July 2011

Arts & Letters

Like day and night

By Helen Garner

Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’ and Julia Leigh’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’

Terrence Malick’s new movie The Tree of Life (in national release), recently garlanded with the Palme d’Or at Cannes, comes muscled up with star power. You want men? You want family? How about Brad Pitt and Sean Penn as father and son? Jessica Chastain as wife and mother? Set in Texas between the 1950s and the present, the film opens with a quote from the Book of Job, always a signal that what follows is a story of suffering randomly imposed by God, and of bewildered argument against that imposition. This is a theme of deep interest to me; but, then, in my customary reluctant scanning of the production notes I spotted the ominous phrase “a hymn to life”.

Before Malick offers us any foothold of setting, character or even situation, a woman in the first of many lengthy passages of voice-over distinguishes poetically between “the way of grace and the way of nature”, and promises (presumably to the Lord) that she will be true to the way of grace, “whatever comes”.

What comes, to her beautiful, large, glass-walled house, is a telegram. One of her three sons is dead. The parents (Pitt and Chastain) stumble helplessly along a suburban street under a thick wintry sky. In the densely textured soundtrack, a bell tolls once and a woman somewhere chokes and wails.

We leap to a twenty-first century city along whose high steel walkways paces Jack (Sean Penn), the adult version of the dead boy’s elder brother. He too is engaged in a voice-over struggle with a silent God. While the screen teems with dream and memory – young boys running through grass, flashes of ice fields, everything made to stab and float by rapid, mysterious cutting – Jack’s Job-like addresses to God rise in whispers: “How did I lose you? I wandered. I forgot you. My brother, true, kind. He died when he was 19. How did she bear it? Lord. Why? Where were you? Answer me.”

But Malick is not about to satisfy our simple human curiosity. Instead he shoulders past his characters and goes roaring out into “the way of nature”, in full barbaric majesty. A volcano erupts – or is it a meteor landing? Torrents gush over cliffs. Colossal landscapes open out, deserts of rippled sand, oceans full of sharks and clouded with blood, microbial realms of nameless writhing creatures; all this accompanied by the glorious singing of a Lacrimosa by a mezzo and a huge slow choir. On and on it goes, five minutes, ten, in film-time an eternity. A foetus, a forest, a ferny glade – and just as we’re starting to shift in our seats, a dinosaur pokes its fucking head out of the foliage. My God, what does Malick want from us? And who’s doing the heavy lifting, anyway? Isn’t it Berlioz?

Worse, when this magisterial voyager tackles intimate human matters, he cannot resist images of the most shop-worn sentimentality. In drifts of unstained white muslin a woman gives birth. Adult hands cup the tiny wrinkled sole of a newborn’s foot. In a garden a butterfly lands on the young mother’s wrist, while children bound about chasing soap bubbles. At the kernel of these immense elemental fugues through time and space is after all a plain old American family: ambitious father who drives his boys without mercy, stoical mother who radiates loving forgiveness, eldest son who is jealous of the second one’s sweetness, and so on. But these are signs, not characters. When you are making windy generalisations about a bunch of American archetypes you don’t need anything as plodding as dialogue or plot. Our access to their thoughts is through portentous voice-over. Why did the young brother die? I came away without a clue. Still, we grasp that darkness has entered the archetypal family by the usual routes, and that the usual guilt and anguish will ensue.

Great tracts of The Tree of Life are astonishing in their bombast. It seems to go trumpeting forth forever. But long after its tremendous meteors and twirling rose-pink microbes have become dated, perhaps it will be remembered for certain accurate and tender passages about young boys at play, the way their wild energy can turn on a sixpence and go violent. Following the brothers in the freedom of their Texas childhood, when they roam about riverbeds with rifles and smash windows with stones, the camera becomes one of them, surging free on male currents, in love with danger and caring nothing for destruction. Is that grace, or is it nature? Who can tell?

“Jane Campion presents”. In this country of flat-footed realists, a new writer–director such as Julia Leigh might well be grateful that an angel of Campion’s authority stands at the door of her first feature, Sleeping Beauty (in national release).

Lucy (the very impressive Emily Browning) is a young university student in Sydney whose life is fragmented by the menial jobs she has to do to stay afloat: photocopying, cleaning, being the subject of medical research. In the opening scene her submission to an invasive lab procedure strikes the note of her personality: an affectless, patient, distantly contemptuous tolerance of what other people want to do to her body. The things she does jack up about are those an ordinary person might take in her stride, like paying the rent in her share house or lowering her voice when she answers her mobile in class. She has to fend off a nastily flaky mother, a relationship sketched in three sharp strokes of one-sided phone dialogue. Lucy might seem a pain, but of course she is also beautiful, with all that this vexed state can entail. We see her warmth only when she visits a helpless junkie friend (Ewen Leslie) who never leaves his flat and seems quietly bent on suicide.

When Lucy answers an ad in a student newspaper, she steps out of her scruffy life into a highly formalised world of mysterious sexual services, presided over by the older Clara (Rachael Blake), a high-class procuress who radiates a forbidding elegance and authority. She offers Lucy a handsome hourly wage, threatens her with heavy penalties for any breach of discretion and assures her that, if she agrees to be rendered unconscious by drugs, she will never be penetrated – that her “vagina will be a temple”. Here Lucy, veteran of who knows what private degradations, almost laughs.

Laughter, though, is one thing that cannot be allowed, in this money-muffled universe. On her first night, blonde Lucy is to work as a waitress, in heels and lingerie, alongside a bunch of more case-hardened girls in black silken harnesses. When the door of the dining room opens to admit the white-haired rich men (and one masculine-looking wife) in their fabulous suits, I recalled in a flash the entry of the husbands and fathers to the marriage party in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding: how warm and hilarious their arrival was, arms flung wide, shouting and singing in a burst of loving celebration. But here the guests step with a strained, glassy formality into a recherché world where they will demand to be taken very seriously indeed.

I thought I had reached the limits of my solemnity quite early when, after dinner, two of the harnessed women, crouching naked in what yoga calls ‘the position of the child’, impersonate footstools beside the fireplace while the guests smoke cigars. But two things kept me in line.

One is a powerful aesthetic that belongs either to Julia Leigh or to the director of photography, Geoffrey Simpson. Every scene possesses a disturbing beauty that transcends the potential absurdity of the action and its descent into suicidal darkness. Delicious textures and forms enchant the eye: the glaring, dry whiteness of the laboratory; gently blurred students passing a phone box in light rain; a curve of dark hedge; a handful of crimson berries; the pearly quality of Lucy’s drugged and naked body, gleaming tenderly against fabric and timber, or flung backwards off the bed’s edge with arms trailing, like a Fuseli or a Goya.

The other is Leigh’s ability to shift back and forth between these highly wrought, death-haunted chambers of despair and the bracing coarseness of the ordinary day-lit world outside. She sustains our suspension of disbelief by a series of tiny, faultlessly observed, often comic exchanges in shops, nightclub toilets, beauty parlours, real estate agencies. Some people will mock this movie, but others might walk away with a refreshed and chastening sense that under our social mores flows a dark current of sexual energy, a force whose suppression exacts from each of us a subtly different and very particular tax.

Helen Garner

Helen Garner is is a novelist and nonfiction writer. Her most recent books are Stories and True Stories, and her diaries Yellow NotebookOne Day I’ll Remember This and the upcoming How To End a Story.

Cover: July 2011
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