(What a bloody cute poster all the same…)
I entered the IFI with little or no expectations for this film, I had heard such mixed reviews that for once I decided to just throw the doors of my mind wide open and take in whatever the film had to throw at me. And I’m so happy I did. I can understand where people are coming from with their criticisms of the film, but to say that it wasn’t something completely different and intriguing, in a way that I haven’t found a film to be in quite a long time, would be an utter lie. The whole experience of watching this film felt like airing out the cobwebs in my mind, it blew away any bullshit I was pondering or worrying about and just engulfed me like some kind of powerful meditation. The hypnotic imagery of the dawn of the earth and beginnings of life stir up so many emotions for me, excitement, anxiety, safety and total vulnerability all at once. I found the juxtapositions between the natural and the religious to be enlightening, (where religion can often infuriate me) and the bonds of mother to son, and father to son to be incredibly insightful, touching and at times a little close to the bone for some viewers, I imagine!
Intricate family relationships are explored so subtly that I can understand how one might miss the point when it comes to that side of the film. The children’s entire relationship with their father was summed up for me in the tentative scene in which the son explains to his father (Brad Pitt) that the grass won’t grow because it’s in the shade of the bigger tree, the boy can’t develop emotionally because of his father’s overbearing presence and coldness. On the other hand, images of the mother were so feminine, nurturing and pure but also at times sexualised, making for quite a Freudian depiction of the relationship between mother and son, but ultimately creating an image of loving warmth and alliance with the mother, whose character seems to represent faith and ‘grace’ entirely.
Memories are the centrepiece in this film, in fact the entire film is a series of them, so visceral and simple when the children are young (wet grass on knees and patterns that the light cast on the floor) growing more intricate and detailed as they grow. My interpretation would be that they are the memories of the parents at first, and then the eldest child’s, whom the film centres around as I think (and this is just what I gathered!) is dying, and in the end walks among all he loves on a beach where he can recall so many happy memories of his mother and brothers; the ‘heaven’ that many would hope exists, perhaps? Whether this interpretation is correct or not, this is an incredibly thoughtful portrayal of memories and the tiny, beautiful and so often unimportant moments that create them.
My only criticism would be that the dinosaurs and marine life were slightly periodically incorrect (I am such a nerd!) but if we were to chastise every film that fucked up in that realm then many childhood favourites would be in turmoil! So, I’m going to go ahead and be as bold as to say that something was communicated through this film in a very different way than it has ever been before, so subtly and gently that you could almost miss it and I find it hard to verbalise, it’s almost like it took all the beauty and all the uncertainty and pain we all associate with life and found 100 different ways to portray it in 2 and a half hours of breathtaking cinematography, a spine-tingling score and very moving acting. Many criticise the lack of a defined ‘plot’ in the film but No. 1) it does have a plot, or at least a sub-plot, the film is about the nature of life and death and it explores very intimately the story of one human life, and if people can’t get their heads around a slightly less than linear form of storytelling then they should have stayed at home and watched some fucking Bond films! (you knew I’d get ranty at some point.. :P) and No. 2) it really didn’t need a beginning, middle and end, because it made you feel something from beginning to end, and without trying to sound too flakey it is called ‘The Tree of Life’ so the clue is in the title, it’s a cinematic portrayal of life.. And guess what? Life doesn’t have a ‘plot’.
In my opinion The Tree of Life is a modern masterpiece, probably far ahead of its time. I can imagine this film being studied as a breakthrough in cinema in 20 years, and all who hate it now will claim to love it in hindsight! What so many have misconstrued as pretentiousness I think is just bravery, boundaries were definitely broken by this film, and while some segments may be a little too reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I tend to base a film on how I feel leaving it, and I have honestly never experienced anything like the feeling of speechlessness, awe and vulnerability that I felt leaving the cinema yesterday, certainly not from The Black Swan, The Kings Speech or any other recent ‘triumph of cinema’ in the public eye. If you haven’t seen it I recommend you pick a day when you have nothing to do but ponder existence and go see it with your mind open and your eyes open wider! It is stunning, whatever it is…