What do you make of a pre-ordained masterpiece? Terrence Malick’s breathlessly-awaited The Tree of Life had its world premiere this morning in Cannes, and the smattering of livid boos against the torrent of applause felt delicious, if only to puncture an expectation of instant coronation for the Texan auteur.
Film fanatics have been reverently drooling over The Tree of Life for almost two years now, with bloggers heralding it based solely on a handful of available photos and a slight synopsis (Brad Pitt plays a bad dad! Sean Penn’s his bitter son! Plus…dinosaurs!) And, within an hour of its first-ever screening, a tsunami of opinions flooded the world almost instantly. The Hollywood Reporter had its review out in 42 minutes; Variety followed 19 minutes later. (HR was in such a rush that it mentioned Pitt giving his “final” performance instead of his “finest.”) What chance does any movie have—especially a Grand Statement about cosmic design—when the media’s appetite to ingest is stronger than its desire to savor?
Today’s screening began at 8:30am—which, considering the pent-up anticipation, meant that people had started queuing just after 7am, as the town’s sanitation trucks finished hosing down the streets and local boulangeries were pulling out fresh batches of croissants. And that eager early-bird audience was rewarded with a sumptuous spectacle of the universe in all its humbling glory; spellbinding elemental images of the natural world; and childhood reveries both angelic and demonic. Bouncing between the dawn of time, 1960s small-town life in Waco and present-day Dallas skyscrapers, The Tree of Life is unlike any other film, including Malick’s previous pictures, and possesses an audacious ambition that handily puts most other movies to shame.
Pity the good couldn’t go unchecked by the bad. Ever since he made his debut with Badlands four decades ago, Malick’s use of voiceover accompanying pacific splendor has been a signature style as well as an easy, self-indulgent target for parody; and The Tree of Life sure has it in all its elliptical, prophetic, whispery glory. And when the images aren’t capturing the shock and awe of life’s mysterium tremendum, they just feel almost risible, like fisheye glamour shots from a Chanel ad campaign.
There are more than a few truly blissful moments of transcendence, but the execution is wobbly in fits and starts. Still, the ambition is above reproach, especially considering how easy it would be for a matinee idol like Pitt to stick to franchises and popcorn pictures. Not only does he star in The Tree of Life, he was also one of the film’s producers. “Why are we here? What’s the purpose?” he asked rhetorically during a televised interview today on one of France’s broadcast networks. “I share those same philosophical questions. To me, they’re unanswerable.” Reflection is a rare asset in Hollywood, let alone in the hothouse snark of the blogosphere that likes to paint Malick more as an infallible shaman. The Tree of Life deserves accolades, but its faults need to be recognized as well. It’s the only way an audience can digest and absorb something worth chewing.