And on the sixth day, God came to the Croisette

It was like Wimbledon or the January sales. At the 64th Cannes Film Festival the hot-ticket competition film, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, was besieged from early morning. There were fights with festival bags; near-lynchings of queue jumpers; and, inside, desperate scrambles for empty seats. The Germans were accused of having got there early and planted towels, jackets or anything to hand. The Russians and Chinese got into a border fight in and around row F. . .

What a reputation this man now has. Like God, Malick commands the world. Like God he wasn’t here: that would be too mundane. (Faithful to his Kubrickian reclusiveness, he stayed in America.) Like God he has a primal, absolute vision, insist his fans, pointing to Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World.

Well, The Tree of Life, after growing and leafing for 140 minutes, and alternating eye-ravishing images with mind-bemusing mysticism, received a mixed volley of boos and cheers. Visually the film, to re-invoke Kubrick, is a 2001 for 2011. Images of planets, cosmic clouds, spacescapes, bubbling volcanoes, meteors bombarding Earth into first life, even dinosaurs. If God created the world in six days and rested on Sunday, Malick gave us the action replay on Monday: the first and only Monday of Cannes. How appropriate is that? If the Mayan calendar is right – and Malick the mythomane probably believes that too – it will be the last Cannes Monday of all.

Between the creation sequences there’s a human story, of sorts, themed around nature-versus-grace. Stern patriarch Brad Pitt’s children grow up in 1950s Texas, learning pioneer toughness (dad), love (mum) and life’s battle between the two. In a near-modern city – in the bookending scenes – the oldest child has grown up to become Sean Penn. He surveys the tottering towers of Meltdown America. Does he now understand? Do we understand as Penn consorts time-defyingly – there’s a lot of that – on a surreal, semi-heavenly beach where his loved ones gather?

I hated the God overtones. Heavenly choirs are un-shut-uppable on the soundtrack; Pitt is a spare-time organist; Old Testament symbolism arrives in truckloads (Cain and Abel brothers, Edenic castings-out). But – with Malick there’s always a but – in style terms this filmmaker occupies the right kind of alternative universe. The ellipses, epiphanies and grace-notes of sound and image are stunning. A character dances in air; a boy swims from an underground bedroom (he is being born); towering moss-hung trees are explored by a soaring weightless camera; dialogue floats disembodied like pollen . . . 

This is how screen stories should be told in an age ready to lift off into aesthetic space. There are moments of cinematic near-ecstasy. Like Kubrick, Malick knows the right classical music to raid for the right moment. Smetana’s Má Vlast surges gloriously over a child’s opening-up vision of the world. The film’s picture of childhood is finally its greatest strength. Childhood’s fears and dreams; its antic fantasies of self and otherness (shadows here dance with their own life); its delight in nature and nascent awareness that savage will and tender grace are, and always will be, the ultimate, all-shaping sibling rivals.

Childhood and youth have been the themes of the festival. It began with what seemed a multi-part crisis bulletin from around the world: “Save our Sub-adults!” With bizarre congruence came Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty from Australia (girl student earns extra tuition money by becoming drugged objet d’amour for old men), Gus van Sant’s sensitive but sappy Restless (two death-drawn youngsters crash funerals while falling in love), Rebecca Daly’s The Other Side of Sleep (moody-mesmeric Irish portrait of a disturbed girl who may have committed a murder) and – long awaited by fans of novelist Lionel Shriver and Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar) – We Need to Talk about Kevin.

Of the last we can only say: every festival has its calamities. The film clove critical opinion with a machete. Some loved, some loathed. Put me with the second camp. What I saw was two hours of posturing brutalism, naff expressionism and the destruction of credibility by grand guignol. The film is a near-nuclear trivialisation of the themes of troubled childhood and troubled parenting. Not even Tilda Swinton, playing the conflicted mum, survives its excesses.

Nanni Moretti’s Habemus Papam squanders a promising notion. A newly elected Pope (Michel Piccoli) has a crisis of self-faith. Instead of hitting the St Peter’s balcony to wave to the faithful he hits the streets, hoping to vanish from view and vocation. Sadly Moretti, an ex-Golden Palm winner (The Son’s Room), blows it. There is too little Piccoli Agonistes and too many cheap laughs, mainly involving cardinals getting their skirts in a twist or scuffing them up in an unfunny volleyball-contest sequence organised by Moretti’s Vatican-hired psychiatrist.

Let’s end with a return to the partial sublime. Nobody has won the Golden Palm three times, but Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have a shot with Le Gamin au Vélo (The Kid on the Bike). Previous Cannes victors with Rosetta and L’Enfant, the Belgian brothers’ new film is better than either. Superbly acted, especially by Thomas Doret as a troubled 11-year-old, it tells of a semi-delinquent boy’s search for grace and hope after the trauma of parental abandonment.

Gripping at every step of a heart-touching story, the film has a heraldic subtlety in its imagery (look how the boy’s clothes match his beloved bike), a perfection in its pacing and a rewarded trust in its actors. At the close you sit there thinking, as of a flawlessly built racing bike, “How did they put this together?” And you think: “Please, let no one put it asunder, by design or accident, or the European art movie world will return to its normal state of primal, amiable chaos.”

Cannes Film Festival continues until May 22

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