CANNES CHECK: ‘The Tree of Life’

Posted by · 6:30 am · May 6th, 2011

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]

→ 17 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

17 responses so far

  • 1 5-06-2011 at 7:34 am

    Amir said...

    i don’t think the “me-first” mentality is gonna serve this film well either. but The New World ended up on so many people’s best of the decade list so it won’t really matter after all. I think it would have been so much better if the film had that rumoured English release before the festival. Anyway, at least if we’re talking Oscar-wise, if the film is any good, it has 7-8 months to shape the opinion around it, so the early reviews probably won’t matter as much by then.

  • 2 5-06-2011 at 7:41 am

    Maxim said...

    In regards to that “No Contry” comment – I wonder if Coens’ long history of past Cannes successes was a factor as well. I can imagine that the prospect of awarding someone who already won a Palme d’Or and three best director prizes could have given Frears a pause. This is not something Malick has to worry about yet so may well be in the running.

    The Cannes vs Oscars thing is an interesting one, though.

    What I find most interesting about “Tree of Life”, though, is the fact that is has five credited editors. I’m very curious to see if this is going to have noticeble effect on the flow of the film.

  • 3 5-06-2011 at 7:47 am

    Maxim said...

    By the way, I just watched the embed of the trailer above and it definitely benefits from not having any dialog.

  • 4 5-06-2011 at 9:19 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Very true about the Coens’ Cannes record likely making a difference. I suspect Mike Leigh might have run into a similar wall last year.

  • 5 5-06-2011 at 11:34 am

    Fitz said...

    Between dinosaurs, the apocalypse, and Sean Penn I’m really looking forward to how the whole films coalesces?

  • 6 5-06-2011 at 4:59 pm

    Rashad said...

    So Cannes is even more political than the Oscars

  • 7 5-06-2011 at 5:37 pm

    Jordan said...

    Can’t wait! I’m hoping to see it knowing very little about the particulars, so I haven’t seen the trailer yet…
    Is there an Australian release date set yet?

  • 8 5-06-2011 at 5:55 pm

    Fitz said...

    Why the hell did I add a question mark?

  • 9 5-06-2011 at 6:53 pm

    Maxim said...

    Rashad, I don’t think there is a film festival in the world devoid of those types of politics.

  • 10 5-06-2011 at 8:56 pm

    GlenH said...

    @ Jordan, yes there is an Aus date: 3o June I believe. (Which just so happens to be four days after I go overseas, oh well.)

  • 11 5-07-2011 at 6:38 am

    RichardA said...

    I do not see the movie doing well at the awards circuit. It seems sanitized and cold. I just hope that there’s a sense of immediacy with the characters and plot and a lot less of Calvin Klein Ad aesthetic.

    Of course I have not seen the movie, but if it’s idea is anything like Babel, Hereafter, BenButton, or Armageddon for that matter–ToL will not do well.

  • 12 5-07-2011 at 9:20 am

    Plainview said...

    I don’t like this mentality of Frears and some others. If it’s the best film of the festival, or at least one of the very best, then give it the award.
    If the others want as much notoriety as the Coen Brothers, then simply make films as good as theirs.

  • 13 5-07-2011 at 10:04 am

    Speaking English said...

    ***but if it’s idea is anything like Babel, Hereafter, BenButton, or Armageddon for that matter–ToL will not do well.***

    “Babel” and “Benjamin Button” were two of the biggest awards players of their respective years…

  • 14 5-07-2011 at 10:13 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    To be fair, Frears didn’t say he thought “No Country for Old Men” was the best film of the festival — in the same interview, he states that “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (hardly unworthy competition) was comfortably the jury’s favourite.

    He was referring, in a less subjective sense, to how the stakes vary for different films in the competition — “No Country” loses far less by going unrewarded at Cannes than “4 Months” would — and the difficulty of judging, in his words, “films that are made for audiences against films that are not.”

    It’s an interesting discussion, I think: while artistic merit should be (and I suspect, occasional “Fahrenheit 9/11”-style controversies aside, usually is) the jury’s top priority, the knowledge that festival awards have the power to secure a wider audience for outstanding under-the-radar titles, particularly ones that would otherwise struggle to find international distribution, must be difficult to ignore.

  • 15 5-07-2011 at 10:37 am

    Lance McCallion said...

    Precisely, Guy. No Country going unrewarded at a festival hardly says anything about its quality or lack-thereof, especially when it goes on to commercial and critical success, including winning Best Picture at the Oscars. Meanwhile “4 Months” went on to spark/continue to fuel the increasing visibility of an entirely national cinema movement in large part because of its recognition at Cannes. It also represents a very different mode of film-making from what the Coens are doing and when you’re dealing with two films as fantastic of those there’s really no call to get pissy about which film gets an award.

  • 16 5-09-2011 at 12:09 am

    Glenn said...

    I think the Australian release date for “Tree of Life” is July 7. That’s the date my last Icon email is saying.

  • 17 5-10-2011 at 6:52 pm

    Maxim said...

    I think that while one could predict that No Country was going to do alright, by the time it hit Cannes it was hardly guaranteed that it would do nowhere near as well as it did.