Terence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” – first impressions & reviews… (woos and boos)

Magnificent. Mental. Preposterous. Pretentious. Amazing. Bollocks.

Terence Malick’s fifth film premiered at Cannes at 8.30 this morning and, as expected, it is getting fantastically mixed reviews. It was on almost everyone’s most anticipated lists, including mine, and living up to those ridiculous expectations was never going to be easy.

And while it was always like to alienate some and seduce others, the initial reactions make it seem like it will be even more polarising than you could ever have expected.

Reports suggest the film was aggressively booed and then counter-cheered (?) in almost equal measure. No one can ever doubt the French people’s passion when it comes to cinema!

Brad Pitt at the Tree of Life's Cannes press conference

Malick didn’t show up to the film’s premiere.

Considering he disappeared from public life for nearly 20 years between 1978′s Days of Heaven and 1998′s The Thin Red Line, this isn’t that much of a surprise. His absence left producer Sarah Green and a bespectacled Brad Pitt to face the media’s questions and defend their director’s absence – “He wants to focus on the making of and not the selling of the real estate”.

So let’s take a look at what people are saying as the first reviews start to flood in. The Huffington Post has since started a similar post, but they’re evidently copying me (tsk) and they don’t have as many up yet anyway. So here are the woos, the boos and the indifferent mehs.

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The “Wooooos”

“Prehistoric and cosmic visions aside, Terrence Malick’s film is an unashamedly epic reflection on love and loss.”

“Terrence Malick’s mad and magnificent film descends slowly, like some sort of prototypical spaceship: it’s a cosmic-interior epic of vainglorious proportions, a rebuke to realism, a disavowal of irony and comedy, a meditation on memory, and a gasp of horror and awe at the mysterious inevitability of loving, and losing those we love.”

“…this is visionary cinema on an unashamedly huge scale: cinema that’s thinking big. Malick makes an awful lot of other film-makers look timid and negligible by comparison.”

“A unique film that will split opinions every which way, which Fox Searchlight can only hope will oblige people to see it for themselves.”

“Brandishing an ambition it’s likely no film, including this one, could entirely fulfill, The Tree of Life is nonetheless a singular work, an impressionistic metaphysical inquiry into mankind’s place in the grand scheme of things that releases waves of insights amidst its narrative imprecisions.”

“Arguably, music plays a much more important role here than do words — there is some voice-over but scarcely any dialogue at all for nearly an hour, whereas the soaring, sometimes grandiose soundtrack, comprised of 35 mostly classical excerpts drawn from Bach, Brahms, Berlioz, Mahler, Holst, Respighi, Gorecki and others in addition to the contributions of Alexandre Desplat, dominates in the way it often did in Stanley Kubrick’s work.”

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The mehs

“Still, ‘The Tree of Life’ offers breathtaking imagery and even manages to survive an epic detour to the dawn of time, featuring the Big Bang, dinosaurs, meteors and all.”

“Its saving grace, though, is that ‘The Tree of Life’ always feels honest and never cynical. It feels both relevant to us and personal to the filmmaker. It doesn’t always communicate well, and when it does, it’s sometimes trite, but it’s also a film that’s incredibly beautiful and wide open for the taking.”

“Still, filmmaking this swoonily lovely does suggest some personal reflection on Malick’s part on the unreliable elasticity of memory, even as it has little to no bearing on the grander, would-be universal themes and motifs of the introduction.”

“Malick’s slow-burn cinema tends to take several viewings to reveal its full arsenal of tactile pleasures, so I already look forward to a second encounter with his latest. At first blush, however, I’m left stimulated but unmoved, as if having watched the life of someone I hardly know flash before my eyes.”

“The Tree of Life has finally arrived. It’s a beautiful, hugely flawed thing: mad, extravagant, pretentious, ponderous. Allow me to reserve full analysis of the picture for the review in tomorrow’s paper. Two things are worth reporting. Firstly, despite appearing on all the photocopied sheets lurking about the press area, Terrence Malick, the hugely reclusive director, did not turn up to the press conference after all. (Thomas Pynchon wasn’t there either.) Secondly, the film was booed more vigorously than any film I have seen in my year and a half covering this festival. Mr Malick can take some consolation from the fact that supporters responded with vigorous applause. At least people care about the thing.”

“What this pro-Malick, 7:30 a.m. queue participant saw: A (typically) fascinating but confounding jumble of two works in one.”

“There’s a certain awesome delight to be had from giving oneself over to all this narrative ambition and visual bravado, this swirl of desire and yearning, bumping up against the limits of translation on the part of so interesting an artist.”

“…like an inspiring sermon or a meditation session that goes off on too many tangents, The Tree of Life leaves this seeker less serene than she had prayed she would be.”

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The “Boooos”

“And yet, after all the enthusiasm and expectation, The Tree Of Life ended up being booed by sections of the premiere audience even before the credits went up. What happened?”

“Worst of all are those extended scenes swarming with trans-historical imagery. At the level of formal daring they’re to be applauded. Initially, they’re often stunning, serving as effective portals to the altered state of consciousness The Tree Of Life wants us to occupy. But they go on for an awfully long time. Malick seems to be addicted to them for their own sake, as if he’s prepping for a National Geographic Channel or BBC Planet Earth documentary series.”

“But it’s by some measure, the weakest film he’s ever made. Everywhere there is the appearance of profundity, everywhere the grandiose signifiers of ‘the epic’. Too often it calfies into abstraction, so infatuated with ‘Life’ that it lacks vitality itself.”

“This morning, as I was leaving the screening of Tree of Life, I saw a young man holding a placard on which he’d scrawled, “I would die for an invitation to Tree of Life.” Oh, my dear boy, I certainly hope not.”

“The Tree of Life is a gargantuan work of pretension and cleverly concealed self-absorption, featuring some absolutely gorgeous photography”

“But strong visuals don’t necessarily equal strong visual storytelling. If Malick could tell a story mostly with pictures — and faces — why would he need so many voice-overs?”

“I can already hear the chorus of dissenters: But you just don’t understand! Tree of Life a tone poem made by a genius! You need to see it again, or at least think about it a lot more! Admittedly, in this particular case, deadline constraints demanded some pretty rapid processing. But I don’t think I’d find much more beneath the surface of Tree of Life if I thought about it for 12 more hours or 12 more days.”

And of course the ultimate barometer of public opinion… THE TWEET MACHINE. Though in fairness this is really just a people reviewing the reviews right now. And maybe that’s half the fun of all this festival stuff anyway.

I will be seeing The Tree of Life in about 3 weeks time. Having had a laugh at most of these reviews, I reckon it’ll result in a mix of awe, boredom, fear and amazement. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

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