September 25, 2011

The Tree of Life (USA 2011)

The American filmmaker Terrence Malick is an almost mythical figure in the international film scene. Often referred to as a poet, the director, screenwriter and producer rarely makes films but if he does, the resulting works are almost always extraordinary. His new epic "The Tree of Life" received the Palme d'Or in Cannes this year despite strong competition. The somehow abashed justification from Jury President Robert de Niro was: "it had the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize." To be sure, the size, the importance and Malick's intention can't be denied. But this raises the question whether the will alone to make a big and important film is enough to win the most highly regarded international film prize.

Certainly "The Tree of Life" is filmmaking at the highest stage. Yet there is the feeling that it is the effort of an aging great director eagerly wanting to make his definitive masterpiece. Malick mostly does not follow a classic narrative structure, but the film is overloaded with topics spanning from the patriarchy still prevailing at the time the film is set (the 50s) to the current economic crisis. Likewise, there are a multitude of religious symbols and allusions. The relationships do not always reveal themselves - at least for that part of the audience that does not have the acquired wisdom of the director who has studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford. It therefore depends on your point of view whether you think Malick is a genius or just pretentious.

The visuals of the film are as ambitious as the content. But as breathtaking as the images are, they also seem artificial sometimes which may be due to digital effects. This is quite a paradox for a film that - like all the films of Terrence Malick - celebrates natural beauty. The soundtrack is very emotional and seems to compensate for the suppressed feelings of the protagonists. The actors are quite convincing, especially Brad Pritt as the strict father and Jessica Chastain as his more emotional wife.

One must be grateful that there are still filmmakers like Terrence Malick and films like "The Tree of Life." Films that deliberately break the rules and refuse to use well-tried narrative patterns. Films that have the potential to elevate the viewer to another level of consciousness. One such film was Stanley Kubrick's "2001" which was then equally misunderstood by many critics. Not least because of the metaphysical level and the expressionistic animated sequences (which are, as in "2001", by Douglas Trumbull) a comparison is inevitable. But there is one significant difference between the two films: Kubrick's film is directed with confident ease while Malick's direction seems forced.

Open-minded moviegoers will still be able to find a lot in the film, which is essentially an elegiac farewell to the American dream. People exepecting the new Brad Pitt film will most likely be disappointed. Without a doubt, "The Tree of Life" is a must-see film. If only for being capable of going back to somewhat less weighty films with a good conscience...


The quintessential "Terrence Malick shot"

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