Archive for the ‘ film ’ Category

Days of Heaven, by Terrence Malick

My piece on Terrence Malick’s 1978 film Days of Heaven has been published over at Static Mass Emporium:


Terrence Malick holds a unique place in my personal canon of film directors, partly because I discovered his films at a watershed moment when a passing interest in cinema was turning into something more consuming. His films fuse a European formalism and philosophical seriousness with a classically American pastoral aesthetic and sense of nostalgia. They hover somewhere around the boundary between the popular and the recondite, giving them the character of a strange cultural hybrid.

Malick’s debut feature, Badlands, is superficially a classic American crime film concerning a young runaway couple, borrowing from Bonnie And Clyde and the long prehistory of road trip narratives that forms a central current in the American cultural imagination, from Twain to Kerouac, The Wizard Of Oz to Easy Rider. Yet this traditional material is refashioned by the modernist narrative device of the unreliable narrator. This casts an uncertain light on its nostalgic aesthetic and throws the focus narcissistically back onto the film’s form as the key to its meaning.

Though Malick has never completely shed his connections with classically American cinematic tropes, his films have become progressively more abstract and formally adventurous. His later films are ponderously paced and heavily aestheticized visual poems, seemingly influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky. Meditations on time, memory and spirituality, they are also investigations of the relationship between form and content.

Days Of Heaven sits at the intersection of early and late Malick, retaining some of the cohesion of Badlands while pointing the way to the more ruminative style ofThe Thin Red LineThe New World and The Tree of Life.

Read the full piece here


The Master, by P.T. Anderson


Billed as PT Anderson’s ‘scientology film’, The Master is really an enigmatic melodrama about everything and nothing. This is its strength, in a way, but also ultimately its weakness. Continuing in There Will Be Blood’s vein of hammed-up thespian intensity, like that film The Master focuses on two larger-than-life characters. Freddie Quell is an emotionally damaged WW2 veteran and wildly self-destructive drinker, whose benders involve alchemising lethal moonshine from ingredients like cough syrup and (literal) rocket fuel. However, most of the pre-launch hype has surrounded his counterpart, the bombastic, pseudo-messianic shyster Lancaster Dodd, inspired by South Park’s L. Ron Hubbard.

Quell falls under the influence of Dodd by chance, having wandered onto a cruise ship rented by Dodd’s cult, during the course of one of his binges. The two strike up a strange mutual dependency, with Quell falling under the spell of Dodd’s charismatic oratory and cod-spiritual guidance. Quell’s priest, psychoanalyst and surrogate patriarch in equal parts, Dodd is also in some ways a kindred spirit and mirror image. In a strangely triangulated pact, he feeds off Quell’s childlike reverence, growing ever more dependent on Quell’s dependency.

Dodd also, it is hinted, develops something approximating Quell’s physical dependency for the potent cocktails he concocts. Just as There Will Be Blood concerns the intoxicating effects of the will to power, religious fervor and primal animosity, The Master concerns the parallels between those of belief, personality, and alcohol. Both films make more sense if you bear in mind that, in one way or another, the characters spend most of their time completely wasted.

As is immediately discernible, then, this is not Anderson’s personal critique of the tenets of scientology, an exercise that would be unlikely to merit two and a half hours of any thinking person’s attention.  The cod-philosophy that Dodd spouts is clearly spurious, but its details are arbitrary and only briefly gestured at. Anderson is clearly interested in belief and where it comes from, but he is primarily concerned with the human compulsion, need, manipulation, desire and force of personality that creates it, not the details of that which is believed. Even when a rare, educated listener challenges Dodd as he spouts his ludicrous metaphysics, the focus is on the human content of his violent and paranoid reaction, rather than the truth-content of the objection.

If this is a character film rather than an issues film per se, that is not to say that Anderson does not attempt to locate his characters within the specifics of their time and place. Indeed, the film is full of gestures towards wider themes. Quell is a lost boy who has no idea how to take control over his life having been cast back into civilian society after the war (though the latter is never shown). His search for a surrogate family is underwritten by his own rootlessness, his father having drunk himself to death and his mother having died in an insane asylum. He makes a living for a time by taking family photographs in a shopping centre – the ultimate symbol of America’s mid-century crisis of spirituality – creating endless reconstructions of the idealized nuclear unit from whose authentic reality he is alienated.

Yet if Anderson intends Quell to embody some sort of wider truth about the postwar condition, this intention is at odds with Joachim Phoenix’s caricature posturing – which is not to say that it isn’t an extraordinary performance. In many ways it is a remarkable display of method-acting rigour. Indeed, Pheonix’s sneering, maniacal intensity recalls that of Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog films like Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Woyzeck.

Yet the uses to which Herzog and Anderson put this sort of performance are very different. Herzog’s Kinski films are defined by Wagnerian excess – explicitly, in the case of Fitzcarraldo. The histrionics of Kinski’s performances are matched by Herzog’s overreaching metaphysical bombast. Their elemental intensity recalls classical tragedy, serving to dissolve the individuality of Kinski’s personas and elevate them to the realm of archetype. Herzog’s purpose is not to create a sense of empathy or three-dimensional believability in the case of Aguirre, any more than Homer’s is in the case of Achilles.

Anderson is interested in filming similarly spectacular and histrionic performances from both his leading men, but he also seems to want to domesticate them in a way in which Herzog has no interest. This creates a conflict. Anderson seeks to examine Quell and Dodd and tap into their interiority, understanding the human motivations that underpin their relationship. But their performances are so external and aestheticized in their studied thespianism that they remain remote. Quell and Dodd are neither believable enough to be fully human, nor representative enough to be compellingly symbolic. They neither fully achieve nor transcend the particular. The result is caricature.

There is much to admire in The Master, but it is not a film that ever achieves more than the sum of its parts. Indeed, the main impression I left with is that Anderson is an interesting and talented director who has fallen into the trap of believing his own hype. Profundity, much like humour, is something that can’t really be forced. The earlier films that launched Anderson’s reputation, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, are triumphs of style, offbeat humour and imagination, but they are not works of any particular artistic or philosophical depth. They are films that are not about anything per se; they merely are – in a way that is unforced, singular and vital. The Master, in contrast, is a work that in its desperate striving to say something meaningful about life ultimately fails to attain a life of its own.

Tabu, by Miguel Gomes

The latest offering from Portuguese auteur Miguel Gomes, Tabu revolves around a series of unresolved oppositions: realism and romance, fact and fiction, the metropolis and the colony, the internal and the external, the narrator and the narrated. Not only is the film structured around thematic contrasts, formally it is split into two bipolar halves: present and past or, in its own literary terminology, Paradise Lost and Paradise. The former is a prosaic study of urban alienation, while the latter is a self-consciously poetic melodrama set in colonial Africa.

The thread that links the two sections is Aurora, a senile old lady who gambles away vast chunks of her fortune and rambles semi-coherently about filial plots, the machinations of her taciturn maid Santa, and escaped crocodiles. We encounter her through the eyes of her neighbor Pilar, a lonely middle-aged spinster and Catholic do-gooder. Along with Santa, they form the central triangle in a low-key urban character study that resembles a less dramatic Haneke or a less wry Kaurismaki.

The themes are all there: the impossibility of communication, the atomization of modern life, the arbitrariness of a faithless world, the failure of multiculturalism. The characters are ideas with names. Santa (saint), an impoverished African immigrant, remains as utterly inscrutable as her postcolonial generic precedents would lead us to expect (she even secretly reads Robinson Crusoe). Pilar’s (pillar) Catholicism insulates her against the meaninglessness of her lonely existence. The surreal poetry of Aurora’s demented monologues provides a contrast to the unrelenting prose of daily life. All of which, while not without its merits, on first viewing errs on the side of obviousness and didacticism.

However, the film is flipped upside down by a second section that could scarcely be more stylistically incongruous. An elderly stranger, Gian Luca Ventura emerges like a ghost from Aurora’s past and recounts to Pilar the tale of their histrionic romance, set at the foot of the remote African Mount Tabu. Replete with elemental passion, shattered taboos, elopement, murder, betrayal and tragic separation, the tale breathes life back into the dead themes whose very absence haunts the opening section. The world is re-enchanted before our eyes in a manner whose potential spuriousness we are more than willing to temporarily forget.

The contrast is as much stylistic as thematic. The neo-Bressonian minimalism of the opening section gives way to an unashamedly lyrical homage to the silent era, all aestheticized black and white shots of verdant mountainsides in the setting sun and smoldering close-ups of the youthful star-crossed lovers. The section is soundless other than the atmospheric hum of crickets and the disconnected voiceover of the now-elderly protagonist telling the story at Aurora’s wake in Lisbon.

Reviewers have invoked Terrence Malick as a reference point, and the magic-hour lighting, leisurely panoramas and enigmatic voiceover would all seem to suggest his influence. The unconfirmed relationship between word and image serves as the formal crux in Malick films such as Badlands and Days of Heaven, and Tabu utilizes a similar structural instability. We do not know whether what we watch in the second half is a visualization of the events from an omniscient perspective, a projection of Gian Luca’s memories as he sees them in his mind’s eye, as they are transfigured in the romance-starved imagination of the listening Pilar, or even a commentary on the way we the audience might perceive his memories to look because of our own preconditioning by the very cinematic norms and clichés it employs. In a sense it doesn’t matter – the effect lies in the uncertainty.

If the section’s aesthetic were merely intended as homage to a bygone cinematic era we might dismiss it as mere trainspotting or self-indulgence. But the romanticizing cinematic language is problematic. On the one hand it serves to poetically exaggerate and universalize its themes in the manner of classic middlebrow melodrama. But on a more subtle level it emphasizes the potentially violent subjectivity of nostalgia. Stripped of their sentimental baggage, the events it depicts are largely destructive, culminating in the hastily covered-up murder of an entirely undeserving victim. Like the ironically fairytale aesthetic that disguises the violence of Badlands and Days of Heaven, this treatment conceals the nature of the events it describes.

The second section, then, provides a mythic counterweight to the drab social realism of the first, which purports to merely show things to us ‘as they are’. But this is rather more than dramatic relief or escapism. For one thing it calls into question the limits of cinematic realism, underscoring the gap between appearance and quiddity. Just as the characters in the first half are unable to really communicate or empathize with one another, our window into Aurora’s tumultuous past – outrageously distorted or downright untrue though it might be – serves to emphasize the inauthenticity of appearance. Though the realism of the first section pretends to document concrete reality, the second half shows that it has communicated nothing of its characters’ inner lives. The actual nature of the present is as fugitive and hypothetical as that of the past.

If the purpose of the second section were merely to correct our initial reading of the first with a revelation of the past, while juxtaposing the prose of the present with the poetry of nostalgia, it would have run the risk of triteness. Yet its complexity stems from its ambiguous relation to any notion of objective truth. By retaining an uncertain relationship between the words that form the historical data of the narrative (themselves potentially unreliable) and the aestheticized images that relay it to us visually, Tabu refuses to give us an authentic version of events to fall back on.

Indeed, the truth of the film lies somewhere within the very contradictions inherent in its opposing forces. The poetic truth of the second section is as selective, questionable and incomplete as the prosaic truth of the first. The whole remains inaccessible. Ultimately Tabu serves as a monument to the glorious futility of any attempt to impose a narrative upon the world.

The Kid with a Bike , by the Dardenne Brothers

In Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Italian neo-realist classic The Bicycle Thieves, a desperately impoverished, salt-of-the-earth Roman worker has his bicycle (and thus livelihood) stolen, shortly after securing a long sought-after gig pasting up posters during the post-war depression. The film follows his quest to recover his cherished mode of conveyance, accompanied by his cherubic son. Along the way they encounter various examples of the dog-eat-dog pragmatism of poverty, illuminated by the odd flash of human warmth, not least that which emerges from their own relationship. Dominated by hardship and misery, the film nonetheless offers a glimmer of redemption in the form of human compassion and forgiveness, a contrast to the alienating indifference of a capitalist system that reduces people to units of currency.

It is tempting to view the Dardenne Brothers’ latest film as a remake or homage, though as tends to be the case in their particularly stark brand of unadorned realism, any of the consolations of humanism are considerably harder won. Whereas De Sica’s social realism depicts the material circumstances of urban poverty but is seduced by the twin temptations of sentimentality and dramatic performance, in the Dardennes the human subject is shown to us at a far more advanced stage of late-capitalist alienation. De Sica’s implied faith in the redemptive transcendence of the human soul is replaced by unknowable, conflicted individuals whose acquisitiveness and occasional flashes of affection are never straightforwardly separable. If the Dardenne Brothers are not always as engrossing or aesthetically memorable as De Sica, at their best they are a good deal more unsettling.

Whereas The Bicycle Thieves is glued together by the fundamental bond between father and son, The Kid with a Bike focuses on Cyril, a 12 or 13 year-old boy who has been casually rejected by his father. Initially the plot concerns Cyril’s attempts to recover his bike, yet it morphs into something more akin to a bildungsroman, a character portrait of a vulnerable yet resilient child adrift in a world in which acquisitiveness and indifference are the norm. An abandoned orphan, Cyril is offered an unexpected lifeline in the form of a hairdresser who encounters him during one of his frequent dramatic flights of rage, and subsequently agrees to foster him. As in De Sica, a bond emerges between the two that offers the film’s promise of redemption. However the sentimentality and idealised character traits (the stoical simplicity of the father, the crowd-pleasing cuteness of the son) that mark that film are absent, or at least presented far more problematically.

Just as their hero Robert Bresson remade Dreyer’s silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc in a way that stripped it of what he regarded as its grotesque thespianism, the Dardennes slam shut the door that De Sica offers us to his characters’ interior lives, rejecting any unnatural expressiveness and obviously scripted dialogue. As in Bresson, the Dardennes’ mode of characterisation is all flatness and surface; physical movement and cinematic syntax take over the work more conventionally assigned to dialogue and performance. We are denied the background information or intimate access that would allow us to readily categorise the characters, or credit them with the clearly differentiated motives, desires and stable traits of traditional humanist subjects.

This alienation ties in with the films’ more fundamental concerns. Though the Dardennes deal with the wrong side of the tracks, they seem to be primarily interested in a form of spiritual rather than material poverty. True, their characters are generally frenetically rushing around struggling to make ends meet, and a lack of material opportunity and hope is a continual backdrop. However, they are not primarily out to shock us with representations of extreme poverty or domestic abuse, or to promote a clear-cut social or political message. Existential themes of meaninglessness and indeterminacy are instead pushed to the foreground, and this makes their films far more unsettling. Whereas a film such as The Bicycle Thieves encourages the utopian interpretation that if it were merely unburdened of an unfair social system mankind might flourish, the Dardennes are as interested in emotional and spiritual forms of alienation as they are in social disenfranchisement. Though they may in some ways be by-products of a dehumanising capitalist system, there is no obvious political solution to the problems they confront.

If this groups the Dardennes films together into one, that is because they are in a sense stages of the same project, corners of a cumulative picture of the world as viewed through the microcosm of the unremarkable industrial city in Belgium in which all their films are set. Through adapting Bressonian techniques they have developed a method by which to translate their worldview into a cinematic form that is at times almost perfectly at the service of content, utilizing and making a virtue of the tendency of film to aestheticize and keep us at arms’ length, rather than attempting to overcome it through artificial means. The immediacy of the medium gives them a mimetic advantage over the Zola-esque novels their films recall, presenting the world to us in its natural state of flux and indecipherability, free of the necessarily reflective dimension of language.

Despite being of the same bloodline, and though it shares many of the broader virtues that make them so unsettling and indispensible, The Kid with a Bike in my view ultimately falls slightly short of the devastating cogency of films such as L’Enfant and Rosetta. Though the first half of the film is flawlessly crafted, in the second there is a tailing off that I would suggest can be traced to both structural and thematic problems that are absent from their best work. The ending of the film is in a sense a reprise of that of The Bicycle Thieves. In that film the father, driven to desperation, steals a bike from a crowded square only to be chased down by an irate mob. Though initially out for revenge, the owner of the bike relents upon seeing the man’s defenceless child, and opts for forgiveness. The son too forgives the father and, as the film ends with a shot of them walking away hand in hand, materially destitute but somehow spiritually enriched, we are left with an image of humanity that transcends the dehumanization of material want.

Similarly, The Kid with a Bike ends on a note of hope and redemption. Cyril has briefly become caught up with a local small-time dealer, and in return for a bit of mild buttering up commits a robbery that involves him – somewhat implausibly in an otherwise rigorously realistic film – knocking out a father and son with a baseball bat. He is saved from the path of juvenile detention and seemingly inevitable ruin by the man he has assaulted, who agrees to forgive him and drop charges. Cyril is ultimately able to return the compliment when the man’s son attempts to exact revenge and briefly fears he has killed him. In an apparent nod to its own artificial symmetry, Cyril is also knocked out only to come around minutes later having suffered no serious ill effect.

Part of the deflation that takes place with this late storyline comes from the fact that not all of its details are particularly believable; but this would not be a primary concern if it served a more compelling essayistic function. The problem for me is that the ending feels rather too determinate, dissipating some of the energy generated through the powerful portraiture of the opening half of the film. In the Dardennes’ best work the final scene arrives as a crescendo that is also a paradox, an inevitability that somehow also manages to question and redefine all that has gone before – like the emotional outpouring at the end of L’Enfant that is rendered all the more shattering for its stubborn indeterminacy, or the sheer relentlessness that marks the final crescendo of Rosetta. Both scenes confer on us an urgent interpretative choice, as in the devastating final shot of Trouffaut’s The 400 Blows when the young Antoine is frozen in an unexpected close-up, looking almost pleadingly into the camera as if to ask ‘what now?’

In the more optimistic closing note of The Kid with a Bike, we can still hear some characteristic undertones: the conflict between that which is shown and presumed, and the probability that the symmetry of the plotline is coincidental and ultimately meaningless. As Cyril cycles off into the sunshine we have no idea what he is thinking, whether he will manage to choose a better life than that which seemed his fate, whether he will collapse from a brain haemorrhage following his concussion, or indeed whether he will make it home at all without being hit by a lorry. Yet it failed for me to gather these conflicting possibilities into the sort of compelling paradox that makes films like L’Enfant and Rosetta so piercing and resonant. As an addition to the Dardennes’ body of work it sits somewhere short of the apex, but it still does enough to demonstrate why they are of a completely different order of significance to 99% of the films that will be showing in a cinema near you this year – and for that reason it demands to be seen.     

Through a Glass Darkly, by Ingmar Bergman

Through a Glass Darkly contains all of the classic elements of early Bergman: Aristotelian unities of character, time and location, long and dialogue-heavy black-and-white takes, wearyingly intense performances, excellent glasses, and a winning combination of earnest religious doubt and chic continental angst. Nobody makes despair look as cool as Bergman.

Like most of his works of the same period, it’s a deceptively simple story (I could say something here about how it was ‘conceived as a chamber piece’, but you all know where Wikipedia is). The film focuses on 24 fairly melodramatic hours in the lives of four characters. David, a morbidly self-obsessed author suffering from writer’s block, returns from a period of artistic retreat in Switzerland to visit his much-neglected family in a remote cottage in the fjords: Karin, his energetically schizophrenic daughter who has just been released from hospital; Martin, her decent, upstanding and rigorously boring husband; and her younger brother Minus, a precocious and conflicted 17 year-old with a massive paternal inferiority complex and an uncontrollable crush on his flirtatiously batshit sister. Let battle commence.


The initial harmoniousness of the father’s return is broken by Martin’s revelation to David that Karin’s recent schizophrenic breakdown may in fact be an incurable illness. Karin later discovers David’s diary, in which he admits to his intention of using her impending mental decline as the artistic subject-matter that his intensely bourgeois life has so far failed to provide. This precipitates a mental unravelling in which the codified meanings of domestic life break down and taboos are temporarily suspended. While David and Martin are on a daytrip to the mainland, Karin and Minus find themselves careering towards a consummation of their irrational mutual fixation.

Like John Cassavettes’ A Woman Under the Influence, the film on one level portrays a female consciousness ground down by the patriarchal tedium of domestic life. Martin does a great line in irreproachably unfanciable Nordic steadfastness: tall and reassuringly boring, like an Ikea wardrobe. The earnest man-chat between him and Karin’s father that opens the film is so hilariously leaden that in five minutes it creates a ready-made empathy for Karin’s mental unravelling. We instantly side with the weird and sexy dionysian over the unsexy domestic males. What’s more, so does young Minus.


Whereas Martin personifies groundedness and certainty, the three blood relatives stand on differing points along an imaginative scale passing through religious uncertainty and ending in total annihilation (the mother died following a mental illness). David – who writes commercially successful novels but wishes he was a great artist – is a quietly despairing narcissist who perversely envies his daughter’s more extroverted suffering, as well as his son’s naïvely uninhibited creativity.

Minus oscillates between creative and destructive impulses and struggles to control or comprehend his nascent libido; he and Karin, who perennially teeters on the precipice of self-destruction, are irresistibly drawn to one another. In a farcically charged scene, Karin catches Minus taking time out from his Latin conjugation homework to surreptitiously flick through a porno mag. When she grabs the magazine from his hands and teases him, Minus spits in her face before collapsing in shame and self-reproach. Bergman ends the scene with a close-up of the scrunched-up magazine sandwiched between the leather-bound respectability of two Latin textbooks.


Like Erica Kohut in The Piano Teacher, Karin and Minus embody in varying ways the conflict between the irrational destructive spirit, and the structural staves of consensus reality. Picking up the Kierkegaardian theme that runs though Bergman’s early work, the film is a study of the potential unravelling of meaning and morality in a world bereft of a God-shaped lynchpin. Bergman frequently drives dangerously close to self-parody, yet here as elsewhere there is a certain stripped-down intensity and focus that gives improbable depth to a plot that could easily have been merely melodramatic. With just four symbolically tessellated characters Bergman creates a switchboard of conflicting energies, correspondences and false oppositions.

For those unfamiliar with Bergman, Sweden may not seem the instinctive first-port-of-call for such an explosive cocktail of sex, art, taboo and philosophy. But then once you are familiar with Bergman there are a great many things about the world that never really seem the same again.


Taste of Cherry, by Abbas Kiarostami

Watching Taste of Cherry is an intensely claustrophobic experience. Shot on digital film mostly from the inside of a car, it follows a middle-aged man, Mr Badii, as he spends a day driving around the charred, industrial hilltops on the outskirts of an Iranian city. With lengthy takes of seemingly unscripted dialogue, he engages a series of men – a worker, a plastic bag collector, a young soldier, a guardsman, a trainee priest, and a taxidermist – in small talk, trying to lure them into his car. If he succeeds, he drives them to a shallow grave on a secluded hillside and makes them a proposal: in return for a large amount of money, they are to return to the hillside at 6am and call out his name. If he answers, they are to help him out of the hole. If he does not, they are to cover his body with twenty spade-fulls of earth.

So in one sense the film is a character portrait of a man preparing to end his life, though any intimacy we gain is by virtue of sheer proximity. We spend a great deal of the film quite literally looking into Mr Badii’s face from the passenger seat. Kiarostami filmed a lot of the footage by just driving around with him, pointing a digital camera in his face, and we certainly get an insight into his manner and small-talk, the morbidly quotidian chat-up he uses to disarm his passengers enough to make his offer. But we know virtually nothing else about him or his reasons for wanting to die. In this sense he functions in part as a constant, an inscrutable premise. For the first half of the film at least, the narrative tension doesn’t really come from whether or not he will follow through with his plan to kill himself, so much as the varying reactions of the passengers to his proposition.

The only revealing piece of biographical information we glean is when he tells a young soldier that he looks back upon his military service as the happiest period of his life, a time of friendship and companionship. Now, we infer, he is wretchedly lonely, and it seems reasonable to presume that this is part of his suicidal motivation. But though this interpretation is implicitly encouraged, it is not substantiated in any way. It’s also perfectly conceivable that Mr Badii was either never in the army, or was and hated it, and merely makes his claim as a way to disarm the young soldier. The film trades on this kind of elliptical uncertainty, refusing to give us the sort of easy answers that allow us to stop thinking and questioning.

Indeed, the film uses uncertainty to explore the two-edged sword of our connections with other people. On the one (pessimistic) hand, it reinforces our insurmountable isolation, the impossibility of ever having true access to the thoughts and feelings of another human being. Mr Badii spends most of the day being confronted with barriers, trying to chip through the guardedness, suspicion and awkwardness of the people he meets to attain a sufficient state of intimacy that will allow him – with no small amount of grim irony – to persuade his passengers to help him end his life. When asked about his reasons for wanting to kill himself, Mr Badii replies that it is pointless to explain since even if another person were to know the events that caused it, they would still be incapable of feeling his pain.

Yet we are also presented with an optimistic counterargument in the form of the final passenger (the taxidermist), who embodies warmth and disinterested concern. He tells Mr Badii the story of his own attempted suicide when, having given up all hope in life, he went out one morning to hang himself from a tree. However, having climbed the tree he picked a cherry and tasted it. He suddenly realised that he was staring out at a beautiful sunrise. Some school children came and asked him to shake the tree, and cherries fell down for them to taste. Suddenly he no longer wanted to die.

So the protagonist is presented with two opposing arguments – the cold, pessimistic logic that dictates that one person is damned to solitude, and the human, epicurean counterargument that says we can overcome this isolation through sense experience, or good old fashioned faith. With the apparent simplicity of a medieval morality tale, the film sets up for its final scene as an either/or, preparing us for either a consummation of the ruthless logic of philosophical pessimism, or the leap of faith that will give him the strength to carry on.

And then, having meticulously built to this final scene, Kiarostami pulls out the rug. We are faced with a final shot of the protagonist’s face in the shallow grave, eyes open, from which it is impossible to tell if he is dead or merely waiting for the taxidermist to arrive and help him up, symbolically and literally, out of the hole. After a lengthy blackout we switch to a mise en abyme, showing the shooting of the film – with the actor, Kiarostami himself and the crew conversing by the hillside, shot on grainy hand-held film. We then pan round to the group of soldiers whom we have previously seen marching in the film, ‘off-screen’, larking around looking happy. The critic Roger Ebert, who hated the film, saw this as a tacky gimmick, the sort of postmodern ‘distancing effect’ that does nothing but ram its own cleverness down your throat. Unfortunately he completely misses the point.

As in Nabokov’s wonderful short story Signs and Symbols – also concerning suicide – Kiarostami is in one sense setting the artificial logic of the narrative, which invests images with significance and symbolism, against the resistance of events to this form of explication. The structural similarities are striking. Nabokov’s story is about a suicidal young man who suffers from ‘referential disorder’ in that he thinks everything in the world – every sign and symbol – refers to him: ‘Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme’.  The short narrative ends with a phone call to his parents, which we are invited by the structure of the story to presume will be the hospital informing them of his suicide. But in taking up this hermeneutic invitation we would be suffering from a form of the same referential mania from which he suffers, falling victim to the bad faith of fiction’s artificial structures of meaning and causality – faith in which, it is implied, would constitute a form of insanity.

Similarly, Kiarostami meticulously builds up his narrative to the either/or final scene in a way which confers potential inevitability on one of two outcomes: the logical death-spiral resulting in suicide, or the leap of faith leading to redemption. Depending on our reading, there is evidence in the signs and symbols of the preceding narrative for the structural inevitability of either outcome. On the one hand, the flashes of human connection that illuminate the stilted interactions, the warmth of the taxidermist, the beautiful shots that we and the protagonist witness as he sits by the graveside. On the other, the rigid logic that makes these transient comforts meaningless in the face of death. Like Nabokov, in letting us make our own decision about the outcome, Kiarostami reinforces the disjunction between the structures of art and the structurelessness of life.

Kiarostami could have achieved this effect if he, like Nabokov, had simply ended on uncertainty, leaving us to decide the outcome. Yet the complexity is multiplied by the closing image of the soldiers. The effect of showing us the group of smiling soldiers transplanted from the parameters of the narrative is to relieve them of their symbolic function and show them to us as a free-standing image. It undercuts the arbitrary meanings we impose through the narratives we construct – both good meanings, in the sense that they make life explicable for us, and bad meanings, in that they can trap and suffocate us, imposing inevitability where it may not otherwise exist.

Yet even outside of the narrative boundaries, the image of the soldiers cannot be merely an image. It confers a kind of choice upon us that in itself demands allegiance to a paradigm. Does the group of soldiers evoke the happy period of the man’s life in the narrative (implying the ascendancy of the optimistic interpretation), or did this period never even exist and arise simply from misinterpretation (reinforcing the pessimistic interpretation)?

There is no answer, and the image serves to suggest multiple philosophically loaded meanings while reinforcing its own essential meaninglessness. And within the context of the paradigm created by the film, this could be ‘bad’ meaninglessness leading to despair, or ‘good’ meaninglessness undercutting the logical death-spiral driving the main character to suicide. It is up to us to confer meaning on what we see, but – as Kiarostami shows us by ripping down the barriers between what is and isn’t a part of the plot – we can never do so free of artificial paradigms.

The Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick has been referred to as an American who makes films with a European sensibility. A former student of continental philosophy who dropped out of his PhD at Oxford over an argument about Wittgenstein, Malick has never had much to do with the Hollywood establishment, and his status as a mythic recluse is enhanced by a glacial production rate of just five films in nearly 40 years. Like just about everything Malick has directed, The Tree of Life is an enticing and unusual combination of the sort of highbrow narrative experimentalism one associates with European art-house cinema, infused with a lush, and occasionally heavy-handed romantic lyricism that connects it to a more classically American pastoral tradition. The result is something like a Calvin Klein advert scripted by Alain Robbe-Grillet, and inter-spliced with outtakes from the Discovery Channel. Sound strange? It is, pretty. But it somehow works.

The film takes as its subject a 1950s suburban American family, a married couple and their three young sons. Malick has never been shy about employing rigid gender roles in his films, and the parental characters are classically Freudian. The opening voiceover from the mother of the family speaks of the eternal metaphysical (materialists: this isn’t for you) conflict between grace and nature. This sets up a framework through which to view the warring maternal and paternal principles, and their formative effect upon the three boys; however, though the mother’s monologue sets this conflict up as a clash between the ruthlessness of nature and the redeeming spirituality of religious grace, the forces at play could also be interpreted through a Nietzschean Apollonian/Dionysian paradigm, or indeed as some sort of negotiation between rationalism and empiricism. The uptight, disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt), is the realist, empiricist and pragmatist: a military engineer who is also a talented musician, he runs a borderline-abusively tight ship in order to toughen up his sons in preparation for the demands of the real world. The mother, meanwhile, is an impractical dreamer, both idealistic and idealised, who is inadequately equipped to deal with life’s more prosaic demands.

Telling the story of the family through a cryptic succession of fragmented flashbacks, The Tree of Life weaves together several key thematic threads: an investigation into the formation of personality, a study of bereavement, a recreation of the distortions to which memory subjects childhood, a rumination on, yes, the origins of the universe (Malick is nothing if not grandiose), along with a subtle interrogation of traditional film narrative methods and their shaping effect. In classic Malick style, the premises of the narrative remain shrouded in mystery, the audience left to do much of the interpretative legwork in piecing together a narrative that is primarily visual, a fragmented chain of heavily stylized images overlaid with various more or less cryptic voiceovers. What we can readily gleam is that an older version of one of the sons (we infer it to be Jack, the eldest), a disillusioned architect played by Sean presumably-not-paid-by-the-word Penn, lapses into an extended reverie concerning his childhood and his deceased brother when he sees a tree being planted outside his New York office.


Towards the beginning of the story we learn that one of the sons –strongly hinted to be the middle of the three – dies at the age of 19, a period not otherwise touched upon at any point in the film. This immediately reverses a cinematic norm; we are hit with the emotional crescendo at the very beginning of the film, before we have any real context for it, and we spend the rest of the film trying to work out what exactly has happened, when, how and to whom. Malick has a penchant for this kind of concealment and indirectness, like the sudden and psychologically unexplained murders that are central to both Badlands and Days of Heaven. If we are to come to somehow empathize with the characters, we must do so incrementally and indirectly; Malick refuses to give us the sort of easy, sham access to their thoughts and emotions implicit in traditional spoon-fed characterization, and instead imitates life by keeping us insurmountably on the outside. We are consequently denied the facile emotional release of a head-on confrontation with the circumstances of the parents’ grief, which to devotees of Hollywood convention may be interpreted as perverse. We instead experience their grief as a mere spectacle shorn of its context, a series of outward gestures without an established cause. By refusing us the summary objectivity of the classic realist narrative eye Malick draws us into the plot, activating us by making us piece together the causes and referents of the dissociated reactions we observe.

In fact, many of Malick’s effects are dependent upon his subtly eroding the contractual trust that we place in the nature of the sequence of images we are watching. In place of a more classic unreliable narrator figure such as those used in Badlands or Days of Heaven, a dialogue is taking place throughout between the very sequence of images Malick places before us, and the norms, conventions and assumptions that we use to interpret them as a recognizable narrative whole. There is a sense in which Malick’s approach amounts to a critique of realism, in a way that is far more closely engaged than in a surrealist such as David Lynch. Whereas late Lynch films such as Inland Empire or Mulholland Drive reject the conventions of realism wholesale and instead move in phantasmagoric, dreamlike chains of vaguely associative images, Malick mostly confines himself to more traditional and circumscribed scenarios. It is the manner in which he reveals a chain of events, rather than the chain of events themselves, that forms the basis of his engagement with cinematic convention.


On a formal level, The Tree of Life in many ways resembles a cinematic equivalent of the nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet and Simon. Indeed, central to the theory of the nouveau roman was Robbe-Grillet’s distinction between the classic realist novel (of which Balzac, as in the eyes of Barthes and Becket, is the prime exemplar) that places the reader in a passive position, and the ‘new novel’, which activates the reader by forcing him to take on an active role in piecing together the adumbrated form of a fragmented and incompletely revealed narrative.

The (novel) author today proclaims his absolute need of the reader’s cooperation, an active, conscious, creative assistance. What he asks of him is no longer to receive ready-made a world completed, full, closed upon itself, but on the contrary to participate in a creation, to invent in his turn the work – and the world – and thus learn to invent his own life. 

Countless works of modern narrative art – from Beckett’s Molloy to Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur and Le Clezio’s The Interrogation, to films such as Kurosawa’s Rashomon or Michael Haneke’s Hidden and The White Ribbon – use the trope of the detective story as a way of activating the reader, and bringing to the surface the process by which we, as the consumers of a work of narrative art, are complicit in its effects in our role as the solvers of the mystery. Yet in The Tree of Life we are faced with something less playful and more mystical, cryptic and abstract. We may try and find an answer to the mystery but one senses that, as in a Thomas Bernhard novel, all we are ultimately likely to find there is a painstakingly achieved aesthetic effect that is held together by the very absence of any definite answer to the questions it raises. The film styles itself as a flashback, placing us in the mind of the central character as he remembers his childhood, but contains events he could not have witnessed. It gestures at a completeness that it never fulfills, refusing to differentiate between potential interpretative angles and provide the one thing we normally expect film to provide: an objective representation of events. As in life, that is something we must construct for ourselves.

All of this played out just fine at Cannes, where Malick won the Palm D’Or, but it will be interesting to see how it goes down with the cinema-going public. The relatively lavish budget and the presence of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn on the bill is likely to draw plenty of punters who have little interest in the tricks and ambiguities so central to Malick’s engagement with his subject matter, his ongoing dialogue with narrative modes and conventions, and the overreaching bombast of his pseudo-metaphysical enquiry. The near-unanimous audience reaction at the screening I attended in New York (it doesn’t come out in the UK until next month) was one of bemusement, boredom and mistrust. There were most of a cinema’s worth of audible sighs of relief when the film came to its abrupt end, alongside a smattering of ironic applause.

The skeptics had a point in the sense that Malick lays it on pretty thick. This is a film that leaves itself open to accusations of pretentiousness at times, in which whole sequences seem to have been shoehorned in purely because they look good without serving any particular narrative function, and I’ll never know what was going through Malick’s mind when he decided to reel out the dinosaurs. But nonetheless it would be a shame if the reputation of the film suffers for the disparity between its high profile and its relatively obscurist pitch. The Tree of Life contains some of the most visually stunning sequences I have ever seen, and for these as much as its narrative cleverness one can imagine it being studied for years.  What’s more, whereas Malick’s stubborn refusal to grant us simplistic access to character and motives could have resulted in sterility, his fragmented and dissociated reconstruction of childhood contains enough vivid scenes and glimmers of personality that he ends up achieving a hard-won empathy that is somehow more valuable for the lack of shortcuts. It isn’t often you see a big-budget film replete with Hollywood stars that has genuine artistic ambition. And ambition is one thing that nobody is likely to accuse The Tree of Life of lacking.