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Film At Cannes, mere mortals (okay: Brad Pitt) left to explain 'The Tree of Life'

Brad Pitt meets the press at the screening of The Tree of Life at Cannes Film Festival.

Reuters/Reuters

After decades in Terrence Malick's mind, then six years in development, The Tree of Life was finally revealed to media at the Cannes film festival on Monday morning. There weren't exactly hosannas - in fact, the first reaction was a few loud boos, which triggered a counter-reaction of supportive applause. But one of the most anticipated films in years at least gave the cinephiles something to chew on: It's every bit as ambitious and strange as rumours have suggested.

Filled with choral and orchestral music, whispery voice-overs and majestic montages, The Tree of Life is two stories in one. The simple one is about a Houston architect, Jack O'Brien (a haggard Sean Penn), who is seen briefly at the beginning and the end of the film. Most of what occurs in between is essentially a long flashback to his 1950s childhood, and the influence of his angry father (Brad Pitt), loving mother (Jessica Chastain), the family's grief over his brother's death, and O'Brien's conversations with God.

What makes the film truly unusual is a sudden shift, at about the 20-minute mark, to a depiction of the birth of the cosmos, to the end of the dinosaur era.

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After the morning screening, some of the responses included comparisons - from the celebrated (Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey) to the banal (a National Geographic special, the TV series Lost). But after getting through the throng pushing into the press room, journalists found there would be little guidance offered on Malick's universe: Neither the reclusive 67-year-old director, who's made just four feature films previously in his 40-year career, nor actor Sean Penn was there.

The rule, at this most auteur-driven of festivals, is that directors are available to discuss their work. Instead we had Pitt, Chastain and several producers. One of them, Sarah Green, explained Malick's absence by saying, "Mr. Malick is very shy, and I would say his work speaks for him."

Another producer, Bill Pohlad, said Penn had been working in Haiti and would be in Cannes shortly to promote the other film in which he stars, This Must be the Place.

Meanwhile, Pitt, dressed in white, face hidden behind tortoiseshell shades and a goatee, compared the filmmaker to an architect: "He sees himself as building a house. I don't know why it's assumed that people who make things in our business are expected to sell them. He wants to focus on the making and not the selling of the real estate."

It seemed fitting that, in lieu of having the director grace us with his presence, the journalists were forced to ask quasi-theological questions about him.

Is he religious? Yes, "interested in all matters of the spirit," according to Green.

Is he good-humoured? Yes, Pitt said, he's jovial "and extremely sweet."

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Is he disciplined? "The most disciplined director I've ever known," said yet another producer, Dede Gardner. "He works days and nights and weekends."

Pitt, who was also a producer on the film, offered tidbits about Malick's unusual, improvisational shooting style.

To make the film, Malick rented an entire block of a Texas town and dressed it up to look like the 1950s. The actors, particularly the three children who play the O'Brien boys, were allowed to wander freely in the area. All shots were from handheld cameras, with mostly natural lighting and usually in only two takes. Though there was a script, Malick would write for an hour every day and give the characters fresh lines.

"It was a complete lesson in letting go of all control of what you expect any outcome to be," Chastain said. One example: a scene in which her character is sitting on a lawn when a butterfly lands on her arm. A moment later, a cat crawls onto her lap. "That just happened, and he [Malick]decided to incorporate it."

At other times, the director might hear a woodpecker during a scene and turn the camera to see where it was.

"Then he does what he calls torpedoing a scene," Pitt said. Malick called Tye Sheridan, the youngest child, The Torpedo. "On the first day, [Chastain and I]were having an argument, raising our voices, and we shot that take. Then suddenly he would send in Tye, as The Torpedo, and it changed the whole dynamic of the scene."

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Thus, the press conference closed with a kind of agnostic stand-off: Malick the cinema god remained remote, but at least he had a hot apostle, Brad Pitt, to explain his mysterious ways, the wonders he performed.

FIRST-TAKE REVIEW

The Tree of Life

  • Written and directed by Terrence Malick
  • Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn and Hunter McCracken

Terrence Malick's new film begins with a quote from God remonstrating with Job for complaining about the unfairness of his fate: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth?" The question is conventionally considered rhetorical, but for Malick it's an invitation to recreate that event for us, full of exploding nebulae, roiling volcanoes, dividing cells and even a compassionate encounter between a couple of dinosaurs. These visions are spectacular but emotionally distant, no matter how urgently the musical score throbs. Similarly, The Tree of Life's big ideas (Father as Nature, Mother as Grace and the implicitly Christian ending) feel imposed on the intimate simplicity at the film's centre. Here, we find moving performances from the adult actors and an outstanding one from Hunter McCracken as young Jack, the eldest of three brothers in the film. The Tree of Life succeeds as a beautifully tender portrayal of boyhood, of the physical exhilaration and love of nature, and of the shame and fear of growing up. (L.L.)

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