The director: Terrence Malick (USA)
The talent: Do you need reminding by this point? The Competition’s most high-profile film stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Jessica Chastain; the name I’m most pleased to see in the supporting cast, meanwhile, is Irish stalwart Fiona Shaw.
The technical crew is, obviously, first-class: DP Emmanuel Lubezki, Oscar-nominated for his work on Malick’s “The New World,” returns, as does the director’s career-long production designer Jack Fisk. Also returning from Malick’s last feature: editors Hank Corwin and Mark Yoshikawa (along with three others, including “City of God”‘s Daniel Rezende) and Oscar-nominated costume designer Jacqueline West. New to Team Malick is the industry’s current favorite composer, Alexandre Desplat.
The pitch: Considering the film’s protracted production, it’s remarkable that we still have such a vague idea of what it actually is. Malick’s fifth feature, his first from an original story since 1978’s “Days of Heaven,” appears to be an era-hopping domestic drama centered on Jack, the eldest son of a Midwestern family — tracing his life from blissful 1950s childhood to disillusioned adulthood, his journey underpinned by a troubled relationship with his father (Pitt). Penn plays the adult Jack, though recent rumors suggest he’s in the film less than we initially suspected. Theological overtones have been implied; where and how dinosaurs fit into the picture, meanwhile, has been a point of much online speculation.
The pedigree: Malick probably has a larger cult of admirers than any of his Competition rivals — though he certainly has his share of detractors, too — but his Cannes history is a short one. His only previous Competition entry, “Days of Heaven,” won him the Best Director award. (“The Thin Red Line,” of course, earned him the Golden Bear at Berlin and a pair of Oscar nominations.)
The buzz: You might just have heard of this one. Thanks to its repeatedly delayed release, Malick’s own lack of productivity and a trailer that largely dazzled the internet, “The Tree of Life” arrives on the Croisette as the festival’s most eagerly anticipated film by a country mile. That’s not the most desirable position to be in: pressure on the film is immense, and the me-first mentality of online criticism doesn’t always flatter challenging or divisive works that might need a little time to settle (which was certainly true of Malick’s last feature). The internet has recycled (and perhaps distorted) whispers from those who have actually seen the film into irrelevance: some suggest it’s astonishing, others that the extended production is evident on screen. Others, meanwhile, are projecting an Oscar sweep without having seen a shred of footage. Let’s just see the thing already.
The odds: Reflecting the long-building avalanche of hype, the bookies have installed Malick as the comfortable Palme d’Or favorite. I’m more sceptical. More often than not, festival juries like to zig where the majority expect them to zag, and even if the film does wow, there may be a perception that it hardly needs the extra boost. (2007 jury president Stephen Frears has admitted that future Oscar champ “No Country for Old Men” was blanked partly because they knew it would be a success without their help.) My gut feeling is that it’s the Palme or nothing for this one, and I’m leaning towards the latter.
[Photo: Fox Searchlight]