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 beginning.
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 why.
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 pie.
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 it.
Lars Man Standing
Now look at MELANCHOLIA.
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.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved