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July 7, 2011 2:47 pm
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life can leave you lost for words. If that sounds like ambiguous praise, it is. Mystical babble has its finest hour – or closer to three – in this epic that alternates eye-ravishing images with a kind of pentathlon pantheism. You sit there at the end exhausted, feeling you have seen either everything or (just as draining if you came with high hopes) nothing.
Let’s start at the beginning. In the world’s head is a tiny growth, unperceived by many and untended, that we call “belief in the ultimate movie”. Even before winning the Cannes Palme d’Or, The Tree of Life – all about evolution (with a creationist tinge) and the billions of years taken to bring us from the Big Bang to Brad Pitt – was a can’t-wait event. Malick made Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, meditations on life, death, beauty and what-does-it-all-mean. The director’s imagery can be stunning. His famed reclusiveness (always good for a prophet’s cred) makes the late Stanley Kubrick seem a show-off. His new film had to be a summing-up of existence, of the kind we have awaited from an American artist ever since Herman Melville and Jackson Pollock died.
Ah well. The film turns out to be a hot-air balloon. Its most talked-of half-hour, a tour of the universe’s history co-crafted with 2001 visual effects whizz Douglas Trumbull, is a view of the heavens from a high-floating basket. Roiling space; exploding supernovas; even digi-real dinosaurs. Very spectacular, but the basket never comes to earth again. It is held up by gravity-defying gobbledegook even during its “human” story. Pitt and his wife (Jessica Chastain) live in Waco, Texas (where Malick grew up), parents to three boys. One will die, another will grow up to be Sean Penn, who frames the film in flash-forward, standing amid the towers of meltdown America or later trekking mysteriously to a celestial beach to mingle with his loved ones.
This hug-in tableau is a hangover from moviedom’s hippy era: Zabriskie Point meets Woodstock. In fact the whole of The Tree of Life is a hippy hangover: 140 minutes of basket-case beatitude filled with woozy wonder. So little is precise about this central family. Dad is a bully reared on primitive notions of ambition and justice. He is Nature or the Old Testament. Mum (Grace or the New Testament) is all airy love and transcendence: she even has a scene “dancing in air”. Malick’s worldview is that fundamentalist, that simple-minded. We nourish ourselves not on the film’s substance but on the incidentals. There are shots only this man could imagine, whether it is a dinosaur making universal history’s first moral choice (sparing a recumbent foe) or a child’s life beginning in the surreal image of a boy swimming from an underwater bedroom. If only the voice of the particular had won out more often over the din of the pantheistic.
Jean-Luc Godard is nuts: discuss. Many of us would put a tick – “Yes” – and pass on to the next exam question. But as Shakespeare observed, madness in great ones must not unwatched go. The wise, accordingly, go to watch Film Socialisme, a docufiction on diverse subjects mixing untamed genius with occasional, violent yawniness.
Docufiction? Well, how else to describe a three-part movie that starts on a Mediterranean cruise liner – Nazi hunters, bankers and singer Patti Smith jostling amid the shaky travel footage while Godard intones epigrammatic voice-overs about place, time and history – and then portrays a family’s life in and around a southern French filling station before coming to rest with a lecture on Europe’s cultural identity. To keep us busy (hardly to make things more lucid), the director appends subtitles in “Navajo English”.
What does it mean? Well, obviously it is about movement versus stasis. Obviously it is about the cost of ill-considered propulsion (petro-fuel the common theme of parts one and two) in an age that should value the contemplation of history and heritage. Beyond that it is anyone’s guess. Actually I did not yawn once: I said that merely to show esprit de corps with readers carrying the Godard allergen. Yes, he is annoying. But he is also a film-maker who has aged in reverse, arguably more experimental, more adventurous and more sophisticatedly primitivist than he was even in the undressed-salad days of Breathless and Pierrot le fou.
Bertrand Tavernier, in reverse, has become a costume drama queen. The director of mordant social-political movies set in an extended present (Life and Nothing But, Safe Conduct) has no business, you might think, making The Princess of Montpensier, a lavishly upholstered 16th-century romp from a story by Madame de Lafayette. Love and war, what are they good for? Well, they are good here for a tensely wrought imbroglio – set against a cyclorama of French royal intrigue and religious strife – about a beautiful self-willed girl (Mélanie Thierry) pressed into an arranged marriage. Marie loves the dashing Catholic hothead Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), but her parents yoke her to the shy but loving Prince de Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). Also falling for Marie is the prince’s Huguenot friend and mentor (silken-steely Lambert Wilson, scene-stealing again as in Of Gods and Men).
The story’s modern resonances have been tannoyed by Tavernier. Marie as Princess Di, pawn of patrician politicking. Sixteenth-century religious war and parental tyranny prefiguring the age of militant patriarchal Islam. To which we say: “All fine. But shouldn’t the style have been less fusty to suit the forward-lookingness?” Too many costumes pace too many rooms haemorrhaging too much handcrafted dialogue. The look, the glance, the gesture that tells a thousand words, shouldn’t we have had more of those? It looks gorgeous nonetheless, every shot an Aubusson tapestry. The cross-vibrations between epochs are often felt, like little earth tremors. The acting is terrific.
David Schwimmer was the Friends actor with the amiably glazed looks and zombified voice. You sometimes wanted to knock on his head, a few inches above his smirk, and say: “Hello? Anybody at home?”
Well: a film director was at home, waiting to break out. Trust is a tale of paedophilia and the internet grooming of a 14-year-old girl by a predatory thirtysomething. Skilfully scripted by Andy Bellin and Robert Festinger, the 2010 film arrives in Europe on a slow boat from the US. The Americans don’t like to export dirty laundry, nor if possible even see it. This politely pariah’d movie is now ours to “discover” and we should.
Liana Liberato is superb as the girl sinking by slow degrees into the “trust” of the title. Web chat and cellphone calls with the supposed 20-year-old (Chris Henry Coffey) lead to a first meeting where he skilfully manipulates her initial revulsion at his age. “I thought you were mature enough to handle this.” The parents, played with imploding rage and caring horror respectively by Clive Owen and Catherine Keener, try to move heaven, earth and state legislation. Not easy. Even less easy to de-programme a child when trust, and a kind of love, for her despoiler linger even after the loss of innocence.
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