01 August 2011

The Tree Of Life

The Tree Of Life
The Tree Of Life, directed by Terrence Malick, won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year. Malick avoids publicity, works intensely, and emerges every few years with another masterpiece (like Stanley Kubrick, though even more so). His first two films, Badlands and Days Of Heaven, are undisputed classics, with gorgeous magic-hour cinematography. The Tree Of Life looks as stunning as his previous works, though its non-linear, almost abstract narrative is surprisingly experimental.

The film begins with a mother and father's grief at the death of one of their three sons. How he died is never explained; he would be at the right age to fight in the Vietnam war, though Malick's brother committed suicide and the film may therefore be semi-autobiographical. Later scenes of the sons growing up together in Texas in the 1950s may also be autobiographical, as Malick was also raised in Texas.

Like the art film Powers Of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames, The Tree Of Life's perspective is both macroscopic and cosmological. Malick shows us the origins of galaxies, stars, and planets, the development of microbial organisms, the evolution of marine creatures, and the reign of the dinosaurs. These sequences are extraordinary and breath-taking, especially on a large cinema screen. They resemble the interplanetary scenes from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the analogue visual effects for both films were developed by Douglas Trumbull.

The dinosaur sequence (influenced, as are so many other CGI dinosaurs, by Jurassic Park) is arguably a prequel to 2001's 'Dawn of Man' segment; whereas Kubrick used pre-historic apes to illustrate our capacity for violence, Malick's dinosaurs represent nascent compassion, as one dinosaur spares the life of another. The hallucinatory dreamscapes of 2001 - and, less profoundly, Gaspar Noe's Enter The Void and Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain - may be The Tree Of Life's only parallels in commercial cinema; few other films are as ambitious (or audacious).

After the dinosaurs are obliterated by a meteorite, paving the way for human evolution, Malick returns to the three sons growing up in Texas. Scenes from their childhoods, remembered by one of the sons as an adult, present an idyllic existence punctuated by occasional moments of unsettling incongruity (a man suffering a seizure; a burning house) and magical-realist fantasy (the mother levitating, and laying in a glass coffin like Sleeping Beauty). These scenes are presented impressionistically, like snapshots from a photograph album, out of sequence and often without dialogue, leaving many events unexplained.

There is an unavoidably religious element to the film: it opens with a quotation from the Book of Job, and concludes with a family reunion on a heavenly beach. A purely abstract light pattern seen at the start and end of the film may thus represent a divine presence. I was put off by the religiosity, and the pretentious whispered voice-over, though more importantly I was captivated by the scope of the narrative.