Cannes 2011: White People Fucking and Team Tree of Life

By Karina Longworth in Festivals, Reviews
Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 2:30 pm

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I saw Tree of Life on Monday morning when everyone else saw Tree of Life, but instead of writing about it right away, I went straight into a screening of Bruno Dumont's Hors Satan. By the time I emerged two hours later, many of my colleagues had already posted their Tree of Life reviews, which I thought was astonishing for a few reasons, but mostly because several times during Hors Satan I had to close my eyes because I was still so physically and psychologically overwhelmed by the experience of Terrence Malick's gorgeously form-defying film that trying to take in Dumont's blunt, brutal one actually hurt. I didn't know how to translate that feeling into an evaluative response.

24 hours later, I think I still don't, but before the negative response to the film from some of my colleagues calcifies and liking this movie starts to look like a deliberately oppositional stance, let me state for the record that while I have questions and reservations, I am on Team Tree of Life.

If the film is, structurally, a kind of creation-destruction-rebirth triptych julienned to blur the distinction between personal biography and metaphysical history, then I'm most excited by the tension between the milky stream of imagery that people seem to be calling "the cosmos stuff," and the primary, mid-century family narrative built around Brad Pitt's alternately terrifying and touching performance as the center-of-the-universe style patriarch. I'm slightly more troubled by the execution of the framing story featuring Sean Penn as Pitt's son grown up into minimalist mid-life misery. Full of low angles even more extreme than those employed in The New World, the camera ostensibly pointed towards the place "where God lives" but slanted for total disorientation, this element is both boldly shorn of key narrative detail--which can be thrilling--and also tends toward the most apparently facile visual symbolism--which sometimes seems to stall Malick's transcendent flow of ideas and imagery.

A mysterious film about the unknowable, Tree of Life is the only thing I've seen at Cannes this year that I can imagine engaging in a conversation with and about for years to come. But my reluctance to instantly parse this monster of a movie is perhaps a symptom of a larger syndrome. After five days and about 20 films, I feel a bit drunk on visual pleasure. Cannes, with its impossible vistas, perfect weather, and homogenous glamour, is a good place to contemplate the value of eye candy in any year, but this year's films have been extraordinarily plastique. Even the most toxic objects buzz with basic (and often, base) cinematic pleasure.

The most problematic instance of attraction colliding with repulsion: Bertrand Bonello's L'Apollonide (House of Tolerance), an opulent slice of Euro fashion mag softcore set in a high-class Paris brothel "at the twilight of the 19th century [and] the dawn of the 20th." An ensemble piece loosely unraveling an era's end, the film is anchored by the stories of three prostitutes: Madeline (Alice Barnole)--a beauty referred to with the film's signature tact as "The Jewess"--is grotesquely scarred by a client in a sex game; aging maiden Clotilde (Céline Sallette), an opium addict who is increasingly desperate to turn a regular into a husband; and Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), the ambitious 15 year-old new girl and vehicle for a proto-version of contemporary sex-positive feminism, the only girl in the house who's able to control her own commodification.

Madeline's on-the-job injury, which comes as punishment for confessing a dream merging a boilerplate whore's romantic rescue fantasy with body viscera straight out of Bataille, gives L'Apollonide a defining element of decadent surrealism--which, in the sex set-pieces, dilutes into an absurdism that's oddly moralizing. Every client has a fetish, ranging from ridiculous to dehumanizing to life-threatening, their enactments presented as either awkward comedies or life-altering atrocities. In other words, sex is never "just" sex; it's always a stand-in for something else. This critique of "commerce," as it's put, is undermined by a tacked-on coda, shot on shitty video, of contemporary Paris, which only confirms the preceding material's essentially nostalgic point of view. Visually ravishing, troublingly seductive, alternately risible and irresistible, L'Apollonide may be the ultimate guilty pleasure.

Bonello's otherwise binary vision of male-female relations at least allows for balance via revenge, which is much more than could be said for the Competition's other fetish-as-oppression drama, Sleeping Beauty. Reckless college student Lucy (Sucker Punch star Emma Browning) signs up to work for an underground, upscale erotic services agency which eventually assigns her to necro-duty: for a fee, men can to spend time with the unflappable nymph while she's drugged into an unbreakable slumber. Touching is fine, up to a point, but "no one will ever penetrate your vagina," promises Lucy's new boss--foreshadowing the high probability that the job will, in fact, penetrate Lucy's soul. Not that we ever get a sense of what there is to penetrate from Browning, who shows no middle ground between barely-explicable full-fledged freakout and affect-less stare. First-time writer-director Julia Leigh milks a single bad joke of an idea--a girl happily cashes in on her lack of consciousness via unconsciousness--into sub-Skinemax drivel.

Sex as a metaphor and as a punishment--usually exotic in the form it takes, although almost always between hetero white people--has been so pervasive here that it might not be any wonder that the genuinely romantic Chilean Un Certain Regard Bonsai feels like something between a relief and a quiet revelation. Based on a novella by Alejandro Zambra, Cristian Jimenez's second feature begins with a voiceover spoiler: "At the end of this film, Emilia dies and Julio remains alone." In chapter segments, Jimenez shuttles back and forth between two time periods: literature undergrads Emilia (Nathalia Galgani) and Julio (Diego Noguera) meet at school in idyllic Valdivia and fall in love; eight years later, Julio, now living in Santiago and casually sleeping with his neighbor Blanca (Trinidad González), begins to write a novel about a man looking back on his first serious relationship--a veiled gloss on Julio's own memories of Emilia.

The core of Julio and Emilia's affair--and of the film--is the habit he develops of reading aloud to her before and/or after sex, a deeply romantic manifestation of the couple's intellectual and physical bond. When Blanca begins typing Julio's handwritten manuscript under false pretenses, it's a less satisfying replication of the idealized past which only strengthens Julio's obsession with having "let the only woman he ever really loved go away." A bittersweet and low-key pondering of the ways in which fiction and unreliable recollection consciously and unconsciously infects and shapes relationships, Bonsai is most moving as a testament to shared experience, to an art work's power to serve as a meeting place for multiple minds, even if only temporarily. It's the essential lure of the film festival in miniature.


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