. Which prompted the question from a journalist at the press screening. Which, in turn, prompted Von Trier’s now-notorious “I’m a Nazi” comment. Which, in turn, prompted Festival de Cannes to label Von Trier as an official “persona non grata,” a label that may or may not mean that he’s being kicked out of his hotel room and being directed back on the autoroute back to Copenhagen. Von Trier’s statement below is where the whole kerfuffle began:

“It was like waking from a dream: my producer showed me a suggestion for a poster. “What is that?” I ask. ”It’s a film you’ve made!” she replies. ”I hope not,” I stammer. Trailers are shown … stills … it looks like shit. I’m shaken. Don’t get me wrong … I’ve worked on the film for two years. With great pleasure. But perhaps I’ve deceived myself. Let myself be tempted. Not that anyone has done anything wrong … on the contrary, everybody has worked loyally and with talent toward the goal defined by me alone. But when my producer presents me with the cold facts, a shiver runs down my spine. This is cream on cream. A woman’s film! I feel ready to reject the film like a wrongly transplanted organ. But what was it I wanted? With a state of mind as my starting point, I desired to dive headlong into the abyss of German romanticism. Wagner in spades. That much I know. But is that not just another way of expressing defeat? Defeat to the lowest of cinematic common denominators? Romance is abused in all sorts of endlessly dull ways in mainstream products. And then, I must admit, I have had happy love relationships with romantic cinema … to name the obvious: Visconti! German romance that leaves you breathless. But in Visconti, there was always something to elevate matters beyond the trivial … elevate it to masterpieces! I am confused now and feel guilty. What have I done?

And now, from some of the critics:

Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) pro: Although Melancholia, by its very title, declares a mournful state of mind, the movie is, in fact, the work of a man whose slow emergence from personal crisis has resulted in a moving masterpiece, marked by an astonishing profundity of vision.

Sukhdev Sandhu (Telegraph) pro: It takes a baffling, almost bone-headed premise, the stuff of schlocky genre movies, and from it creates a mesmerizing, visually gorgeous and often-moving alloy of family drama, philosophical meditation and anti-golfing tract.

Peter Bradshaw (Guardian) con: Once again, Von Trier has written and directed an entire film in his trademark smirk mode: a giggling aria of pretend pain and faux rapture. The script is clunking, and poor Dunst joins Nicole Kidman and Bryce Dallas Howard in the list of Hollywood females who have sleepwalked trustingly through a Von Trier production. Even the spectacle is thin and supercilious.

Eric Kohn (IndieWIRE) pro: The greatest possible expression of Von Trier’s recent “no more happy endings” edict, “Melancholia” is supremely operatic, enlivened by its cosmic sensibility, and yet amazingly rendered on an intimate scale.

Kevin Jagernauth (IndieWIRE) mixed: We continue to admire the director and his dogged commitment to films that follow his own unique vision and personality right to the bitter end. But it’s that self-indulgence that often sabotages his own works as well. “Melancholia” is a personal project in the best and worst ways. We can’t imagine any other film tackling depression with the directness Von Trier does here anytime soon, but there is a curious lack of sensitivity and even compassion in the picture that seriously holds it back. Lars Von Trier films is still his own most fascinating subject, but with “Melancholia,” it would have been nice if he had
orbited a bit more daringly outside his very comfortable sphere.

Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter) con: Lars von Trier manages to turn the end of the world into a bit of a bore in Melancholia.  A brooding cross between The Celebration (Festen) and Armageddon drenched in the tragic romanticism of Richard Wagner, this contemplation of the planet’s demise predictably provides not an ounce of comfort or redemption, nor does it offer characters or ideas with which to meaningfully engage, just ample opportunity to wallow in some rapturous images, glorious music and a foul mood.

Drew McWeeney ( pro: This is the second film in a row where Von Trier has dealt head-on with the depression that almost drove him from filmmaking, and I find it really extraordinary the way he’s taken his own suffering and turned it into art.

Wesley Morris (Boston Globe) mixed to con: This isn’t particularly daring moviemaking from von Trier, not in the way he’s capable of. It’s just severely controlled, touchingly sincere, and, apparently, the result of a conversation he had with unlicensed therapist Penélope Cruz, who opted to make a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie instead of this one. The hearty, jeerless reception the movie received suggests his vision is preferred medicated. Unpacking American movie genres has always interested von Trier (this time, it’s wedding comedies, disaster film, and psychological dramas). But “Melancholia” has much more in common with 1960s Michelangelo Antonioni. Which means that his protagonist is not, for once, a woman he wants to antagonize. It’s a woman he wants to help in whatever way he can. In part, that’s because that woman is him.

Andrew O’Hehir (Salon) pro: “Melancholia” strikes me on first viewing as something truly special, even in an exceptionally strong Cannes competition that includes several other terrific films. I’m going to invoke the magic incantation here: This isn’t really a review. “Melancholia” demands another viewing or two and some time alone afterwards, something that’s ludicrous even to imagine in this hothouse setting. For what it’s worth — which is nothing much, at this point — I think I prefer “Melancholia” to Terrence Malick’s much-debated “The Tree of Life,” but to have two new career-defining works from major film artists that can plausibly be defended as cinematic and philosophical masterpieces in the same festival is close to miraculous… There is tremendous pain in “Melancholia,” but also ravishing beauty, at a level the abundantly talented Trier has never sustained before. He’s right that it’s not a movie about the end of the world (unless the religious wackos who think that’s coming this weekend are correct). It’s about facing life and death and mental illness with as much courage and love as you could muster, and what could be more grand and romantic than that? If the depresso Nordic class clown is trying to undercut his own movie by talking about Hitler and pornography, it’s only because he’s made something tender and exquisite and metaphysical and vulnerable, and now he wants to smash it.

Mike Goodridge (Screen Daily) pro: It’s certainly his most serious film in a while and you don’t get the sense that he is manipulating or mocking the audience as he usually does. It feels like he is passionate about his material here, possibly because it’s a movie about depression and Von Trier has said openly that he battles depression himself. Although at one point in the film I was hating it, by the end I was entirely under its spell.

Peter Howell (Toronto Star) pro: He dazzled with Melancholia, his new science fiction film, premiering here, that sets a fractious family wedding amidst the impending end of the world, caused by a rogue planet colliding with Earth. Although critical opinions seemed mixed, there’s no denying von Trier is still a potent writer/director and master manipulator of images and moods.

Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline) pro: Antichrist was a scream of pain; Melancholia is more like a heavy sigh, a gasp at the horrible wonder of it all. It isn’t nearly as somber as its title would lead you to believe, and it’s so beautiful to look at that it feels decadent, almost luxurious. It’s also, for all its weirdness, reasonably accessible, as if von Trier had decided — tentatively — that once in a while it might feel good to be part of the human race instead of just railing against it. If it’s true that misery loves company, maybe this is von Trier’s way of reaching out. Melancholia may be as close as he’ll ever come to wrapping us in a bear hug.

Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune) pro: Von Trier’s “Melancholia” answers Malick’s spiritual inquiry by saying, well, it was a stupid planet anyway, with a limited shelf life. Yet von Trier, a serious man when he isn’t being the most ill-advised ironic wiseacre this side of a visiting planet, creates startling moments of beauty.

Glenn Heath (Slant) pro : Von Trier avoids antagonizing the viewer with his usual gut-punch theatrics, settling down for a story about colliding worlds, breaking façades, and shifting alliances. The relationships we carry on our shoulders are so heavy the world can literally split apart from the pressure, and there’s nothing like a gigantic blue orb to put specific burdens in perspective. Melancholia finds solace in this respect by dismantling the ways expressions of love, commitment, and family can fail. The hovering balloon lanterns incinerating in the sky, an ignored photograph of a ranch, and dismantled vows are signals of an emotional world shifting off its axis. These are von Trier’s cinematic cave paintings to a pulverizing overture of calamity. Melancholia descends calmly into the fiery red night with an unnerving grace only von Trier could conjure.

Richard Corliss (Time) mixed: Every Cannes Festival needs a Wow! moment, and the opening few minutes of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia provided the artistic sensation of Cannes 2011. Even as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, this Festival’s other big event, re-created the beginning of the cosmos, so, with similarly spectacular imagery but with a greater emotional resonance, Melancholia begins with the end of the world. It’s as if these two highly esteemed, blithely quirky filmmakers had been assigned the complementary subjects of ontogeny and eschatology, and responded with their grand, distilled visions.

J. Hoberman (Village Voice) pro: There are many differences between Melancholia and Tree of Life. The comparison is not a matter of filmmaking (although the first five minutes of Melancholia are more innovative, accomplished, and visionary than anything in The Tree of Life); it’s a matter of sensibility. (For some, Von Trier’s appalling skepticism might make Malick’s faith all the more touching.) But for me the most important difference is the distinction between art and kitsch.

Mike D’Angelo (The A.V. Club) con: fully half of the film is devoted to a portrait of Justine’s depression, which gradually overwhelms her on her wedding day. And by the time that half had drawn to a close, Von Trier had pretty much lost me.

Lee Marshall (Screen Daily) con: For all the film’s widescreen panache, the script at the heart of the exercise feels like an uncooked avant-garde play.

Dave Calhoun (Time Out) con: This is a lethargic, pretty and frustratingly empty study in ways of living and dying from Danish director Lars Von Trier. He follows ‘Antichrist’ with a more calm and restrained work but also one which feels curiously disengaged from the world and only impressive and powerful on a technical level rather than an intellectual or emotional one.

Simon Gallagher (Film School Rejects) pro: Melancholia is very much the embodiment of Von Trier’s commitment to producing a cinema of self-harm: it is a manifestation of his inner turmoil, explicated and resolved through this fantastical filmic wound, as he seeks to match the thrilling sensation of his inner melancholia (something audiences will invariably find troubling) with an exterior, artistic sensation. And it is incredibly successful in that agenda, albeit at a cost of the audience’s enjoyment and traditional sense of pleasure. But then those responses are perhaps best viewed as the rituals of cinema that Von Trier is determined to destroy.

Todd Brown (Twitch) con: Congratulations to everyone who has ever accused director Lars Von Trier of self absorption and hollow pretentiousness. You win this round. Von Trier’s Melancholia is a glossy but hollow exercise with shockingly little to say and – seemingly – surprisingly little effort put in to saying it well. Poor performances and shoddy dialogue are just the most obvious problems with this one, a film that handily wrests the ‘Worst Film Of Career’ title away from The Boss Of It All and, in the process, takes its place as the first Von Trier film that I would classify as just plain bad. Melancholia is a lot like a lottery scratch card, promising a lot under it’s shiny surface but ultimately nothing more than a wafer thin disappointment.

Peter Debruge (Variety) pro: For all the tyrannical disdain he’s shown other filmmakers over the years, von Trier once again demonstrates a mastery of classical technique, extracting incredibly strong performances from his cast while serving up a sturdy blend of fly-on-the-wall naturalism and jaw-dropping visual effects.

Brad Brevet (Rope of Silicon) con: However, as poetic as that may sound, the film doesn’t offer very much. Melancholia seems to simply come from a place of boredom and von Trier’s interest in making a film because he had nothing better to do.

Roger Koza (Con Los Ojos Abiertos) con: (Koza notes Malick’s New Age affiliations) Y vendrán los últimos 30 minutos, y el filme deriva indefectiblemente hacia un nuevo poema visual, ahora kitsch y fervientemente religioso en el que la espiritualidad New Age y un evangelismo difuso van fagocitando tanto la totalidad del film como las inquietudes filosóficas de Mallick (quien supo alguna vez traducir algunas obras tardías de Martin Heidegger).

Jean-Marc Lalanne (Les Inrockuptibles) pro: (Lalanne says, in sum, Better than Kubrick!) Certes, c’est Orange mécanique qui, quarante après sa sortie, bénéficie d’une montée des marches (Malcom Mc Dowell, la famille Kubrick…) et d’une copie restaurée. Mais le film du festival, c’est 2001 l’odyssée de l’espace. Après Terrence Malick, c’est Lars Von Trier qui propose son grand film astral. Les cinq premières minutes, techniquement assez virtuoses, prêtent même à sourire tant cette ronde de planètes sur fond de musique classique hurle le désir de Lars Von Trier de surpasser Kubrick dans le métaphysique grandiose et spectaculaire.

Isabelle Regnier (Le Monde) pro : Je passe sur les effroyables déclarations du cinéaste danois, qui m’ont violemment déprimée. Son film au contraire, est le plus aimable qu’il ait fait depuis longtemps. Extrêmement impressionnant d’un point de vue plastique, porté par deux actrices au sommet de leur talent (Kirsten Dunst et Charlotte Gainsbourg), il annonce son programme dès le prologue : la fin du monde, qui adviendra par la collusion d’une grosse planète, Melancholia, avec la terre. Si le point de vue du cinéaste est aussi surplombant qu’à son habitude, le film est plus ouvert, et plus ample du même coup, que ses précédents notamment parce qu’il ne regarde plus ses personnages de la même manière. Il leur apporte une plus grande complexité, leur laisse une chance, un degré de liberté auquel il ne nous avait pas habitués.

Cannes: Ears to the Ground (2)

By Robert Koehler

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life begins, all too appropriately, with a yolk-colored blob. Like a scientist’s experiment which has been fussed over until it’s lost its original hypothesis (let alone any proof), Malick’s new film is the work of a man who has so overthought his material that it has flipped, and become underthought, a welter of contradictory ideas, a toxic brew of literalism and spiritualism, an acid trip without the necessary acid. He has turned a chamber piece about a Texas family in the post-war era into a bloated behemoth. He has fatally forgotten the wisdom that in the specific lies the universal, and instead imposes an entirely unearned universal construct on top of a small story that should have a running time of no more than 80 minutes, rather than its entirely unjustifiable 137-minute length–a marker of uncontrolled hubris.

I noted in my review in Cinema Scope of Malick’s previous film, The New World, that the key to understanding his cinema is that he’s a birder. This does not apply to The Tree of Life, although there may be more actual birds on screen in the new work. It would be good to report that the key lies in Malick’s previous life (before he became a film director with Badlands in 1973) as a lecturer in philosophy at MIT, where he specialized in Heidegger. The Tree of Life is replete with philosophy, to be sure; oh, my, is it ever, all of it stated, as with every verbal utterance on the soundtrack (most of which are delivered in a nearly inaudible whispered voiceover by the various characters), absolutely and firmly on the nose. But the philosophy is now confused, amorphous, cosmic, furry-headed variations on the now-old New Age movement. Indeed, that would be a better title for the opus: The New Age.

He has made one film, interrupted by another; or, seen from another angle, two films, each refusing to meld with the other. The first is a memory narrative about middle-aged Houston architect Jack (Sean Penn), prompted out of nothing in particular–perhaps, as far can be vaguely perceived from Malick’s fractured depiction of activity, a bad day at the office–to recall his painful childhood growing up in Waco, Tx. with father Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), mom Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) and brothers R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan). As Jack grows up, he develops an antipathy toward his father, whom we are told quite bluntly early on represents “the way of nature,” while mother represents “the way of grace.” (In Malick’s philosophical construct, “nature” is bad, imposing, arrogant; “grace” is “never having to justify one’s self.” More on this slice of intellectual nonsense later.) Raised in a “good” home but with a strict, disciplinarian father, Jack begins to rebel as he moves toward his teen years, and flirts with bad deeds. Father, who falls on rough times with his failed attempts to cash in on his various patents, seems to try to re-bond with Jack, even as he moves the family to a much nicer neighborhood. (Even though he’s fallen on bad times, a nifty detail Malick never explains.) Later, one of Jack’s brothers dies at age 19 for no known reason (perhaps in Vietnam, or Korea, or somewhere else, who knows? Does Malick?)–a deliberate though unrealized tragedy depicted, in a true storytelling perversity, not near the end of Tree of Life, but at its beginning.

The other film? This would be Malick’s depiction of the beginning of the local solar system, the forming of Earth and the origins of life, from the microbial stage to the dinosaurs. Again, this is not where The Tree of Life begins proper, but some twenty minutes in, after Penn’s voice whispers things like “Brother?” and “Mother?”, some blobs appear and disappear, Jack’s family is introduced, Jack’s mother receives a telegram announcing the son’s death, and Penn’s adult Jack is seen rummaging around his gorgeous architect’s desk and walking amidst a forest of glassy skyscrapers (presumably The Trees of Corporate Life, given the way they are filmed at extreme low angles with ultra-wide focal lenses in identical fashion to the film’s many actual trees). For no particular reason or catalyst, Malick chooses to jump literally into the cosmos, assembling a gorgeous string of images. Derived from pictures by the Hubble deep space telescope, and processed by the Palomar Observatory and the Digitized Sky Survey at Caltech, the images show the births of stars, galaxies and then our planet, followed by a montage of subatomic particles, cellular organisms, ancient fish and then, finally, two CGI created dinosaurs.

From some closely similar music cues and planetary and prehistoric images to its leaps in time and space, this other film simply and openly begs comparison with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. So, let’s compare. The narrative leap out of the family film into the dinosaur film is not the kind of leap made by 2001‘s Moon Watcher ape tossing his bone weapon into the air and transforming in cinema’s greatest edit to a spaceship; there’s no expressive or meaningful transition, but rather, a seemingly arbitrary cut that may have just as well happened sooner or later. The montage of astronomical, geologic, geographic and underwater images that follow in some ways closely parallel the opening montage of primordial landscapes in “The Dawn of Man” sequence in 2001, but they soon have the feeling of a montage in an IMAX film presented in a science park, missing only Morgan Freeman’s narration explaining the development of life on earth. (Perhaps the only spot in The Tree of Life in which voice-over does not occur.) They also indicate a critical problem with the visual nature of Malick’s film, which is that the images are discrete unto themselves, picturesque rather than cinematic, producing the sensation of flipping through pages in a coffee-table photography book (or, in the case of Jack’s family, pictures in the album of a family we don’t know).

Most critical in a 2001 comparison is how this “Dawn of Life” film-within-a-film climaxes, and how it points to the film’s central philosophical defects. A long-necked dinosaur, first observed at its beach hangout, lopes into a forest where it encounters a smaller, wounded dino prey, looking for all intents and purposes like dinner as it presses a claw like a death-grip on the little guy’s head. But, in a truly Spielbergian moment (and even Spielberg couldn’t conceive of such dino-to-dino kindness in Jurassic Park), big dino takes apparent compassion upon little dino, releasing its grip and consoling it with a gentle stroke. This, we can only conclude, is the birth of love, or, at least, pity. (Compare, if you will, this image of big dino’s gentle claw with Monica Vitti’s white hand on the forehead of Gabriele Ferzetti at the end of L’Avventura for a useful contrasting expression of genuine pity.) This is pure anthropomorphism, and precisely the opposite of Kubrick’s apes-into-men. Such a depiction of dinosaur love is little more than human wish fulfillment, a fantasy–even a romance–of altruism amongst animals, and this after having just been told in blunt terms on the film’s whispered soundtrack that “nature” is bad. Kubrick’s apes, having accidentally stumbled upon the usefulness of bones as weapons, deploy their invention to kill members of a competing band of apes, confirming that man’s innately violent nature is certain to make tools into implements of violence. These, not love, are some of the elements of evolution.

A clearer difference in philosophies, between Malick’s essentially naive romanticism–which proves to gird much of what follows in The Tree of Life–and Kubrick’s Darwinian view of natural selection, is hard to imagine. Yet this probably wont stop the upcoming flow of commentary likening The Tree of Life to 2001, encouraged by the participation of Kubrick’s important special effects collaborator, Douglas Trumbull, with Malick, as well as a spate of classical music selections (John Tavener, Holst) which directly acknowledge the influence of 2001. While Malick’s early films, including Badlands and Days of Heaven, combined an awareness of class conflict and the inevitable clashes of human desire with a fascination with nature that bordered on Pantheism, The Tree of Life dives headlong into a world view that can be summed up in the Beatles lyric, “All you need is love.” Mrs. O’Brien, in one of her few whispered voice-overs as the family moves out of their old Waco house, states that without love, life goes by in a flash. Love is seen to finally bridge the growing barrier between Jack and his father. An increasing lack of love between Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien can be seen to fuel his angry outbursts when he’s confronted with his boys’ disobedience.

At the same time, Malick is either uninterested, unwilling or unable to convey emotions on screen, except through the crutch of all those whispered voiceovers allowing us to eavesdrop on characters’ inner thoughts. The annoying mannerism of the whispering aside (and it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the spectacular misjudgment of the flagrant overuse of this device, to say nothing of its pseudo-poetic language, the on-the-nose obviousness and the particularly vexing issue that about 75% of what’s whispered is inaudible, even when seen in the Directors Guild’s superb big cinema), the emotional undercurrents are crowded off screen for the picturesque. The actual human dimension is replaced by bits of bullet-point dialogue; when Jack faces his father and says, “You’d like to kill me,” it doesn’t shock or resound, because there’s nothing backing it up, since there’s nothing in the father’s behavior that’s remotely homicidal, only aggressive. Malick wants to convey love’s force, and, as he deems it, “grace,” but he can’t find cinematic correlatives for it. His narrative contains all the aspects of a primal father-son conflict, but he drains it away and replaces it with New Age quotations. “The glory” is a term heard often, in a throwback to its use in The Thin Red Line to far more powerful effect, since it was tied to actual human endeavors and historical events. (The New Age effect also flows to the soundtrack: Tavener is a favorite composer with the New Age crowd, as well as the progressive Anglo-Saxon Christian crowd, with whom New Agers have much in common. This is also true of Henryk Gorecki, whose music is also periodically cued.) Even Mr. O’Brien’s real-world work at a giant oil refinery and his efforts to cash in on his various patents comes across as abstract and vacuous, materialist engagements framed in purely spiritualist terms; the refinery resembles nothing so much as a cathedral of industrial pipes, while the Texas state capitol building where O’Brien tramps around aimlessly and to no real purpose is filmed as if it were St. Peter’s in Rome.

The Tree of Life begins with a quotation from the Book of Job (Chapter 38, verses 4 and 7, in which God puts Job in his place), and references Job’s trials with God later during a pastor’s sermon. Nods to God and Job and references and quotations do not, however, by themselves earn meaning. Nor does a train of images early on of the family grieving over news of the son’s death conjure up a Job-like struggle. A detectable pattern emerges: Ideas are stated, and then not explored in cinematic terms. Worse: the ideas contradict one another. Take the matter of grace vs. nature, which Malick clearly intends as his central dialectic. The ways in which these two states of mind/existence are defined by Malick has little to do with any recognizable view of either. Grace is typically associated with either the comforting power of a supreme being, or in Malick’s Pantheistic view, an equilibrium between humans and nature. As for Nature, philosophers have clashed for centuries over it’s essential meaning, ranging from the kind of anthropomorphism dramatized by Malick with his dinos or poets’ use of “the pathetic fallacy” to a more scientific view that sees Nature as an amoral process of birth, life, death, decay and regeneration–the view, if you will, of “2001.” But Malick has wholly confused his terms. Two direct literary influences on The Tree of Life are William Faulkner and D. H. Lawrence; Faulkner for his fracturing of narrative into a stream-of-consciousness, better to convey the unstructured momentum of inner thought and emotions, and for his fascination with the eternal battle between fathers and sons; Lawrence for his concern with the conflict between what he viewed as “nature” and “will.” Mr. O’Brien is a purely Lawrencian character, which Malick proceeds to utterly misread. Rather than representing nature (that would actually be Mrs. O’Brien, who’s constantly depicted outdoors, under the trees, walking barefoot in the grass, dipping her toes in water), Mr. O’Brien is pure will, and he states it as such in a few lines of dialogue while advising his sons on the cruel ways of the world. His entire character can be viewed as a man trying to exert his will on his sons to follow in his path; the middle son’s interest in music draws him closer to the father, who regrets aborting his own music studies (now channeled into some organ playing of Bach and record-spinning of Brahms and other composers at home), and which seems to spur Jack’s jealousy. This is not nature, but it’s opposite, the human forces impinging themselves upon nature, exactly as Lawrence viewed it.

Ultimately, Malick discards these matters for something far more amorphous: Adult Jack’s quest for meaning, conveyed in a manner that can only be described as graduate film school surrealism. In the early reels, Malick inserts strange footage of Sean Penn in his business suit traipsing through what may be a desert in California or Utah; trippy and maybe a bit silly, but quickly forgotten what with the dinosaurs and Jack v. dad tale that consumes much of the film. But then, in the final reel, it all comes back, with Penn’s Jack still traipsing, climbing over rocks, walking through a door standing alone in the wilderness (I’m not kidding), then the roofless family house (or a small section of it replicated by Malick’s longtime production designer Jack Fisk in the desert) and finally reaching a long, flat beach with lots of folks blankly wandering around. They include, in a true stroke of Kitsch, Jack’s family as they were when he was a kid; these are, it seems, the living dead, or ghosts of Jack’s past, or perhaps something else, since almost nobody in this gaggle of beachside wanderers outside of the family is recognizable from the rest of the film. Nothing much happens; Penn and Pitt walk silently together in the film’s only superstar moment, the kids receive a few hugs, the water laps ashore, and then it’s over.

And to what end? It might reasonably be expected that this sequence should be adult Jack’s final cathartic release of emotional memory, an expunging of familial toxins, a recognition of impending mortality as well as a reconciliation with the past. Whether this was Malick’s intention can only be guessed at, since none of this happens, and nothing else either, expect a bunch of images of various people walking on the beach. Literally, and nothing more, pictures. This is important, since endings are important, this is where he ends the film, accented by such postcard Kitsch as a shot of a field of sunflowers. Nothing more clearly points to a film run aground by undeveloped ideas in contradiction than this.

The tragedy of The Tree of Life is the film itself, a project of such profound importance to the filmmaker that he worked on concepts and images for it ever since he’s been a filmmaker–nearly 38 years. He clearly based the family story on his own memories growing up in Texas as a boy in the late 1940s and 1950s, and this is best preserved on film in the many wonderful, Wyeth-like moments of rambunctious boys playing indoors and out, having fun for the sake of it. (The sole moments of anything like lightness in a film utterly devoid of humor, irony or inference.) He sweated out several 200-page drafts, and when producer Bill Pohlad told him a decade ago that his script contained two films that weren’t joined into one, he worked on it some more, making The New World in the interim. It’s now clear that Pohlad’s criticism was precisely on point; what hardly makes any sense is why the film was subsequently funded and produced when the very problem Pohlad defined was never resolved. Like the New Age itself, The Tree of Life is an aspirational quest that can’t come full circle, since it never determines what it is in the first place, and concludes as a cinema con.

Cannes: Ears to the Ground

By Robert Koehler

It’s both a strange year and a good year to be away from the Cannes film festival. To not participate in the annual May ritual of descending on the Cote d’Azur (always via TGV off the plane at Paris De Gaulle) and subject yourself to ten days of virtually nonstop viewing from 8:30 a.m. until past midnight–minus times away at the laptop to shoot out hopefully crafted critical responses, composed recklessly when the films are still warm, an athletic process that turns movie watching into an exercise in extreme physical focus toward the screen and away from the fatigue screaming from your body–well….it turns this particular May into an uncommonly peaceful occasion. I’m rather enjoying it, in fact, and based on the responses heard so far as we have our ears to the ground, not missing much of what is sizing up to be a most mediocre Cannes.

Not surprising, given the unexciting lineup announced last month. Kim Ki-Duk anyone? Eric Khoo anyone? Maiwenn? Almodovar, again? Miike, for the umpteenth time? The two overrated Triers (Lars Von T. and Joachim)? Bertrand Bonello AND Naomi Kawase, for God’s sake? Nanni Moretti in the sunset of his career? Even with the awareness that one wasn’t going to be amongst the first in the world to see what Thierry Fremaux et Cie had decided to anoint as “essential” (in both the official selection and the usually superior sidebar, Un Certain Regard) it was hard to justify a trip just to see filmmakers of worth, such as Gerardo Naranjo (Miss Bala), Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin), Gus Van Sant (Restless), Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), Aki Kaurismaki (Le Havre), Alain Cavalier (Pater) and Hong Sangsoo (The Day He Arrives). Especially when some or most of these would be seen pretty soon anyway. (Extremely soon, as it so happens: Malick’s insanely anticipated lifetime-in-the-making opus I saw this afternoon. And Woody Allen’s opening night bon bon is screening in Los Angeles this week.)

So maybe it’s a good year to stay away, even if that Icelandic volcano isn’t blowing up anymore, and the Mediterranean coast isn’t being pounded by waves (as was the case in that memorable edition of 2009). From the start, the sense of yawns from the press (there are more press in Cannes than critics) was detectable with Allen’s latest European postcard, this one starring Owen Wilson as a struggling writer suddenly sent back in time from Paris today to Paris in the 1920s. Van Sant’s Restless was judged by most as slight, with his signature filmmaking being applied to a highly tenderized teen tale.

Ramsay’s film–which I picked in a bout of pre-festival hubris as the likely Palme d’Or winner, based on advance word–proved extremely divisive, with some deeply impressed with her ambitiously fractured film grammar applied to a story of a mom (Tilda Swinton, post her the best actress award now, according to all reports) dealing with her seemingly psychopathic boy, and others finding it an unholy mess. The best that many could say about first-time writer-director (and novelist) Julia Leigh’s Jane Campion-endorsed drama, Sleeping Beauty, is that it was precise, or that it recalled Eyes Wide Shut (high praise, as seen from this corner), but a large majority wouldn’t go there and deemed it simply ludicrous.

And that was just the first day. Five full days are done, and upcoming posts will try to synthesize the general critical response, as well as a few individual reviews of films across the sections from the competition, Un Certain Regard, the Quinzaine and Semaine de la Critique. Next is a review of The Tree of Life.