AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
CLOUDS – 2011
DANCING IN THE CLOUDS
by Harlan Kennedy
It was a clash of the Titans. Not just
Hollywood’s maverick mystic versus Europe’s maverick mischief-maker: Terry and
Lars mano a mano on
the Mount Olympus of the Cannes Film Festival. Not just that,
but also seismically a showdown on screen – on two rival screens – between
the world’s beginning and the world’s end.
THE TREE OF LIFE gives us Creation. It
gives us evolution from soup to nuts – not so scientific that it excludes the
hand of God – in a half-hour sequence of stupefying majesty near the film’s
start. The screen explodes in all directions, in various shades of blinding
beatitude. This sequence is co-designed by no less than Douglas Trumbull,
effects czar of 2001.
There is a Big Bang or a series of them.
Then creatures emerge from the sea (give them a
billion years or more). Then dinosaurs roam. The genesis of existence is
preparing the way for that moment in 1950s Texas when a story can flower
about Brad Pitt and his family, archetypal Americans, and the consummation of
the long battle between nature and grace that began with the earth’s
In another corner of Cannes, where
civilisation is older, more cynical and more richly textured, a Dane presents
a film about the earth’s end. Lars von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA doesn’t give a stuff about how we began. We’re here. We’re in trouble.
We’re suffering. And we haven’t long before it ends. As Woody Allen might
say: “Life is terrible – and it’s so short.”
Trier’s spectacle is as awesome as Malick’s. He doesn’t have Doug Trumbull but he has an
imagination. And a computer. He brainstorms eerie, haunting, ‘simple’
tableaux that are cheaper than those in THE TREE OF LIFE but more difficult
to dislodge from our minds. You can’t evict the surreal weirdness of those
introductory images, frozen and nearly inanimate: the standing bride tearing
at mysterious, restraining trusses (it could be a Delvaux
painting), the girl straining with sinking, quagmired
footsteps across a golf course, the horse struck by death or panic in a wood.
Then there is the approaching death planet itself, Melancholia, which will
collide with our own, wiping out life as we know or knew it.
But Trier asks with a devilish grin: “Did
we ever know life? Do we?” Malick would say, “Of
course we do. We cannot count its mysteries and wonders,
that is the greatness of the miracle. But know it? Of course we do.
And we marvel.”
So what are we looking at in this
face-off between two visions and visionaries? Not just the Big Bang versus
the Big Bang-You’re-Dead. Also, the pessimist versus the optimist. The
nihilist versus the nirvanist. The absurdist versus
the affirming absolutist. And definitely, the old world versus the new.
The jury was always likely to give THE
TREE OF LIFE the Golden Palm. Two major Americans, Robert De Niro and Uma Thurman, and one world star with access to
the Hollywood payroll, Jude Law, were on the team. Would they listen to the
claims of some crazy from Denmark, a state whose main natural resource
according to HAMLET is ‘something rotten’? Would they bestow a bauble on a
filmmaker who, given half a chance, jabbers on at press conferences about
being a Nazi and sympathising with Hitler?
Well, they should have. Let’s examine
THE TREE OF LIFE is the ultimate,
all-comprehending Terrence Malick film. That is its
trouble. It comprehends everything and so do we. Here is Nature, represented
by evolution’s blind all-seeing perfectionism and the raw, bumpkin idealism
of Brad Pitt, pioneer patriarch, who, even when cruel, can shape the American
dream with his bare hands. (Don’t spare the kids, they’ll thank you later).
And here is Grace, represented by sunlight, poetry and Jessica Chastain as
mom, eerily resembling onetime Lars von Trier star Bryce Dallas Howard
(MANDERLAY) but in this incarnation signifying love, hope, caring and apple
Is there more to the movie? Towards the
end I started to think: less. In a glutinous near-finale a flash-forwarded
Sean Penn, Pitt’s grown-up capitalist son, meets his folks and those he has
loved on a celestial terminal beach. It could be an outtake from HEAVEN CAN
WAIT or HERE COMES MR JORDAN. Terrence Malick is in
danger of becoming the William Blake of the winsomely otherworldly.
For sure there are marvels. Malick feels so much pantheism in his gut and soul that
he lets his zero-gravity camera explore the airy spaces of giant moss-hung
oaks, or dance among clouds, or let Chastain twirl weightless in a skiey tarantella. Too often, though, the ecstasy is the
generalised lyricism of a travelogue: hyperbole streamlined for the masses.
So few single and particular images stay in the head, to taunt it and haunt
Instead of Malick’s
borrowed-robes transcendentalism – borrowed from Blake and Whitman and the
Kubrick of 2001 and the screwball-celestial heavens of Hollywood – Lars von
Trier makes entirely new garments for his journey into a beyond.
The stilled figures on moonlit lawns; the
sinister wires of lightning that flicker upwards from poles; the eeriness
conjured from (of all places!) a golf course, which adjoins the stately
seaside hotel hosting the nuptials between a handsome rich boy and a manic
depressive blonde (Kirsten Dunst). How do we relate
to this pictorial terra incognita?
Or to the drama incognita that
comes, about a hitherto unknown
planet heading for collision with Earth?
The planet is called Melancholia, so we tick
the box marked “directorial autobiography”. Trier has suffered emotional
black spells: especially in the years before ANTICHRIST. This extraterrestrial body must symbolise his Depression, a
state-of-being big enough to wipe out the world and restore it to its primal
state of non-being.
But the film never lets us sit
comfortably in any one position. It isn’t just a Lars self-portrait. It’s a
game of musical chairs. When you think it’s a simple apocalypse story, after
the opening tableaux of disaster, it becomes a caustic social comedy. The
whole first ‘act’ is a maliciously funny depiction of social breakdown,
everyone behaving badly at the millionaire millennial wedding. (John Hurt and
Charlotte Rampling trade ornate yet pinpoint
insults as Dunst’s daggers-drawn divorced parents).
Then it is rupture and preludial unease. The groom walks out. The evil planet
takes his place, a slowly swelling orb in the sky. And the bride’s sister
(Charlotte Gainsbourg) takes her sibling’s place as
main character. Everyone tries to clear up after the party, but the caterers
are arriving, from the sky for the next party. The end of the world.
In the last act, instead of painting on
the ceiling like Malick, to impress us with size,
reach and spiritual amplitude, Trier focuses on things small and local. The
horses whinny, then go silent in the stable. The
tool improvised by Gainsbourg’s brother (Kiefer
Sutherland) to view the planet’s growing size is a loop of wire, probably a
twisted coat hanger. First the planet is smaller than the loop, then it fits
it; then it’s smaller again (phew it’s going away), then – horror – it’s
bigger. Much bigger.
As the collision moment comes, Dunst returns to lead the dance of death. She improves a
protective tent, a kind of open pentacle/wigwam made with raised sticks. We
see that it is utterly useless, utterly mad, utterly
stupid: the kind of thing no Malick character, so
solemn in his respect for God and the universe, would ever create.
Yet it is the perfect ‘finis’
to this movie. It is a one-fingered or several-fingered gesture to fate and
the cosmos. The space-time machine that is purely of the imagination will
surely be blown away, and it is. Yet it presents – at the last minute of the
last hour – a defiant declaration that humanity, with a “damn to you,” can
use its greatest tool, the imagination, to create for a few seconds (though
those the most important in history) a shrine of safety, certitude and
secular sanctity. Like the origami unicorn at the end of BLADE RUNNER, the
tent is the valedictory talisman that says to those who come after (whether
humans or insects or amoebas), “We were here.”
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR
CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
KENNEDY. All rights reserved