'Tree' towers over quirky Cannes lineup

For our eighth and final Daily at the 64th Cannes Film Festival, we asked our two senior film critics for an artistic overview. In this dialog, they sometimes agree, sometimes not. But the back-and-forth also gives them an opportunity to pause and look back with more perspective at the merits (or debits) of films.

Justin Chang: We’re past the midpoint of the fest, and with four days and several hotly anticipated titles still to screen, it’s a bit premature to assess whether this will go down as a great festival or a so-so one. I don’t know that I’m ready to commit anything to a time capsule yet; one of the pleasures and frustrations of Cannes is that it serves up too many interesting, noteworthy films to fully process in 12 days.

Certainly no film in competition will take longer to fully digest than “The Tree of Life,” which, despite having been booed by a few clowns in the balcony, has been largely embraced. For sheer cinematic chutzpah, I think Malick’s film towers over the field, not unlike the obelisk in “2001” — a magnificent object that will merit contemplation long after this festival has ended.

Peter Debruge: This year marks my first visit to Cannes, and already I sense an unfair watermark being set for future installments, given the overall high quality of the films — “Tree of Life” easily the most ambitious among them. I’d long heard about Cannes auds’ penchant for booing their disapproval, but I admit being caught offguard by the handful of people so eager to dismiss Malick’s mammoth achievement.

Where other helmers build houses, Malick set out to construct a cathedral to life’s big questions, and I love the way the structure feels more like that of a symphony than a traditional narrative. I don’t think “Tree” is entirely successful — the Sean Penn scenes don’t really work, and a dreamlike finale meant to tie everything together pales in comparison with the pic’s earlier, 18-minute “Star Child sequence.” But the naysayers’ reaction was especially startling considering the enthusiastic applause that greeted Bruno Dumont’s insufferable “Outside Satan,” an infinitely more muddled look at man’s relationship to God.

JC: I imagine Dumont’s bad-boy provocations went over better in Un Certain Regard than they would have in the less forgiving glare of the competition spotlight. Given Dumont’s track record, a lot of us were surprised to see his new film relegated to Un Certain Regard, just as we were surprised to hear the same about Gus Van Sant’s latest — until we actually got a look at “Restless,” a mildly likable death-and-young-love quirkfest that would have looked more at home at Sundance, where it was originally intended to premiere.

PD: Speaking of Sundance films, Sean Durkin’s lovely yet unsettling “Martha Marcy May Marlene” was very well received in Un Certain Regard; ditto Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” in Critics’ Week.

One of the great mysteries of Cannes is what determines the section a film plays in. If I ran the zoo, Gerardo Naranjo’s assured Un Certain Regard entry “Miss Bala” would be playing in competition. Everyone’s grumbling that two disappointing debuts, Julia Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty” and Markus Schleinzer’s “Michael,” were programmed for competition on the strength of their connections (former Palme winner Jane Campion has a presenting credit on “Beauty”), though both foretell intriguing careers for directors willing to tackle controversial material their first time at bat.

JC: The Leigh and the Schleinzer (both of which have ardent admirers) are in line with one of this year’s least savory competition trends. Films about sexual deviance are par for the course at festivals, especially Cannes, but I can’t remember the last time I saw so many movies on the topic, particularly with regard to the carnal initiation and/or outright abuse of children.

I’m thinking not only about the young ‘uns in “Sleeping Beauty” and “Michael,” but also the exploited 10-year-old daughter in Eva Ionesco’s semi-autobiographical “My Little Princess,” and the nubile bordello vixens in Bertrand Bonello’s “House of Tolerance” (which I found a far more transporting fin-de-siecle nostalgia trip than anything in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”). I’m also thinking of those poor kids in “Polisse,” Maiwenn’s messy but emotionally rich look at a French cop squad devoted to solving child-abuse crimes. Its missteps aside, “Polisse” is one of the few films in Cannes of which I can honestly say, “I laughed, I cried.”

PD: There’s one scene in “Polisse” that brought me to the brink of tears as well, when a homeless African mother comes into the police station to surrender her son, explaining they can take better care of the boy than she can. That’s basically the premise of the Dardenne brothers’ “The Kid With a Bike,” in which a troubled 11-year-old refuses to accept the fact his father can’t raise him. Given the Dardennes’ often-grim approach, it’s refreshing to see them offer a sunnier take on working-class woe, introducing not only a movie star (“Hereafter’s” Cecile de France) but a happy ending into their formula.

I won’t let your dig at “Midnight in Paris” go unanswered, though. While frothy, the Woodman’s film seemed an appropriate opener for the festival (and a fitting companion piece to Michel Hazanavicius’ silent-film homage “The Artist”), with Allen simultaneously extolling Paris and deriding Americans. “House of Tolerance,” on the other hand, felt like a laconic, unfocused version of French TV’s “Maison Close,” and yet another Cannes film in which the wallpaper was more interesting than the characters.

JC: I’m sure I’ll regret these words, but I’ll take Bonello’s hookers any day over the shrill fishwife played by the usually wonderful Rachel McAdams in “Midnight in Paris.” But you’re right to mention “The Artist,” which, along with Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre,” drew some of the warmest applause of the festival, and with good reason; it was a relief to see two beautifully executed comedies after eight days of sexual debasement, child abuse and bad parenting.

Speaking of which, I guess we need to talk about “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which I found more effective as a reassertion of Lynne Ramsay’s filmmaking chops than as a portrait of maternal pathology. Back to Malick for a moment: Leaving aside whatever it might be saying about life, death and the cosmos, “Tree of Life” expresses so much about what it’s like to be a child and what it means to be a parent. “Kevin,” arresting as it is, finally strikes me as a bad-seed thriller that substitutes stylization for insight.

PD: “Kevin” pairs nicely with “Tree of Life,” as both films endeavor to understand the unexplainable (why a child becomes a sociopath in “Kevin,” or how God can allow a boy to die in “Tree”). Clear-cut cause-and-effect dynamics drive most of the films we see during the rest of the year, which makes these two movies tough for audiences who expect everything to make sense. Ultimately, I find films that raise questions infinitely more interesting than those that suggest answers (unless the question is, “What the hell is going on?,” which exempts “Sleeping Beauty”), and Cannes has proven an exceptional forum for such challenging works so far.

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