‘Tree of Life’ gets mixed reviews along with promotion at Cannes Film Festival

May 17, 2011

Among the most eagerly-awaited films at the Cannes Film Festival was “The Tree of Life,” Terrence Malick’s epic drama of creation and one family’s place in it. After an advance press screening, the reviews poured out, most of them filled with “overinflated” prose. Jen Chaney explained:

Take this four-star assessment from the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, whose first sentence is a doozy: “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.”

“A cosmic-interior epic of vainglorious proportions” — I mean, isn’t that the same phrase everyone used to describe “Fast Five”?

Wait, let’s not dwell on that. Instead, let’s focus on macrocosms. (By the way, it may be best to listen to the appropriately swelling and introspective sounds of Sia’s “Breathe Me” while reading these various reviews. Just a suggestion.)

After all, Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly does, briefly, in her “Tree of Life” review: “What this pro-Malick, 7:30 a.m. queue participant saw: A (typically) fascinating but confounding jumble of two works in one. Under the circumstances, I’ll call them the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. Or maybe the luminously precise and the woo-woo spiritual-lite.”

While critics’ pens were busy, elusive director Terrence Malick stayed out of sight. AP reported:

Terrence Malick lived up to both his public and professional reputation Monday at the Cannes Film Festival, remaining out of sight while premiering a film that left crowds buzzing over its thematic scope, emotional depth and visual grandeur.

Malick has stayed behind the scenes for his subsequent films, 1998’s “The Thin Red Line” and 2005’s “The New World,” and he skipped the Cannes press conference that followed Monday’s screening, leaving Pitt, Chastain and his producers to face reporters.

“Mr. Malick is very shy, and I would say that I believe his work speaks for itself,” producer Sarah Green said.

Pitt compared Malick’s attitude toward publicizing a film to building a house.

“I don’t know why it’s accepted that people who make things in our business are then expected to sell them, and I don’t think that computes with him,” said Pitt, also a producer on the film. “He wants to focus on the making of it, not the real estate, selling the real estate. It is an odd thing for an artist to start something and then be salesman.”

Actor Brad Pitt, who plays a domineering father in the movie, was far more active in reporting the film, and even joked about his parenting style. The Associated Press explained:

“I beat my kids regularly. That seems to do the trick,” Pitt wisecracked when asked at a press conference about his own parenting style. “And deprive them of meals.”

Pitt, 47, stars with Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain in Malick’s sweeping family drama, whose scope is so expansive it includes images of the birth of creation and the age of dinosaurs.

Against that cosmic backdrop, Malick presents the troubled life of a family headed by a saintly mom (Chastain) and an alternately tender and cruel dad (Pitt), whose reign over his three sons leaves them disturbed and even hostile toward their father.

Penn plays the oldest son as he reflects back on his boyhood in the 1950s.

“I was a little hesitant about playing the oppressive father, but I felt like the story was so important, and for me, it was really about the kid’s journey,” said Pitt, also a producer on “The Tree of Life,” which debuts in U.S. theaters May 27.

Pitt has wondered what his children will think about the autocratic figure he plays in “The Tree of Life.”

“My kids are going to see it when they grow up, and how are they going to feel?” Pitt said. “They know me as a dad, and I hope they’ll just think I’m a pretty damn good actor.”

More from the Washington Post:

Celebritology: Six movies to watch

Entertainment: Bernardo Bertolucci wins lifetime award

Style: Woody Allen puts viewers in a cinematic swoon with ‘Midnight Paris’

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