The 8:30am screening at the Cannes Festival is the most important one of the day, for a number of reasons. It’s held in the Lumière Theatre, which sits over 2,200, it’s early, and is bound to be attended by serious cinephiles and journalists (parties-bound festival-goers can’t be expected to roll out of bed until about 11am and will try and catch Competition films later on in the day, if they make it). Finally, and because of the previously cited reasons, that screening is also a good yardstick for a movie’s success for the remainder of the festival, and, often, beyond. In this case, Terrence Malick’s “Tree of life,” which was expected last year but not delivered (at Grand Hotel press conference, the single question raised by a fearless journalist was, “why is Terry Malick’s Tree of Life not included in the selection?”), and which was shown on Monday, was the film-event of the still-ongoing Cannes Festival (and no, these sorts of events don’t happen at every Cannes Festival) and a divisive one at that. Are all film-events divisive ones? No. When E.T. was shown, Steven Spielberg got a standing ovation that lasted nearly eight minutes. “Tree of life,” with its overwrought message about the meaning of life and eminently-good Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, got boos, hisses, and plenty of applause. How that reaction will reverberate over the life of the movie is anyone’s guess.
Somehow adding to the mystery is the fact that Terrence Malick is not one to get behind his movies 100% and rather prefers to let cast and producers speak for him. What may work at an Oscars-bound retrospective couldn’t go over so well on the red carpet here in Cannes, but it does. And so the press conference for “Tree of life” went on, without Terrence Malick, who’s apparently very shy but also the sort of guest you wouldn’t want to invite too often for fear he’d dutifully cancel on you. Does one’s studied absences make one a world-class filmmaker? That is a valid question to ponder, just like that regarding the meaning of life raised by him in his latest opus.