Call it the Inadvertent Versus. When the Cannes Film Festival announced the late addition of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for a competition slot, it placed that long-anticipated film in contention with the latest from another giant of contemporary American cinema, Terrence Malick, on the Croisette with A Hidden Life.
It goes without saying that the two directors and their respective films – both period pieces based on actual events that run almost three hours, after which their similarities predictably vanish – represent end points on a spectrum. Malick hews to a mythopoeic tradition that looks back to the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his concept of the Oversoul, and aims in his art for mystical grandeur, while Tarantino draws on genres and sources that the post-Badlands Malick would doubtless consider thoroughly debased, and affects a hip, cynical tone alien to Malick’s solemn gravity. Their sparring visions could not be more apparent in the accidental Cannes showdown: the rhapsodic pantheism and spiritual afflatus of A Hidden Life versus the pop jokiness and violent revisionism of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Since his Palme d’Or triumph with The Tree of Life, Malick drifted into a trilogy that addressed a different kind of hidden life – his own, in the autobiographical and insufferable trio of To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song, films that introduced a word into the critical lexicon, “whispery,” for their self-parodically poetic voice-overs. Malick’s new film, hailed as a return to form and linear narrative, does not entirely amplify those recitations – they rise a notch above murmur to sotto voce – but their use of bardic rhetoric remains, as when its soulful protagonist implores his God, “Spirit, lead me, show me.”
Those who swoon over the so-called visionary nature of Malick’s cinema will find their reverence duly confirmed by A Hidden Life, while those who mock his cinema for its fake epiphanies and manufactured rapture will similarly feel vindicated.
Returning to the subject of the Second World War after The Thin Red Line, A Hidden Life tells the true story of anti-Nazi Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter – true, though Malick conveniently elides many facts about Jägerstätter in his determination to make Franz into a Christ figure, intransigent in his martyrdom to his beliefs. The film inevitably begins in one of Malick’s many Edens, here an Alpine Austrian village of wood chalets surrounded by fields of wildflowers and cascading waterfalls. Ironically, the portrait of this cloud-capped paradise concurs with the aesthetic of Arnold Fanck’s “mountain films” of the twenties, those proto-Nazi celebrations of the purity of life above the treeline where both air and way of living are bracingly clean.
Shot in widescreen with a lens that distorts the periphery of the image, Hidden supplies a late-Fanckian setting for its surging portrait of the pious, wholesome love of Jägerstätter and his wife, who recall “how simple life was then” before the war, as they gambol with their three little blond daughters and attend the Spartan church whose spire predominates in too many frames as signifier of their piety. Malick’s interiors are lambently lit, as in Dutch paintings, and his signature nature imagery of purling streams, spuming cataracts and wind-gusted grass, all radiantly bathed with what is called in the film “the never failing light,” is shamelessly attenuated to ensure an epic running time.
After Jägerstätter decides that he cannot participate in what he considers an unjust war, he refuses to give to a fund for veterans, to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler and to be conscripted into the Nazi army. (In a strange touch of irony, Franz is played by August Diehl, whom Tarantino had cast as arrogant SS officer Major Hellstrom in Inglourious Basterds.) A single life and death becomes the sole issue in Malick’s portrait of a war that claimed millions, and once the objector’s spiritual and ethical crisis is established – does Jägerstätter acquiesce to serve or go to his death for his refusal – Malick simply repeats his small clutch of image clusters, including that of Franz’s anguished mother who appears not as a character but as an archetypal Mater Dolorosa. (Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on the soundtrack seals the analogy.)
Malick’s poetic flights have often fallen prey to unintended literalism, as in The Thin Red Line when the soldier Bell remembers making love to his wife, intoning over an image of her in the bath: “I drink you … now … now.” The laughable literalism is repeated a moment later, when he whispers, “You’re my light, my guide,” over a close-up of the moon, similar to the moment in A Hidden Life when Jägerstätter murmurs, “Father, my rock, my fortress,” with an image of a fog-enshrouded mountain crag.
Tarantino obviously is after a different kind of poetry in his fairytale-titled film, which treats Los Angeles much as Jacques Demy did in his underrated Model Shop – made just one year before the 1969 setting of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – as a kind of fractured topography of wonder, freedom and inevitable disillusion. Tarantino limns the long-time friendship between an alcoholic, failing television actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double and factotum (Brad Pitt), intertwining their tale with that of the star’s next-door real-life neighbours, Roman Polanski and ill-fated Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
The actors are wonderful; the film is not. Tarantino seems to have expended his attention on period recreation, jamming every widescreen frame and his layered soundtrack with as much ultraresearched detail as possible. Movie marquees carry the titles of countless grade-B heist and spy movies; radio and television ads of the time are impeccably resurrected, as are many TV shows; and possibly every top-10 tune from 1969 gets a few moments to induce nostalgia (or nausea).
As Tarantino’s fascination with late-sixties pop culture turns from affectionate to semi-obsessive, the film becomes increasingly tedious as the director lovingly lards it with interminable recreations of television westerns. The history-twisting denouement had the fanboys behind me screaming in delight, but left a lingering unease that Tarantino’s violent revenge fantasy could prove the Joe (1970) of our Trumpian days.
James Quandt is the senior programmer for TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.
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