18 December, 2011

The Duchess Recommends . . .

If you can tear away from holiday charmers ("Elf", anyone?) to engage in something utterly spectacular, the Duchess has these four words for you:  THE TREE OF LIFE.  If you have not seen this film, rent or purchase or download it immediately. 

"The Tree of Life" (or "Tree" for short) was released earlier this year to coincide loosely with its premier at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme D'Or.  Though it has received tremendous critical acclaim (not from all corners, however), it hasn't enjoyed the popularity of more recently released flicks (such as "The Descendants" by Alexander Payne, starring George Clooney (wake me, I'm snoring) or some as-yet to be released (i.e., "War Horse" by Steven Spielberg, already nominated for a Golden Globe award for best drama--the Duchess won't be seeing it, so let her know how it goes).  It was booed and cheered at Cannes, and in brief unofficial pools, many people the Duchess has quizzed about the film (have you seen it?  what do you think?) didn't like it; some even walked out of the theater (as the Duchess should have done with "Black Swan"). 
But it is extraordinary.  Billed out to prospective audiences as the story of an eldest son's loss of innocence and his revisiting of his 1950's childhood, complete with soothing, domesticated mother and stern, authoritarian father, the movie in reality is a surging exploration of the interconnectedness of people and human experience, and the tension between that interconnectedness and the egoistic struggle of the self to rise above all.  It's difficult to provide a synopsis, especially a brief one, but in short the movie begins with a family tragedy (shown through parents Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), then forwards for a moment to Sean Penn (their eldest son) as an adult, wandering aimlessly, searchingly through life as visualized in a sequence of phallic, anonymous high-rise buildings.  Everyone is seeking an answer to that eternal question, why?, and attempting to find understanding in the universe writ large.  Cue a montage of images documenting the beginning of the earth, and then the rest of this two hour and twenty minute masterpiece. 

Pitt is remarkable as the father figure, anchoring the entire story on both micro- and macro-levels.  Hunter McCracken, who plays Sean Penn's younger self, gives an incredible cinematic perspective on the developing mind of a boy on the quest for manhood.  Jessica Chastain is luminous, relatable, and the ideal yin to Pitt's yang.  The weakest link in the movie, interestingly, is Sean Penn; the Duchess read somewhere that in an interview Penn acknowledged the screenplay as the best he had ever read, but that he had difficulty relating the depth of emotion it sought to capture on screen.  The Duchess thinks that is true. 

Another real star of the movie is the music, a classical "who's who" encompassing Bach, Brahms, Berlioz, Mozart, Holst, and the enchanting "Lacrimosa" by Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner.

Terrence Malick has made only five feature length films in his four decade career as a director.  He held on tightly to his vision of a creative masterpiece, and he has succeeded.  He is a true, master auteur.  Like it or not, "Tree" is a weird, compelling work of art, the likes of which the Duchess hasn't seen (in any medium) in years. 

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