Cannes 2011: The Tree Of Life first reaction

tree of life reaction cannes 2011

Terrence Malick’s long-awaited The Tree Of Life has finally screened in Cannes – to a mixed reaction.

We’d say the cheers/catcalls ratio at the film’s end was roughly 70/30.

Both sides will agree that it’s the US auteur’s most abstract meditation to date on life, the universe and everything.

While the bulk of the film is set in the ‘50s, it also flashes all the way back to the birth of life as we know it. Yes, the rumours are true: there are dinosaurs.

If the CG dinos aren’t the most impressive ever seen, there will be few films this year to beat Tree Of Life’s overall visual splendor.

Lighting, shot composition, production design and editing are all impeccably gorgeous. The music and sound design aren’t too shabby either.

But what of the story? In a nutshell, it’s about a man, Jack (Sean Penn), reflecting on his complex relationship with his domineering dad, Mr O’Brien (Brad Pitt).

In typical Malick fashion, the narrative is splintered into a series of impressions. Montages are rife. Dialogue is sparse.

The writer/director’s signature is omnipresent, but he doesn’t smother the acting. Pitt excels as the proud patriarch, exhibiting fearsome rage in one family confrontation.

Newcomer Jessica Chastain is also fine with the confines of a somewhat idealised wife/mother role.

As for Penn… one has to assume there’s more of his performance on the cutting room floor, given that he only really appears in the bookends, amid volcanic eruptions, jellyfish and supposed visions of the afterlife.

Imagine a cross between Kubrick’s 2001, Terence Davies’ evocative, elliptical Distant Voices Still Lives and The Blue Planet and you’ll be part of the way there.

But really it’s its own unique beast – precious and pretentious for sure, but crafted with extraordinary grace, ambition and beauty.

Fans of The New World and The Thin Red Line especially will embrace it, flaws and all.

Others may be mystified at best, bored at worst. It’s clear, though, that in attempting something so big, rich and strange, Malick is no dinosaur.

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