Some people – and this is very evident in Cannes – like to think of the cinema as a church. But the church can be a cathedral, as in the case of Terrence Malick’s hyperbolic cosmological statement The Tree of Life, or it can be an austere, draughty chapel with hard benches, which is what you get with Bruno Dumont. I’m more of the Dumont persuasion, personally, although I couldn’t help gasping in awe at much of the Malick film, just as it may be hard not to gasp at a church organ being played extremely loud.
Malick is revered by his fans partly because of his absolute earnestness about screen beauty, partly because he’s so elusive: five features in nearly 40 years, and he didn’t come to Cannes. The Tree of Life was booed at its press show here, though it has its ardent defenders. It’s a grand statement on life and on grace – from the back yard to the cosmos. The film is ostensibly the story of a Texan family over several decades, with the oldest son growing up to be an architect, played by Sean Penn. Brad Pitt is very good – bulkier and graver than you’d expect – as the disciplinarian father. The characters tend to speak (or rather, pray) in muted voice-over, asking God why the good suffer, or why he has deserted them. The Tree of Life takes the old American cinema plaint, ‘You were never there for me, Dad,’ and reinterprets it on a metaphysical plane.
Interspersed with the family scenes, Malick weaves a thread of imagery – variously mystical, abstract and scientific – depicting the ineffable mysteries of the universe. We see a floating sheaf of light, volcanic eruptions, CGI images of the meteor that may have wiped out the dinosaurs, even the dinosaurs themselves. Extracts from Mahler, Brahms, Tavener, Gorecki et al bolster the sometimes sublime bombast of a film that looks suspiciously like a Southern Bible Belt answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Malick’s transcendental maximalism is masterly film-making, but in the service of a credo rather than cinema.
Malick’s images of the beyond are echoed in the oneiric fugue that begins Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. I found von Trier’s recent Antichrist (life as Satan’s playground) unpalatably preposterous but was absolutely won over by the audacious new film. After the overture – a set of beautifully crafted and strange images set to music from Tristan and Isolde – von Trier stages a realist comedy of manners, set at a wedding where everyone behaves appallingly. Then he gives us a final section that feels like chamber drama à la Bergman, with Kirsten Dunst as the troubled bride and Charlotte Gainsbourg as her sister waiting for the Earth to collide with another planet.
For once, von Trier wasn’t peddling outrage – not on screen at least. But he made up for it with his remarks at his press conference, claiming that he was a Nazi and that he understood Hitler. He later apologised, but claimed that journalists had egged him on. In the resulting furore, some writers rushed to his defence, insisting that he was just being facetious. Indeed, some of us have suspected that a large part of his work has been one long act of facetiousness. At any rate, the festival wasn’t amused, saying that von Trier’s remarks were ‘unacceptable, intolerable and contrary to the ideals of humanity and integrity central to the very existence of the festival’ and declaring von Trier ‘persona non grata… with immediate effect’. Melancholia remains in competition, but it’s a safe bet we won’t be seeing ‘Antichrist 2’ here in a hurry.
As for Bruno Dumont, he once divided opinion at Cannes as fiercely as Malick or von Trier this year. L’Humanité (1999) was adored by some, derided by others; I thought it took cod-Bressonian severity to the outer limits of portentousness. This year Dumont has been demoted to the festival’s sidebar section, ‘Un Certain Regard’, where his new film Hors Satan seemed able to thrive at one remove from the artificial heat of controversy. Hors Satan is not that different from L’Humanité, in terms of either content or execution, but it’s a far more resonant film.
This is partly because Dumont has stripped everything back to a gaunt line of narrative, conveyed telegraphically in stark, expressly unseductive images. The story, set in Dumont’s home territory of Northern France, along the Calais coast, is about a nameless man with apparently miraculous powers, who takes up with a young local woman, improving her life no end by shooting her abusive stepfather. Police appear on the scene and mutter balefully and inaudibly, though no questions are asked. Later the man is arrested, then inexplicably released, and has a bout of rough sex with a hitchhiker – a version perhaps of Jacob’s struggle with the angel. Hors Satan is ‘slow cinema’ at its rawest and most austerely uncommunicative, and you either go for it or you really, really don’t. But Dumont barely cares to persuade or impress us. At once utterly direct and infuriatingly opaque, the film is as close as cinema gets these days to Kafkaesque parable.