So, are we confronted by a profound and monumental masterpiece, or a pretentious and vacuous embarrassment? The Tree of Life seems to have prompted both responses. Surely both camps can't be right. But perhaps each may have a point.
To its credit and unlike so much arthouse fare, Terrence Malick's behemoth makes no attempt to hide behind a protective wall of obscurity. It's slapped down its purpose with a Biblical text, a voiceover and indeed its title before you've settled into your seat. As the presumably director-approved production notes modestly put it, this is "a hymn to life, excavating answers to the most haunting and personal human questions".
The most important of such questions is swiftly identified. Apparently, there are two ways through life. We need to know whether it's better to take "the way of grace" or "the way of nature". The first requires you to accept what happens and try to be nice, while the second permits you to push your own agenda and be a bit nasty.
You might have expected the film to explore this notion by pitting the two approaches against each other and displaying their relative pros and cons. Instead we're told at the outset it's the grace way that does the business; the film's subsequent efforts to explain why this is so are perfunctory to say the least. A soppy mum and a pushy dad perform their time-honoured parental gavotte. Their son becomes a troubled adult, and apparently it's all the fault of his too-stern dad.
That's fine for those who're predisposed to buy this line and its implicit dig at the American way, like Cannes jurors. Yet we're granted only glimpses of the working that's supposed to validate this proposition. Never wholly rebutted is a rival analysis rooted in the Book of Job that's also floating around. This suggests that shit happens to the good guys as much as the bad guys and there's not much you can do about it.
As an excavation of grand answers, The Tree of Life doesn't amount to much. Yet that's not too surprising, as its heart isn't in this quest. The film isn't really interested in exploring humanity's predicament; it wants to get on with singing that hymn to life. And it's life as a whole lot that ends up getting hymned, not the path through it on which the film chooses to bestow its particular seal of approval.
There's nothing wrong with that. Art can't resolve the timeless issues that have always tormented mankind; sometimes, though, it can make living with them more tolerable by bathing our pain in beauty.
Malick's approach to this task is startling in its effrontery. The hymn he chooses to sing is All Things Bright and Beautiful, and he sings it loud and long. Every corner of the cosmos is ransacked to provide a sublime context for his anguished mortals. Galaxies and atoms, eclipses and volcanoes, deserts and dinosaurs are paraded before our hopefully wondering eyes. Mahler, Berlioz, Holst, Brahms, Bach, Schumann and Mozart are brazenly conscripted and required to contribute their best bits to the business in hand.
Against this celestial background, human goings on are painted no less lusciously. Handsome actors act exquisitely in surroundings gorgeously photographed. Their interactions aren't seriously interrogated but instead lavishly depicted with sumptuous, sweeping brush strokes. All we're being told is that life is wondrous in spite of its afflictions. It's a banal message, but one that has its place.
Everything turns not on the content of this message, but on whether Malick's uncompromising method of communicating it actually does the job. The trouble with plundering the National Geographic channel, coffee-table books and chocolate-box tops, Jack Vettriano and Classic FM is that these things have been called on for similar purposes so often before that their deployment in such a demanding cause can only seem crass.
Most obviously, the advertising industry has used these things to sell its products. This film is trying to use them to sell life. Yet advertisers have also been selling us life, while merely attaching their wares to its coat-tails. The effectiveness of Malik's own colossal commercial depends wholly on the majestic orchestration of disquietingly threadbare glamour.
Whether this works or not will depend on the sensibility of filmgoers. Some of us preserve our capacity to be entranced by the gloriously obvious more successfully than others. If you cry during Jennifer Aniston romcoms (like me), you'll maybe like this film.
The first big controversy of the 2011 Cannes film festival has erupted, and it is not about sex, politics or war but instead centres around the breathlessly awaited, long-delayed film of one of cinema's greatest, most elusive artists: Terrence Malick.
Mingled boos and applause greeted the first screening of Malick's symphonic opus, which mingles an intimate tale of a 1950s Texan childhood with nothing less than the creation of the cosmos and the splitting of the cell, via dinosaurs padding through primal forests. There is also magnificent footage of nature at its most beautiful and brutal – massing flocks of roosting starlings, the eruption of volcanoes – and a theological meditation on The Book of Job. Simultaneously hailed as a masterpiece and derided as pretentious drivel by critics, bloggers and tweeters, The Tree of Life is already the talk of Cannes.
Malick himself is, notoriously, as silent as Garbo before the talkies, and as fugitive as the novelist Thomas Pynchon. He makes no public appearances, declines to talk about his work and apparently forbids his photograph from being used to promote his films. So it was no surprise that the writer-director was a no-show in Cannes, leaving his star-cum-producer Brad Pitt to do the talking.
Pitt, who plays a repressive 1950s patriarch in the film, defended Malick's absence. "I believe I can speak for him," said Pitt. "He thinks of himself as building a house. And I don't know why it is expected in our business that people who make things are then expected to sell them. He wants to focus on the making of, and not the selling of, the real estate.
"It is an odd thing for an artist to sculpt something and then be salesman."
However, Pitt was able to confirm that Malick – who began his career as a philosopher and translator of Heidegger – sleeps, eats and laughs just like ordinary mortals; indeed, confirmed the actor, "He even goes to the bathroom."
Pitt was also able to throw light on some of the director's working methods. Malick rented, said Pitt, an entire block of suburban housing and dressed it in 1950s style; the actors inhabited it as naturally as possible, so that – though there was already a "dense script" – much was left to chance. "He was like a guy with a big butterfly net, waiting for a moment of truth to go by," he said.
Malick would rise early every morning and write for an hour. "He would give us … three or four pages, and we would develop something out of that," said Pitt. "That's why the moments are fresh: they were not pre-conceived." It was, he said "a pretty incredible experience. I don't know that I could do them all that way: it's exhausting."
Jessica Chastain, who plays Pitt's character's wife, said that the process involved "giving up any idea about what the plan might be. It was all about capturing an accident."
The Tree of Life had been expected at last year's Cannes festival, but was not completed in time. The movie had a longer than usual post-production schedule built in, and five editors were employed since – as Grant Hill put it, with some understatement – "there was quite a bit of footage to contend with".
The film is Malick's fifth as writer-director. His early works, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) were hailed as masterpieces that rewrote the grammar of cinema. His subsequent films are The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005).