Here are mini-reviews of two movies I’ve seen this week. One is unknown, and very good; the other is quite well known and abysmal. Both won prizes at Cannes, but only one deserves it. SPOILER ALERT: Elements of the plot will be described in each review.
First, the good one.
Certified Copy (Copie Conforme), released in 2010, is a product of the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami; although he’s well known to aficionados of international (i.e., non-American!) movies, this is the first film he’s shot outside of Iran. (It’s also his first film that I’ve seen, so perhaps readers who have seen the others can comment.) It’s a tour de force that wasn’t on my radar screen. The plot is simple but tortuous. A British author, James Miller (played wonderfully by the handsome William Shimell, an opera singer in his first movie role), is touring in Tuscany to promote his book, Certified Copy, about the difference between original works of art and copies. There he meets an unnamed French woman played by Juliette Binoche (a fantastic actress and a gorgeous woman; she garnered an Oscar for The English Patient). Binoche (I’ll use her real name), seems to be divorced, has a tense relationship with her young son, and runs a shop that sells artworks. For an unknown reason she takes James on a one-day tour of Tuscany, and things get complicated.
While having coffee in a small town, Miller steps outside to take a call on his cellphone, and Binoche falls into conversation with the cafe’s female proprietor, who assumes that Binoche and Miller are married. Binoche plays along, and the two have a conversation about Miller’s qualities as a husband and the nature of marriage in general. Binoche tells the woman about the difficulties of the marriage; the proprietor tries to reassure her that Miller seems like a good man. When he comes back inside, Binoche tells him of the ruse, and he responds that they “obviously make a good couple,” since the proprietor assumed they were married. The ruse then elides into reality: they gradually slip into the roles of man and wife, have disagreements, moments of tenderness, and act out a possibly fictitious past in which they didn’t get along because of his absence. The dialogue is wonderful, and Binoche really shines in a difficult role (the performance got her a Best Actress award at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival).
As the couple walk around the village, things become more ambiguous. Their pretense is so minutely described, so full of authentic memories, that you begin to wonder if the two really were married and produced a son. Or are they only acting? And if they’re acting, are they beginning to fall for each other, or do they dislike each other? The day passes, full of difficulties and disagreements: a dialogue conducted in French, Italian, and English. The movie ends with the situation ambiguous and unresolved: is it a real marriage or a certified copy? The beauty of this movie is in the intriguing plot and the fantastic acting, especially by Binoche; the movie is a wonderful meditation on the nature of marriage and relationships. I give it two enthusiastic thumbs up. See it!
Here’s the UK trailer:
And Binoche talks about the movie and the director:
Next is a dreadful and overrated movie, which I don’t recommend:
Tree of Life. This is only Terrence Malick’s fifth movie in 38 years of directing. I absolutely loved his 1978 movie Days of Heaven, starring Richard Gere, Sam Shepherd, and Brooke Adams, which I regard as the most beautifully photographed movie ever made. (It gets a 93 on Rotten Tomatoes.) I haven’t seen his later films (if you have, weigh in), but Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, and Hunter McCracken, is far from outstanding. In fact, I regret the 139 minutes I spent seeing it.
The movie is about a family in 1950s Waco Texas, with Pitt playing a stern—even abusive—father of three sons, and Chastain as his ethereal and long-suffering wife. Much of the movie is seen through the eyes of young Jack (McCracken); tellingly, the parents’ first names are never given. One of Jack’s brothers dies at 19 of unknown causes, and Jack grows up into Sean Penn, who is seen only briefly in the role of an architect who appears deeply wounded by his upbringing and his brother’s death.
If the movie were only about the plot above, it would be pretty good: the cinematography is wonderful, and the narrative given only in impressionistic snippets which nevertheless add up to a moving portrayal of a young life. But Malick wasn’t content with that: he had to give the whole thing an overblown cosmic significance by making it not just the tragic tale of a family, but the story of the whole creation. Accordingly, about ten minutes into the movie, there is a 45-minute interlude of “creation,” including shots of the cosmos and of galaxies, volcanoes and lava flows, and then EVOLUTION: bacteria, animated dinosaurs in a river (truly a colossal but lolzy mistake on the director’s part), the asteroid hitting Earth 65 million years ago, and then a developing human baby (obviously Jack about to arrive).
There are also ponderous voice-overs by the actors and pictures of a pulsating flame, meant, I think, to represent the divine. The whole movie is suffused with God and religion, and not in a good way, for Malick seems to think that the reality of the divine is what gives his movie significance. The last bit of the movie is truly dreadful: all the characters, including both old and young Jack and his parents and brothers, are walking around barefoot on a beautiful beach, touching each other and reuniting. It’s obviously meant to represent Heaven. In the last scene, Chastain raises her hands to the sun (God is always indicated by the sun or a shot of the sky) and whispers, “I give my son to you,” denoting acceptance at last of his death.
For the life of me I can’t understand either what was in Malick’s head when he made this, or why the critics have tied themselves into knots of rapture about this movie. It received the coveted Palme d’Or (best feature film) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and critical reception has been almost uniformly good. Even Anthony Lane, one of my favorite movie critics, gave it an enthusiastic review in The New Yorker. It also got a respectable 84% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, though only 63% of the audience liked it.
This could have been a very good movie had Malick dialed back on the religion and creation stuff, and done a bit more with the family and plot. As it is, his attempt to place an unhappy childhood into a frame of creation and evolution of life as a whole has produced a bloated, unsatisfying, and pretentious film. I agree with what one of the stars himself, Sean Penn, said about Tree of Life in a Figaro interview (reported in the Guardian):
“The screenplay is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read but I couldn’t find that same emotion on screen. . . A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.”
Two opposable thumbs down for this enormous but failed effort.
The official trailer, which downplays the cosmic stuff that is literally half of the movie):