by Sharon Tillotson
I recently strolled past the marquee of our neighbourhood theatre and noticed the film The Tree of Life was playing. I love this theatre; it has one screen and is located underground. It does not normally, however, show underground films. Instead it mostly plays mainstream movies once their first run in major theatres has completed. The King’s Speech and Bridesmaids both recently ran there.
I tripped down the few stairs to the board to have a closer look. Not much information, just a series of bright vignettes that didn’t seem to fit together in any meaningful way. When I got home I visited the website. The same series of pictures came up, along with a tiny invitation to enter. I entered. Inside was a baby’s foot and two arrows, one pointing to ‘The Father’s Way’ and one to the mother’s. More images, and, to be fair to both parties, 599 ‘comments’ (all positive of course) on the film for each parent. At the bottom lay a small invitation to view the official movie site. Strange, I thought I was at the official movie site.
My suspicions were realized when I accepted the invitation. All those same ambiguous images and secret entrances, and not much more. It was clearly an art film. I often attend art films. I probably enjoy about three quarters of them and thought this one might be worth exploring. After all, it starred Brad Pitt and Sean Penn and seemed to suggest it was about the ‘meaning of life’. I discovered it had won the Palme d’Or award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Right up there with The Pianist, The Piano… and Pulp Fiction.
I convinced my daughter to see it with me. We weren’t able to go the week I noticed the film on the marquee, but instead opted to see it the following week when it was running as a matinee. On a lovely Saturday afternoon we descended the many steps about five minutes before the start, as the theatre never tends to be full, even for successful movies. Imagine our surprise when we stepped from the lobby, our hands full of popcorn and drinks, into the darkened viewing area – and the seats were almost all taken. However, we were able to find two pretty good seats.
I understood the parts of the film all right. The movie begins with some of the images I had seen on the board and website, plus a few animated squishy things oozing out of the oceans; an eye or two that was probably depicting the eye of God; the Milky Way; and many other things which taken together were easily enough identifiable as the expansion of the Universe and origins of Life – in a psychedelic sort of way that went on for what felt like more days than the Bible suggests God would have taken.
The middle part was a sepia-type depiction of an unfulfilled engineer (Brad Pitt) in the 1950’s who was trying to do the right thing by his family, while squashing his own creative dreams. I enjoyed that part. It was evocative and heartbreaking and set up the conflict of his eldest son in the future.
Alas, poor Sean Penn as that eldest son got short-shrift. We see him in the present, in jarring images interspersed with the rest of the story, of a middle-aged man following in the footsteps of his father. Clearly equally unfulfilled, he works as an architect in a glass and steel high-rise in a big city. We hear his fragmented whispers of existential questions. He steps outside to some Godforsaken treeless landscape and climbs a boulder-strewn path to a door that is just standing there with no obvious support. Eventually he steps through the door and is reunited on a beach with his family – in the same idyllic time period of the 1950’s.
Not a bad concept. It could have been a glorious film. So what went wrong? As a friend posted to her Facebook page, I was never engaged in the story. It was fragmented in the extreme. I have since read that it took many years to complete and kept losing its backing and distribution rights. I’m not surprised. Frankly, I could not comprehend the reason for the film. I appreciate movies that make one think. I understand and celebrate that everyone must come to their own understanding of the meaning of Life, and that sometimes one finds hidden meanings within a good book or film which help us see our own ‘truth’. This was not such a film. It left this viewer wanting to forget she’d ever seen it. The Guardian quoted Penn himself as saying in an interview with Le Figaro, “The screenplay is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read but I couldn’t find that same emotion on screen,” he said. “A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact…”
I know others must have enjoyed the film. As mentioned previously, the theatre was uncommonly full and I did not see even one person get up and leave before the end. Perhaps like me, they were expecting something meaningful to come from it, eventually. Perhaps those who are the kind of person who feels life needs be a hopeless struggle would have engaged with the film. But my own understanding of the concept of The Tree of Life is one of Love; ever growing, ever evolving, ever thriving.
Two weeks or so on, it still leaves me wondering if there was something I missed…