“I am watching one of the greatest movies ever made.” It’s a thought I’ve had many times before, but only when revisiting old favorites, or having my first belated look at a decades-old classic. No matter how obviously magnificent a contemporary film may be, I’m not generally prepared to reserve a place for it in the canon before it’s even halfway over—indeed, it often takes me two or three complete viewings before I finally make the leap from “just plain great” to “all-time masterpiece.” I’m slow that way.
Roughly an hour into Terrence Malick’s mindbending The Tree of Life, however, I was fully convinced I was bearing world-premiere witness to the equivalent of Birth Of A Nation or Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey—an instant benchmark against which the entire medium would henceforth be measured. Advance word suggesting that this ’50s-set small-town family drama would somehow involve dinosaurs proved to be wholly inadequate preparation for the cosmic scale of Malick’s ambition. The big talking point for most will undoubtedly be the film’s awe-inspiring second “movement” (symphonic analogies are unavoidable here), which condenses the first 13.74 billion years of the universe into a roiling montage of purposeful chaos. But even when Malick returns to Waco, Texas, where a domineering Dad (Brad Pitt) and angelic Mom (Jessica Chastain) raise three rambunctious boys, The Tree of Life remains, for a time, thrillingly impressionistic, eschewing any semblance of conventional narrative in favor of a fragmentary approach in which glancing, allusive snippets of light, breath, and motion bum-rush the camera lens, accompanied by plaintive, whispered voiceover narration implicitly addressed to God. (I found those whispers off-putting in The Thin Red Line and The New World, but they work beautifully here, perhaps because they don’t serve as counterpoint to something as iconic as WWII or the Pocahontas story.)
Call it We Need to Talk About Existence. Like Lynne Ramsay, however, Malick can’t maintain that level of poetic abstraction forever. (Actually, I believe they both could have, but neither apparently wanted to.) After bopping freely across time and space for over an hour, The Tree of Life finally settles down and starts telling something like a straightforward story, as the couple’s eldest son, Jack (Hunter McCracken), repeatedly squares off against Pitt’s crew-cut martinet. (At various points, though not in this lengthy section, we also see Jack as a world-weary adult, played by Sean Penn.) Given what we know about Malick—born and raised in Waco, with a brother who died young (as one of Jack’s brothers apparently does, though that occurs during the impressionistic blitz)—this material is likely autobiographical, and it’s certainly deeply felt; many individual moments of random beauty and violence still stand out. But the longer the film goes on, and the more its figures solidify into actual characters, the less magical it seems, until eventually it resembles a solid but largely unexceptional memoir not unlike, say, This Boy’s Life. (Remember that one? With De Niro and DiCaprio in the Pitt and McCracken roles?) Maybe that first hour raised my expectations so high that no second hour-plus could possibly fulfill them, but my gut feeling is that Malick got distracted from his overall conception by a desire to revisit specific incidents from his childhood, by the need to depict his father rather than simply a father. And the film’s denouement, which attempts to circle back to transcendence, felt disappointingly banal, even a bit drippy. The Tree of Life is a major achievement, and I’d be perfectly happy to see it win the Palme d’Or (it’s my personal vote as of this writing, since Martha Marcy May Marlene and Miss Bala aren’t in Competition), but the space I’d cleared for it in my list of the five or ten greatest movies ever made remains empty. Wholly Inadequate Grade: B (but I can readily imagine it graduating to a B+ on second viewing).
Not to be outdone by some reclusive American, French provocateur Bruno Dumont, who always juxtaposes the sacred and the profane, does so yet again in his latest effort, which bears the clumsy English-language title Outside Satan. (For some reason, it’s in Un Certain Regard, even though Dumont is a Competition veteran and this film is no less accomplished or ambitious than his others.) I’ve never been a particular fan of Dumont’s bizarre sensibility, which seems to argue that nothing is truly spiritual unless it’s ugly, damaged, or depraved, but he’d seemed to turn a corner of some kind with his excellent previous film, Hadewijch, even casting an actor (Julie Sokolowski) capable of giving a performance rather than merely embodying a physiognomy. Alas, he’s reverted to form. Outside Satan follows two inexpressive lumps (David Dewaele and Alexandra Lematre) around northern France as they alternately commit acts of violence and kneel in silent prayer; the unnamed man, who seems to be homeless, also repeatedly visits the home of a young girl, whose unspecified affliction he’s able to cure via what looks like mouth-to-mouth exorcism. (Later, a backpacker who propositions him—in typical Dumont fashion, the actual line is “You can fuck me if you like”—gets rather more than she bargained for when they go at it, in a way that perhaps explains why he keeps rebuffing the other girl’s advances.) It’s not terribly hard to fashion a religious allegory from the surreal elements of this film, but it isn’t especially rewarding either, given how pointedly unpleasant and flatly declarative its surface forever remains. If you dug Life of Jesus, Humanité,and Flanders, however, I can all but guarantee it’ll be right up your alley. Grade: C
With the possible exception of “pretentious,” no adjective is of less critical use than “boring,” but holy crap was I bored out of my skull by André Téchiné’s Unforgivable, screening in the Directors’ Fortnight. So much so, in fact, that I don’t have a whole lot to say about it other than: avoid. André Dussollier (Wild Grass) plays a writer who moves to Venice to work on his new novel and instantly proposes to the real-estate broker (Carole Bouquet) who finds a house for him. That she instantly accepts, despite having no apparent feelings for him one way or the other, is typical of this meandering, painfully mundane character study; as in so many literary adaptations (the source is a novel by Philippe Djian), things that may have made sense when we were privy to the characters’ inner monologues become opaque when we’re restricted to observing their actions. A daughter (Mélanie Thierry) goes missing, a son (Mauro Conte) is released from jail, a retired private detective (Adriana Asti) starts snooping about — there’s incident a-plenty, but it’s all just so much stuff that happens, devoid of either entertainment or meaning. I can forgive Téchiné without difficulty — you make Wild Reeds, you get a lifetime pass — but his heart doesn’t seem to have really been in this one. Grade: C
Tomorrow: Aki Kaurismäki returns after a five-year absence, and 2007 Grand Prix winner Naomi Kawase (The Mourning Forest) takes another shot at the Palme.