The Tree Of Life: nuts on a cosmic scale

So what was all that about then?

This season’s chin-strokey arthouse must-see would seem to be Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, which has been provoking both awe and ridicule since it was unveiled at Cannes, where it won the Palme d’Or. It’s clearly a labour of love and a deeply personal project from the legendarily reclusive and enigmatic (ie doesn’t do interviews) writer and director, and it’s certainly very rare to find something this defiantly highbrow made on what must have been a considerable budget. I can’t see this one making its money back any time soon.

Why the controversy? What’s so difficult and challenging about it? Well, for about three-quarters of its running time, nothing really. The bulk of the film is a small-scale, closely observed domestic drama seen through the eyes of the eldest of three young boys growing up in a suburban American environment in the 1950s. The conflict arises through the stern authoritarian attitudes of the boys’ father, who insists on them calling him “Sir” and impresses a “nice guys finish last” message on them at every available opportunity. Their mother is by contrast loving, supportive and long-suffering and rarely stands up to her husband. There are one or two significant incidents, but the flow of these sequences is for the most part easy and unforced, with the emotions and development of the characters being revealed more through the camerawork than through the dialogue, which is hardly ever expository and absent completely for long periods. This section of the film is deftly made and often quite moving, with the sense of both the exuberance and the frustrations of youth being effectively conveyed. It’s energetically shot, with a lot of handheld camera and a particular focus on the natural world, and it’s skilfully edited, with a striking montage dealing with the births and early childhood of the boys and some occasional jumpcuts that underline moments of tension. It’s almost well-made enough to let you forget that the father is being played by Brad Pitt.

So there’s a neat and touching ninety minute family portrait here. The trouble is that surrounding, and sometimes interrupting, it is the rest of the film. And this stuff is frankly bizarre. Early on there’s a long passage that reminds me of nothing so much as a live action remake of the “Rite Of Spring” sequence in Disney’s Fantasia: lots of Hubble-style imagery of distant galaxies and star formations giving way to fire and lava, which are in turn replaced by primeval life forms and surging oceans before we end up with rainforests and fully rendered CGI dinosaurs, all set to a stirring operatic soundtrack. It is in its own way quite magnificent, but it’s more like God’s own screensaver than anything that relates to the Brad Pitt stuff. And the dinosaurs must have cost millions. Then there are the bits with Sean Penn, who’s playing the grown-up version of the oldest son. Now Penn’s a damn fine actor, but he doesn’t get to do anything here other than look wistful and regret-struck, initially in a succession of soulless steel and glass skyscrapers and then in a desert and on a beach (presumably to make a nature-good/business-bad point). Finally there’s an extended bit involving hundreds of people wading around at low tide looking worryingly happy-clappy that might well be pitched to a plane somewhat higher than the one I tend to inhabit.

Anyway: it’s weird. But not completely without merit. The other things it reminded me of were Andrei Tarkovsky in general, and Mirror in particular (though that, despite being deliberately collage-like, somehow seemed a lot more cohesive than this), and the trippier bits of 2001 A Space Odyssey, which confused the hell out of me when I first saw it at age eleven. I grew to love 2001 in the end, so who knows? Maybe this tree is a grower…

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