The Movie Club

The Movie Club: Just Because Tree of Life "Looked Great" Doesn't Mean I Have to Love It
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 2 2012 4:21 PM

The Movie Club

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Why I loved Melancholia, and why Tree of Life left me cold.

Still of Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life.
Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life.

© 2011 Fox Searchlight. All rights reserved.

Dear Dana, Michael, and Dan,

I’m thrilled to be here in the Zen rock garden with you, and I love the idea of the swim-up bar. So Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan! I’m doggy-paddling toward a gimlet right now.

One of the things von Trier said at that Cannes press conference—a line everyone has forgotten, because it was just too normal—was that Melancholia is a comedy. And while I’m not sure I ever laughed out loud at it, it did remind me of those little games we sometimes play with ourselves when we’re going through a really bad time. I might think, “God, things are terrible, they couldn’t get any worse.” And then I start thinking about things that could make it worse, from the reasonably plausible (I could lose my job, or get cancer, or one of the people I love best in the world could die) to the somewhat irrational (Martians might come down in a spaceship and enslave our brains). (Hey—it could happen.) For von Trier—who has made no secret of the fact that he suffers from serious depression—it’s as if he’s taken that game to the extreme in Melancholia. We’re always so casual about saying, about nearly everything, “It’s not the end of the world.” But what if it actually were? Wouldn’t that be freeing? Talk about facing the one thing that could make you forget your own petty little problems. That’s why the end of Melancholia is so…cozy: Let’s all go outside in a tipi made of sticks and greet the motherf----r. Bring it on.

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By the end, I found Melancholia incredibly uplifting. (Although parts of it thoroughly chilled me—the sight of Kirsten Dunst beating her horse after he refuses to go past a certain point, frozen with fear of an unknown something. Brrrr.) To me, it’s an exuberant, expansive piece of filmmaking, and I loved the experience of watching it. (Is there a difference between loving a movie and loving the experience of watching? That’s a question I’ve never been able to adequately answer for myself.) Dana, it’s interesting that you see the characters in Antichrist and in Melancholia as—and I need to quote you, because I can’t put it better—“Mr. Bill claymation dolls, interesting mainly for the potential damage their unseen creator can do to them.” That’s exactly how I felt about every von Trier film I’d ever seen, until Antichrist, which I loved.

I think with Antichrist and now with Melancholia, von Trier finally knows how to lay out his own suffering and fears so baldly that it actually means something; it’s as if he’s finally opened himself up, rather than just making these stodgy exercises in formality. Antichrist and Melancholia are incredibly intimate films. That’s something I would never say of Breaking the Waves or Dogville or—God forbid—Dancer in the Dark. I do think there’s a streak of sadism in the guy, and in the past, I’ve gotten the distinct sense that he either enjoyed the sight of, or somehow needed to see, his female protagonists suffering. Antichrist was the first time I sensed him empathizing with a character (the Charlotte Gainsbourg character, with her violent response to frustration and pain). And in Melancholia, his stand-in is Kirsten Dunst, a woman rendered immobile by the low-grade hum of discord and sadness that’s ringing inside her. She’s not just his paper doll, to cut up as he pleases, as I think Bjork was in Dancer. He’s half-wondering what it would be like to live in the skin of Dunst’s character, but the other half isn’t wondering: He knows.

Spurred by your comments, Dana, and thinking about Melancholia again, makes me realize how much I hate self-conscious technical dazzle and—I almost hate myself for saying this—beautiful cinematography for its own sake. Tree of Life is stunning-looking, in that abstract, great-cinematography way. And yet the look of it did nothing for me. As someone who wasn’t a fan of the movie, I keep getting goaded into saying, “Yeah, but you’ve got to admit it looked great.” Yes, but I don’t have to like the look of its greatness. It causes me a jolt of pain to say that because Emmanuel Lubezki is one of my hands-down favorite working cinematographers. And yet… Brad Pitt cradling the baby’s translucent little feet, Jessica Chastain whirling around in the yard, feeling the sun’s warmth on her face—pretty, yes. Considered, absolutely. Those images are like the best parts of life, freeze-dried with great lighting. But the sight of Kirsten Dunst lying naked on her moonlit Maxfield Parrish river bank says so much more to me about the mystery of life.

And there was lots more mystery to be had in 2011: Dana, I too loved Werner Herzog’s 3-D cave paintings and Wim Wenders’ 3-D love letter to the life and work of Pina Bausch. Not so crazy about Andy Serkis’ human eyes peering out from an ape’s face, but maybe you or Michael or Dan can help me see the light.

Speaking of chimps, oh look! Here’s Cheetah with that gimlet.

xo

Stephanie

Stephanie Zacharek is chief film critic at the Village Voice.

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