Cannes Film Festival 2011

Highly anticipated new films from Terrence Malick and Lars von Trier

Of the films featured in the main competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, none were as daring, innovative and visually arresting as Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or-winning The Tree of Life (2011) and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). None were also as divisive, if gut reactions of audiences and critics are anything to go by. Whatever else we may think of the directors, each of whom cultivates his own brand of eccentricity, neither can be accused of being risk-averse. In an industry that all too often settles for conventional narratives and shies away from formal experimentation, genuine attempts at forging a new cinematic language deserve applause. And yet, for all their artistic pretensions, neither The Tree of Life nor Melancholia is, to my mind, entirely convincing as a work of art.

Both films shun linear modes of storytelling and look to music, literature and painting for alternative ways of framing a narrative. The most remarkable aspect of Melancholia is arguably its eight-minute-long prelude, which Von Trier himself likens to an ‘overture’: a mesmerizing sequence of dreamlike visions, obliquely relating to different points in the ensuing narrative. The film’s main section neatly falls into two parts, named after two sisters – ‘Justine’ (a nod to the Marquis de Sade) and ‘Claire’ – who are the protagonists of the story. One of the more striking initial stills sees a spectral Justine – played by Kirsten Dunst, who won the award for best actress for her portrayal – advancing against a forest backdrop, her feet and billowing wedding dress enmeshed in yarns of grey thread that hinder her progress.

Melancholia relies for much of its emotional charge on the recurrent theme of Richard Wagner’s 1865 opera Tristan and Isolde, which builds up dramatic tension and binds together discrete story strands. Classical music culled from an impressive range of composers likewise ensures the narrative flow in Malick’s The Tree of Life, an ode to creation as well as a requiem for a lost brother and son whose tragic death is brought home to us in the first fragmented part of the film. The series of silent tableaux placed at the outset of Melancholia has its counterpart in the second, boldly experimental section of The Tree of Life – a succession of breathtaking close-ups of star and cell formations, gushing lava and floating jellyfish, which take us from the formation of the universe to its eventual demise in less than 20 minutes.

To conjure up this grandiose vision, Malick worked with Douglas Trumbull, best known for his groundbreaking special effects in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). On the strength of visuals alone (dinosaurs, for one, have seldom looked this real), The Tree of Life warrants comparisons with Kubrick’s masterpiece; yet it fails to reach a similarly epic pitch and lacks the irony that makes palatable what otherwise runs the risk of appearing bombastic. The same holds true of Melancholia, though to a lesser extent, since the occasional moment of light relief goes some way towards dispelling the broody atmosphere of the fairytale castle, with its extensive grounds from which the two sisters and Claire’s young son witness the end of the world.

Another motif common to these two films is that of family ties loosened and strengthened in the face of impending or, in the case of The Tree of Life, eventual doom. In Melancholia as in The Tree of Life, the dramatis personae are emblematic types rather than fully fleshed-out characters. The stern father embodies nature whilst the loving mother stands for grace in The Tree of Life; Justine and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are as different as the sun and the moon: one a voluptuous blond who refuses to be happy on her wedding day, much to her relatives’ dismay; the other a slender, somewhat irritable brunette whose initial calm and collectedness gradually disintegrate in the second half of the film, just as her sister appears to draw strength from the mysterious blue planet, Melancholia, on a course to collide with the earth.

Melancholy or black bile, the elusive ancient ailment that has Justine but also Jack in The Tree of Life under its sway, implies a connection between the microcosm and the macrocosm. It falls to Jack – the eldest of the O’Brien boys whom we see grappling with childhood memories as an adult (played by Sean Penn) – to draw connections between the individual and the cosmos, the small world of man and the universe that encompasses him. We see too little of Jack as an adult for him to succeed in this daunting task. When he briefly resurfaces in the final, Fellini-esque dream sequence to be reunited with his loved ones on a beach, presumably in the afterlife, it adds another strand to an already disjointed narrative. Ultimately, what we are left with in both films is a heap of broken images, which, however memorable, don’t quite come to life.