Amid scenes of breathtaking natural beauty, moments of exquisite tenderness and a structure which is gloriously freewheeling, Terence Malick’s The Tree Of Life is ultimately a fairly simple tale of childhood memories, loss and acceptance of the slings and arrows of fate. Malick is a devout Christian and this is his big “God” film, a dialogue between the characters - and the film-maker - with the big man in the sky over why he treats us so badly.
There were some loud and angry boos when the press screening finished this morning but there was equally loud applause and anger at the boos. This is how the film will be accepted worldwide. It is a wildly ambitious opus that requires audience engagement with the pace and mood that Malick sets. The story as much as there is one revolves around a suburban family in 1950s Texas - Brad Pitt is the big bully father of three kids, and Jessica Chastain the loving mother. Sean Penn plays one of the children when he is an adult.
As Chastain tells us in voiceover (Malick has always embraced voiceover of characters’ thoughts rather than straightforward dialogue) you can choose to live your life by nature or by grace. The latter of course is preferable and is embodied here by the radiant Chastain as opposed to the conflicted Pitt whose nature gets in his way of happiness. Pitt is all clenched jaw and grimace as the father and it’s one of his best performances to date.
After resisting Malick’s guileless and unabashed faith-probing, I found myself moved by the big themes of life, death, belief and trust in a higher power. The film requires that level of surrender and, once given, it provides rich rewards. The more cynical among us will struggle to accept it.
Bertrand Bonello’s The House Of Tolerance is one of the least memorable films in competition so far, a turgid portrait of a madam and her whores in a Paris brothel at the turn of the 20th century. It reminds me that Cannes often treats its French films to different standards. An American or Asian film this dreary would never even be considered for competition, but Cannes selectors often have a blind spot when it comes to their homegrown product.
The scene where the disfigured prostitute played by Alice Barnole cries tears of sperm, having explained earlier that she had a dream where she cries tears of sperm, is one of many heavy-handed moments in a film where purpose and momentum are low on the priority list.