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Issue 02, Volume 01

Terrence Malick and Lars von Trier

by Will Noah

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” - Job 38:4,7 (epigraph to The Tree of Life)
“Okay, I’m a Nazi.” - Lars von Trier, Cannes 2011

In a serendipitous alignment of the cinematic stars, the world premieres of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia fell less than two days apart from each other at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Even if the two films had not shared a festival debut, however, their uncanny affinities and antagonisms could not have gone unnoticed for long. Here we have two of the “biggest” art house event-films of the year, both directed by polarizing auteurs and featuring bonafide Hollywood movie stars. Both are personal and ambitious affairs that attempt to render intimate stories on a cosmic, universal canvas. Yet, though both Malick and von Trier share a desire to explore fundamental questions about the universe, they use radically different methods of exploration, so that Melancholia’s vision of apocalypse plays as a direct response to The Tree of Life’s optimistic spirituality. In order to understand why these remarkably similar films reach wildly divergent conclusions, one must examine the universes that Malick and von Trier create, and where they position themselves within those realms. While Malick envisions himself as a spiritual inquirer, examining the fabric of the universe from a ground-level perspective, von Trier establishes himself as nothing less than a god.

At first glance, Malick and von Trier appear to have little in common. Malick’s impressionistic style eschews traditional narrative patterns of techniques of dialogue and editing in favor of voiceover and elliptical imagery in order to immerse the viewer in his world of deeply felt spirituality. Von Trier, on the other hand, makes extensive use of artifice, from shooting an entire film on a sparsely decorated soundstage (Dogville) to reviving long-forsaken cinematic techniques such as rear projection (Europa), while maintaining an intensely emotional, often painful relationship with the audience. Yet although they differ in their stylistic and thematic approaches, both filmmakers share topics of interest. For instance, both directors are fascinated with the idea of innocence, but in Malick’s universe innocence is something that is inevitably lost, while the heroines of von Trier’s “Golden Heart Trilogy” remain constant in their innocence even as it is exploited by everyone around them. Additionally, both Malick and von Trier make extensive use of recognizable classical music within their films: Melancholia uses Wagner’s prelude to Tristan and Isolde as a soundtrack to its apocalypse, while The Tree of Life’s Alexandre Desplat-penned score mingles freely with Bach, Brahms, and a number of religious hymns. In both instances, classical music is often deployed in order to create a sense of exultation, but von Trier places it in a more complex context. While Malick excerpts Bedrich Smoltana’s Má Vlast as an expression of the love of God and the protagonist’s saintly mother, von Trier uses Wagner to imbue the destruction of planet Earth with the sensation of ecstasy. Both musical cues are celebrations of God, with one important difference: when von Trier celebrates God, he is really building a monument to his own power as director.

The Tree of Life sets out to answer a fundamentally unanswerable question: Why do good things happen to bad people? Like any worthwhile philosophical inquiry (and Malick is, after all, a former Heidegger scholar), this problem immediately sets off a chain reaction of additional questions. What does it mean to be a good person? Well, it has to do with the way of nature and the way of grace, says Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), mother to our protagonist Jack (Hunter McCracken), who will grow up to be the perpetually brooding Sean Penn, who spends most of his meager screen time wandering through harsh, modernist cityscapes mourning the loss of his younger brother. But what are the ways of nature and grace? And can we really believe in such a simple delineation between the two, when at the film’s center is Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), a father who both loves and torments his family? One can already see that Malick is engaging with an exceedingly ambitious set of ideas (and I haven’t even mentioned the dinosaurs yet). So how can Malick answer the question of misfortune while keeping so many philosophical and narrative balls in the air? The answer is, he can’t really, but in searching for an answer he creates a revelatory, at times overwhelmingly rich tapestry of a film that invites its audience to join its soul-seeking treasure hunt.

The epigraph that opens The Tree of Life is the Book of Job’s answer to the question posed by Malick. It is entirely unsatisfactory, otherwise there would be no need for a film. God responds to Job’s questioning with the assertion that Job has no right to question the supreme being that created all of existence. Yet Malick decides to take God’s response (which is, of course, an additional question) at face value, by examining the link between the creation of the universe and the life of one human being. In the sequence that constitutes a make-or-break proposition for many viewers of the film, Malick shifts his gaze to the beginning of time, delivering a stunning series of images that includes cosmic goo, the formation of the earth’s surface, the origins of life, and yes, dinosaurs. This sequence is accompanied by a whispery, questioning voiceover delivered by Penn. Malick casts himself here as both God and Job, using image and sound to straddle the gap between planes of being, with the visuals serving as astounding but inconclusive answers to the questions being asked on the soundtrack. For most of the remainder of the film, however, Malick retreats to ground level, observing the growth of the O’Brien family in Waco, Texas as its three sons mature. The film generally refrains from making explicit links between the cosmic plane and the Waco scenes, but instead creates subtle visual echoes, like way the O’Briens’ dining room curtains call to mind the quavering jellyfish we see evolving earlier in the film, that suggest a divine scheme uniting all forms of being. The closest Malick comes to creating a direct link between past and present is in the aforementioned dinosaur scene. Here, a larger, more predatory-looking dinosaur pins down a weaker specimen, but eventually removes its foot from the victim’s head and moves on. This scene is called to mind by the later instance in which Jack’s brother swings a baseball bat at him but stops just short of hitting him. Is Malick suggesting that what we witnessed earlier was a manifestation of grace, an act of prehistoric mercy? Thankfully, the dinosaur scene plays out without anthropomorphism, leaving the question open-ended. Malick maintains a delicate balance, dropping hints of the divine without ever completely confirming them.

By leaving this interpretive space for the audience to fill, Malick opens the world of the film even wider. In fact, it’s difficult to think of a more “open” film than The Tree of Life, which at times seems unwilling to block anything from entering its cinematic universe, be it philosophy, religion, science, or autobiography. This openness is key to Malick’s method of inquiry, demonstrating that he is willing and eager to look anywhere that may hold an answer to his questions. The Tree of Life offers few easy answers because Malick consistently refuses to ignore any evidence that presents itself, no matter how tangential it seems. This is ultimately why the film’s depiction of the dawn of creation amounts to more than a hubristic flourish or a deficit of focus: because it would be dishonest to omit the origins of life when examining the story of one life. Even if the sequence offers no definitive conclusions, its presentation as evidence is necessary for a sincere investigation. Ultimately, this openness is what makes Malick’s directorial presence a humble one. He is just as full of questions as his characters are, and is willing to look for answers wherever he can find them. This requires a herculean effort of honesty and earnestness, qualities that give the film much of its beauty.

Lars von Trier, on the other hand, imposes beauty on his work in a dictatorial fashion. Though his now famous comments at this year’s Cannes film festival, excerpted above, should not be taken seriously in a literal sense, they do betray a tyrannical tendency in the director’s work. Notoriously difficult to work with, von Trier puts his actors, and especially his actresses, through the wringer on set. This inclination extends to his aesthetic command; von Trier often imposes artificial limitations on his films, such as Dogville’s confinement to a soundstage, or the Dogme 95 movement’s “Vow of Chastity,” in which filmmakers were commanded to surrender many of the aesthetic tools at their disposal. While von Trier’s claim that he could understand Hitler shocked many, those familiar with his work could not have been very surprised. Von Trier rules his films with an iron fist, and their borders are as closed as The Tree of Life’s are porous.

After a gorgeous and haunting prologue in which a series of surreal tableaux depicts the end of the world, Melancholia settles into a bifurcated structure, with both halves taking place on an estate owned by John (Kiefer Sutherland) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The first half of the film unfolds over the course of a single night, as the wedding of Claire’s cripplingly depressed sister Justine (Kirsten Dunst) develops into a fiasco. The second half of the film takes place in the aftermath of the wedding, as Claire fears the approach of Melancholia, a planet that she worries will hit the earth and wipe out all life. As Melancholia looms ever larger in the sky, the pragmatic Claire begins to lose her composure, while Justine achieves a degree of peace in light of the coming apocalypse.

Melancholia expresses a relentlessly bleak worldview, often through Justine, who functions as a stand-in for the director. Von Trier has spoken frequently about his experiences with depression prior to making Antichrist (2009), so it’s not surprising that he chooses the emotionally crippled Justine as his surrogate. In one key scene between the two sisters, Justine declares, “Life on earth is evil.” This flat denial of the existence of good plays almost as a parody of Malick’s whispering to god. When Malick puts universal gestures in the words of his characters, they take the form of a question, while von Trier makes Justine’s statement a solid assertion. And by hinting that Justine is somehow clairvoyant, he establishes her as a deliverer of truth. While Malick offers a bottom-up examination of the universe, von Trier gives us a top-down portrait, beginning with the premise that life is evil. To convince us of his hypothesis, he offers us two truths: Justine and Claire. For Justine, life is evil because she can’t experience joy. And while Claire is never portrayed as all that joyful, her life does have a source of value: her young son, Leo (Cameron Spurr), who plays the role of the innocent in the film’s moral universe. Yet life is evil for Claire too, because every time she looks at the sky she is reminded that Melancholia is about to rob her of all she has. These ideas are not terribly complex, but von Trier handles them with gusto, particularly through his direction of actors. While I found the wedding scenes played far too broadly, Dunst does a terrific job conveying the depths of Justine’s depression. Even better is Gainsbourg, who as the star of the film’s second half manages to communicate an extraordinary sense of impending loss.

Ultimately, Melancholia’s central question is more pragmatic than The Tree of Life’s. While both films are concerned with misfortune, Malick is interested in “why?” while von Trier is more concerned with “what now?” Although I believe that The Tree of Life is overall a better film than Melancholia because it operates on an inclusive plane rather than a closed system designed to prove a hypothesis, Melancholia is more successful at answering its own question (warning: spoilers follow). After mocking Claire for suggesting that they try to spend the end of the world together as a family, Justine nevertheless ends the film on a redemptive note by telling Leo that they’ll be safe if they hide in a cave made of sticks. The film’s final shot finds Claire, Justine, and Leo sitting in a circle as the Wagner score swells and Melancholia collides with the earth. Von Trier reacts to an evil universe by protecting the innocent, even though it won’t matter in the end. This might be a simplistic answer, but the universe that von Trier has constructed is itself somewhat simplistic. The ending allows for the presence of good without necessarily contradicting the assertion that life is evil. Von Trier is able to resolve his film because it is contained within a closed system. The Tree of Life, on the other hand, fails to deliver a satisfactory ending. The final movement of Malick’s film asserts that the best we can do is love, even if it doesn’t protect us from misfortune. Although this response shifts the nature of the question away from Malick’s original “why?” to von Trier’s “what now?”, it is not necessarily a bad answer, since it maintains the tensions and ambiguities of the film. Malick goes wrong, however, in overselling this idea visually. The final fifteen minutes of The Tree of Life contain many images of stunning beauty, but the conclusion eventually succumbs to obvious visual ideas that are not properly justified. Take, for instance, an endless field of sunflowers, one of the film’s final images. The suggestion this shot makes, of transcending nature to reach unlimited grace, is an unearned one. In what feels like a panicked rush to reach a conclusion, the film betrays much of the evidence it has presented earlier. While much of the value of Malick’s film is due to its open quality, that same openness ultimately makes it difficult to wrap up neatly and consistently.

In the end, neither Malick nor von Trier have the meaning of life tucked up their sleeves, although von Trier would probably tell you that’s because there is no meaning. Yet in taking on the weight of metaphysical ambition, both films find ways to create intense sensations of beauty. The Tree of Life emerges as the better film because its method of questioning allows for more honesty than von Trier’s prescriptive approach, but that same technique of declaration allows von Trier to hold his film together more firmly when the time comes to make a conclusion. Though Melancholia is in some sense limited by its director’s unwillingness to loosen his godlike grip on the film, one can think of far worse dictators to spend two hours and fifteen minutes with than von Trier. After all, he’s no Hitler.


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