PUNCTURING THE HIGHLY UNNATURAL, hermetically sealed bubble of the festival yesterday, the arrest of IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of sexual assault in New York was deemed important enough to interrupt the usual coverage of photo calls and obsequious interviews on the Cannes TV station, which broadcasts on monitors throughout the Palais. But for the members of the press corps at 8:30 this morning, no event in France was more earth-shattering—literally—than the world premiere of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, the most anticipated title in Competition this year (and in 2010, when several attendees remained delusionally convinced that the infamously slow-working director would somehow finish his fifth movie in four decades in time for the festival).
On a micro level, The Tree of Life, set primarily in the 1950s in Waco, Texas (Malick’s hometown), tells the story of a boy, Jack (Hunter McCracken), the oldest of three sons, struggling against the rule of his authoritarian father (Brad Pitt); on a macro, the film takes on nothing less than the beginning of the universe. Meteors erupt, lava flows, dinosaurs roam the earth; the whispery voice-over of Jack’s beatific mother (Jessica Chastain) implores, “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” As expected, Malick’s cosmic grandiosity—often sublime, sometimes ridiculous—proved too much for many journalists, who began booing viciously before the film even ended; not even the rapturous applause of Tree of Life’s comparable number of admirers could fully drown out their disdain.
The origin of the world—in Gustave Courbet’s sense of the term—is also explored in Bertrand Bonello’s Competition entry House of Tolerance, which takes place in an upscale Parisian brothel, the Apollonide, at the very beginning of the twentieth century. “Men really should spend more time staring at a woman’s sex,” says one habitué of the den of vice. Despite derailing more than once, House of Tolerance sustains its mood of lust and languor. Like Malick, Bonello has no qualms about deploying his own absurd special effects (or anachronistic sound track): In the final days of the Apollonide, the prostitutes dance with each other to the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin”; meanwhile, one physically damaged house veteran, crouched in a corner, cries tears of cum.