“The past is a foreign county. They do things differently there.” No longer just a Silkworm lyric (from the same song that references “Willie” Somerset Maugham and possibly Casablanca), now back home in its proper element, or at least the film adaptation of its proper element.

A quality picture with excellent production design and fluid camera movement – like Carol Reed with a touch of Alain Resnais. It’s a perfect storm of my least-favorite types of movies: British upper-class period costume dramas and coming-of-age stories. But, highly recommended and Cannes-award-winning and all, I stuck with it and really loved the last half hour.

Kid named Leo is spending the summer with a family in the country, but his playmate Marcus (I like him – privileged asshole with a good vocabulary) gets the measles, leaving Leo to pal around with the grownups, getting involved in their secret affairs as a messenger boy. Julie Christie (between Petulia and McCabe & Mrs. Miller) is the young hottie of the household, promised to dull scarfaced Hugh Trimingham (Edward Fox of Day of the Jackal) but having a Leo-assisted affair with rough farmer Ted Burgess (Alan Bates of Secret Friends, also Chabrol’s Dr. M). Once the lovers are caught together and Julie seems lost to him, Ted shoots himself.

Fancy Hugh:

“We can’t expect to be happy all the time, can we?”

Fun sidetracks with Leo’s belief in occult curses. A dog with a name like “dry toast” (tri-toes?). A cricket ball is batted straight into the camera. A 1970’s love-triangle movie set among wheat fields, bringing to mind Days of Heaven. Little bursts of voiceover dialogue, like scenes omitted for time, or sometimes repeating what we’ve heard. An unexplained, unheard shot of a conversation between two characters we haven’t seen – only when going back through the screenshots did I notice the television set in the corner, definite sign of a flash-forward. The present day keeps breaking through into the early-century period story, and suddenly Leo is sixty (now Michael Redgrave of Mr. Arkadin, Secret Beyond the Door), summoned to visit Julie Christie (backlit to avoid displaying her old-age makeup).

“So you met my grandson”
“Yes I did”
“Does he remind you of anyone?”
“Ted Burgess”
“That’s it. That’s it. He does.”

Leo Redgrave:

Based on a famous novel, screenplay by Harold Pinter, who also wrote The Servant and Accident. Senses calls it Losey’s last great film and compliments Michel Legrand’s fine score. “Aside from its intelligence and insight, however, it hardly seems to be a Losey film—it is evocative, judicious, perfectly cast, but rather cautious.”

Shooting Down Pictures:

Occurring mostly in the past with occasional flashes to the present, Pinter’s manipulation of time feels perfunctory compared to what Alain Resnais was doing a decade prior, or even what Pinter managed in his script for Losey’s Accident. More interesting is Losey’s entymological dramatization of British manor life, exhibiting both gentility and prejudice with near-emotionless decorum. Pinter’s dialogue pinpoints the neurotic weirdness underlying British politeness with unnerving precision, and is served ably by the ensemble, especially Dominic Guard as the boy, whose naivete and unwitting indiscretions stand sharply against the hypocrisy and innuendo surrounding him.

This completely lived up to expectations. I’ve been a big Malick fan since The Thin Red Line, and this movie showed plenty of his current style (whispered voiceovers about pained relationships as the camera pans up through the trees) while forging a whole new one, had the boldness to turn a man’s memories and inner life into a visual montage of the history of the planet Earth. It shows small moments, real and imagined, and becomes almost completely untethered to plot. It’s almost unbelievably gorgeous in the way it looks and moves through time. But all this is what I expected, from reading vague reports of the film’s genesis as Malick’s intended follow-up to Days of Heaven, to its winning the top prize at Cannes last month, to the rapturous critical acclaim it’s been receiving upon release. I expected the best, most ambitious movie of the year, by a long shot, and that’s pretty much what I got, so I’m gonna have to process it for a while.

Jack and his brothers live in a quiet Texas town with proud, hardass father Brad Pitt (representing Nature in the film’s mythology) and pure, uncritical mother Jessica Chastain (representing Grace), both of them loving in their own way. Years later, Jack is Sean Penn working at a giant, modern architecture firm, looking world-weary. He chats with dad on the phone (we don’t get to see Brad pull out the Ben Buttons old-age makeup), but Katy guesses that mom has died, maybe recently. Oh, also there’s the history of the universe and of life on earth, with CG dinosaurs. The movie scatters its narrative for so long, it’s like a two-hour trailer for a life-length feature (or perhaps just the rumored six-hour cut). It’s like nothing else, ever, not 2001: A Space Odyssey or Malick’s earlier movies or anything else it’s being compared to.

Production design by “man in the planet” Jack Fisk (all five Malick features, four by Lynch plus There Will Be Blood and Phantom of the Paradise), shot by Emmanuel Lubezki (The New World, Sleepy Hollow, all the Alfonso Cuarón movies), music (very good, sometimes too large and overpowering) by Alexandre Desplat (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Birth) and edited by a bunch of guys (including, counterintuitively, Jarmusch’s buddy Jay Rabinowitz).

It’s not hard to find people walking about Tree of Life, but it’s surprisingly hard to find film critics as unhesitatingly impressed by it as I was. Suppose they’re doing their job, hesitating to fully recommend the most narratively unhinged major film of the year. I haven’t been recommending it around much myself. P. Bradshaw in The Guardian calls it “a rebuke to realism, a disavowal of irony and comedy.” The movie has no built-in defense against people who snicker at the cartoon dinosaurs and the whispered voiceovers and the biblical metaphors. It takes itself very seriously and demands that you do the same, or the whole thing could fall apart.


EDIT 2021: I watched this again – the extended version – and the only notes I took were:

– I don’t remember the abusive mustache neighbor
– too much high-pantsed brad pitt looking disappointed in this version

But at the time of viewing, I felt the full glory and splendor of the Malick, which is what I needed. I’ll revisit this post again when I get to the blu extras.

A quality ending to the trilogy. I liked the timely references (waterboarding, gov’t using Echelon to track keywords spoken over cellphones) and new actors – David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck) as the new evil bureaucrat and Paddy Considine (same year as Hot Fuzz) as an intrepid reporter. Unfortunately, by Strathairn’s orders, Considine gets a bullet in the head.

Evil David Strathairn:

Julia Stiles and Joan Allen take Bourne’s side, and a wide-mouthed Albert Finney plays a haunting evil from Bourne’s past, proving that all women are friendly and craggy-faced old men are wicked.

Evil Albert Finney:

An informant in Madrid is blown up by a CIA hit man. Bourne fights two of those guys but only kills one, at most. He’s like Arnold in Terminator 2 now, a killing machine that doesn’t want to kill. The action is surprisingly comprehensible except for one hand-to-hand fight edited for maximum headache potential.

“Don’t worry, I won’t steal your memories.”

Based on the behaviorist survival theories of Henri Laborit, playing himself, and written by Jean Gruault (who wrote for Truffaut and Rivette, including Paris nous appartient). One of the strangest, most off-putting movies I’ve seen by Resnais. It takes you through the lives and relationships of three characters, but without the subjective view of Providence or the single perspective of Je t’aime, je t’aime, and using the scientific mind theories to distance us from the characters, to think of them as lab animals (one recalls the white mouse from Je t’aime), like the Coens’ Burn After Reading but, of course, better. We’re back to the associative memory-editing of Muriel and Marienbad, appropriately as the narration explicitly tells us how memory works with our survival instincts.

Odd attempt to combine scientific thought with an entertaining story. Despite the lab comparisons breaking down our characters’ behavior, I didn’t feel completely detached from them or unsympathetic. In fact, maybe I was even more sympathetic, watching them fail and hurt each other while our scientist tells us their own lower instincts are responsible for the hurt. Besides the lab flashbacks, each main character has a favorite film actor, and when they’re having a mood, Resnais cuts in a short, dialogue-less associative clip of their hero portraying the same emotion.

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Apparently this was supposed to be a documentary on Laborit, who said the only person who could make a successful documentary on his work would be Alain Resnais, who surprisingly agreed to do it, hiring Gruault to write the story around the theories. I would love to check out the half-hour interview with Gruault on the foreign DVD sometime.

Starts out by sketching the three protagonists’ life stories using stills a la La Jetee or Dog’s Dialogue, from birth through their career, then backs up to an earlier career stage and picks up with the story proper.

Janine Garnier (Nicole Garcia of Duelle) had communist parents, defied them to become a stage actress. After starring in a successful play for a year, she started an affair with radio news reporter Jean Le Gall and started work at a textile company, eventually becoming a manager.

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Jean (Roger Pierre), also a historian and a struggling author, had children with his wife Arlette (Truffaut star Nelly Borgeaud, the mysterious married woman in The Man Who Loved Women). He was born on a private island, to which he returns to clear his head or to impress girls.

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René (Gerard Depardieu, who has come a long way since his Stavisky cameo) left his family farm to become an accountant. He works at the textile plant until there is a merger and he’s pitted against another accountant, an intimidating hyper-efficient guy (Gerard Darrieu, three shots down, who had small parts in Elevator to the Gallows, Z and The Elusive Corporal). Depardieu loses his post, is sent to a faraway town to manage another office, which separates him from his wife Thérèse (Marie Dubois, lead girl in Shoot the Piano Player, also in Malle’s The Thief) and makes him nervous all the time, not really being the managing type.

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Jean has “kidney attacks,” lashing out at whoever is near him when he’s in pain. His wife Arlette visits Janine in secret and tells Janine she is dying as a (successful) scheme to get Jean back. Gerard can’t take the pressure of his new job and after a meeting with management (Janine herself) attempts suicide. All this is compared to studies of rats subjected to electric shocks, how they behave when escape is possible (escape!), when no escape is possible (depression) and when another rat is present (meaningless fighting). The movie’s scientist announces that the movie aims to show us how our brains work and cause negative behaviors so we can better understand ourselves and others. Ambitious movie!

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Human behavioral analysis (and/or Gerard Depardieu) must’ve been in vogue in ’80 because this won major critics awards and a Cannes jury prize. Lost all six of its Cesar nominations to The Last Metro (also starring Gepardieu), and lost its writing oscar to Melvin and Howard.

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I’m not clear who Zambeaux was, but he’s played by Pierre Arditi, Rossellini’s Blaise Pascal, who became a Resnais fave (he was the silver-haired main man on Not on the Lips and the bartender in Coeurs). Jean’s family friend Michel (who helps Jean lose his job) is Philippe Laudenbach, below, who played the war-scarred young man’s buddy in Muriel, later in Truffaut’s Confidentially Yours.

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from Emma Wilson’s Resnais book:

Mon oncle d’Amérique seeks to set up mirroring patterns between art and science through its own internal reflections. The manner of presentation of Laborit mirrors that of the protagonists, despite his different status with relation to the film’s drama. Fusing fiction and documentary, Resnais opens space in the film for Laborit to offer short discourses on human behavior. We see him talking to camera, presenting his ideas as if he were in a documentary. The experimental basis of his work is reflected as Resnais illustrates Laborit’s ideas with close-up scenarios showing laboratory rats. The relation of these scenarios, and of Laborit’s discourses, to the action in the film as a whole is further suggested as in its late stages we see both Le Gall and Ragueneau in rat form, with rat faces, acting out their own dilemmas.

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Houston, quoted by Wilson:

Not since Muriel, perhaps, has Resnais made a film structured for such precise, delicate and sympathetic effects; and it may not be coincidental that this is also the first film he has made for many years, really since Muriel, which is wholly French and of the present.

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Grunes:

The title refers to an illusory ideal of happiness. What one of the characters says: “America doesn’t exist. I know; I lived there.”

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A total trip, better than I’d dared hope it would be. Would’ve been soooo nice to see in theaters, but I’ll settle for the multi-narrated DVD. Even more family-focused than Cowards, it also goes further inside the psyche of the Maddin character than that one did, with his flashbacks and memories and fantasies splayed out on the screen, cutting and fading into whatever “reality” he’s seeing at the time. Black and white, great-looking photography with subliminal flashes of color. Attractive and expressive actors do a great job with the gonzo plot before the editing rips it to pieces. More obsessions on dead fathers, hands (gloves), infidelity, sexual transgression, betrayal, and memory oh the memories!!

Shotput of butter!
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Briefly: Adult Guy Maddin returns to his childhood home, an island lighthouse orphanage, by request of his dying mother. As he paints the place he remembers his life there with older sister Sis, forbidding faux-suicidal Mom, mysteriously hard-working Dad, twitchy traumatized friend Neddie, and leader of the orphans Savage Tom. One day teen detective Wendy Hale comes to the island, but after she falls for Sis (and Guy falls for Wendy), she disguises herself as brother Chance Hale, leading to much sexual confusion for poor Guy. With the kids, Wendy finds out the terrible secret, that Dad is stealing brain nectar from the orphans (and from Sis) and selling it. Sis awakens one night and kills Dad with a knife, Guy is adopted off the island, Dad is resurrected then both parents are exiled and, after Wendy leaves, Sis burns herself up like a moth in the lighthouse lamp. Back in the present, Guy is still obsessed with Wendy, tries to get to know his mother better, and there’s almost a semi-happy ending before the melancholy memories take over once more.

Conspirators! Guy in center, Sis on left, The Lightbulb Kid whispering:
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New cinematographer (sorry, but you can’t tell), same editor as Cowards Bend The Knee (you can kinda tell), and music that I’d swear was influenced by the 60’s Russian song used in Heart of the World. Features no actors from anything else I’ve ever heard of (well, Guy’s mother was 33rd-billed in Henry Fool).

A rare glimpse of color:
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The shorts on the disc are cool, too. It’s My Mother’s Birthday Today is a “biopic” (heh) of the “castrato” who sang with the live show – a few minutes of abstract business, with the vaguely Scott Thompson-looking guy making hard-boiled eggs and singing with a caged bird. Footsteps juxtaposes scenes from the movie with the sound crew in their lab doing foley effects, including some questionable techniques of bare-butt-slapping and horse’s-ass-kissing. Slower-cut than My Mother’s Birthday but even more fun to watch.

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My pick for film of the decade, so far.

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cjsuttree:
“The end credits of 2046 feature subtle voiceovers documenting landmark historical events: the [1967] riot; TVB’s inauguration; “50 years of stability and prosperity” (in big-screen viewings the voice sounds like that of Margaret Thatcher); reports of economic downturn; protests about the Beijing massacre, 1989; the handover-to-China ceremony; and others.”


Aug 2021: “Love is all a matter of timing. It’s no good meeting the right person too soon or too late.” Watched this again with Katy, one of my all-time favorites.

A suicidal man haunted by memory is picked by a massive computer system as the ideal candidate to send to the past in a time-travel experiment. But enough about La Jetee, here’s a full-length full-motion movie from six years later.

I don’t know if the computer was aware that the man had killed his woman on vacation in Glasgow by turning up the gas while she slept, or if the scientists were aware that the man would be able to re-experience his past having no free will to change it. The results are, of course, a fragmented Resnais film jumping back and forth willy-nilly through the last 2-5 years of this guy’s life.

Star Claude Rich, who looks somewhat like Michael Showalter from The State, was in Jean Renoir’s final film The Elusive Corporal and would later play the offscreen cranky father in Coeurs.

Rich is with this girl Wiana (Anouk Ferjac from The War Is Over) sometimes, but mostly he’s with young Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot, who wasn’t in many memorable films before she killed herself in ’97). He is occasionally happy with Catrine, but he cheats on her and she knows it. They’re both depressive, and she has no life outside of their relationship, doesn’t enjoy vacation, is becoming more of a burden.

Now I’m told that some of the “past events” that Claude experiences are actually dreams he had. Wonder if the hot girl in the mirrored bathroom asking him to wash her back was one of those.

Just a dream? Carla Marlier (Zazie‘s aunt):
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After being trapped for who knows how long bouncing through time and memory (90 minutes as the movie’s running time, or infinitely longer?), Claude finds himself reliving his attempted suicide by gun. Does he manage to affect his past this time by succeeding where before he had failed? His body appears on the hospital grounds, and the technicians run out to collect him, with a final shot of Claude’s mouse companion still caught inside his glass dome in the machine.

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The mouse appears earlier, running across the beach right around the moment that Claude was supposed to be sent back (it was to be one year ago, for a duration of one minute).

The time machine:
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This idea of time travel doesn’t seem like it’d be very useful to the scientists, rather more like traveling through your own memory than actually moving in time… though it does show that Claude’s body disappears when he travels. And the scientists, besides having invented/created the thing, don’t seem very capable of handling the machine or Claude.

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Holm says “it was a weird film that was openly laughed at in the States.”

Andy says “If we become stuck in our own time loop of visiting the past the memories can become too overwhelming. Suicide in context of the movie becomes a means to end or break the flow of time and memory.”

The time machine premise seems like a useful tool for Resnais to explore the obsessive cross-cutting of memory that he’d already played with in Muriel and Marienbad.

Resnais: “There are absolutely no flashbacks or anything of the sort.”

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Watched again June 2008 with a group. Very plain look to the sets, clothes… not a visually stylish movie except in the editing. I like it more the second time around. Would like to watch a higher quality copy next time.

September 2014: wish come true, a restored 35mm print at Filmstreams.

Beautiful Keira K. (domino) lives in a fancy house with her writer kid-sister Briony (globe-nom Saoirse Ronan, appearing in the next Peter Jackson movie) and mom Harriet Walter (from Katy’s Pride & Prejudice, not Wright’s) and older brother (?) Patrick Kennedy from Bleak House. College hottie James McAvoy lives in a little house on their property with mom Brenda Blethyn (Wright’s P&P, Little Voice). The two are in love but (gasp) from different social classes. Will they defy society and marry anyway? Of course.

Wait, no. They’ve long been infatuated with each other, and during the summer when they are completely exploding for each other, a visitor to the estate rapes another visitor, and young peeping Briony tells the cops it was McAvoy, leading to his arrest and getting sent to war to die instead of going back to college and marrying his true love, who also went to war and died, but as a nurse. Briony also becomes a nurse (now played by spooky Romola Garai, Wilbur’s love interest in “Amazing Grace”) then an author. Fifty years later (now Vanessa Redgrave of “Cradle Will Rock” and “The Devils”) she’s on a TV interview show explaining that her new book is an attempt at atonement, the story of the long life the two lovers could have had together if not for her young meddling.

I loved the movie, beautiful and sad. I might just think it’s pretty good if I see it a second time, since my expectations were pretty low before the first time (period literary adaptation starring McAvoy, who was not good at all in Last King of Scotland), but this time I was enthralled. Sound design / music used typewriter key effects as percussion, my favorite part.

Guy from Slate says the epic single-shot at the beach is unnecessary and showoffy. Robbie on Reverse Shot calls it “tonally awkward” and says: “Wright’s grandstanding in this sequence bespeaks of a decidedly disjointed approach, as well as disappoints after his gloriously measured 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which smartly employed the long take as a coherent, unifying device.” Elsewhere I’d read that the shot is there to show off (even Wright admits he was showing off) the enormity of war, to take it beyond our doomed male protagonist, open up the world of the film beyond the intensely personal closed-off world of the first half. Some part of that latter explanation clicked for me, because towards the end of the shot I’d decided that McAvoy wouldn’t make it out alive. Tonally consistent or not, the shot is terrific on its own.

The faces of the leads are not shown until the fifteen minute mark. For the first sixth of the movie there’s only the poetic narration faded with shots of their bodies and hands.

I don’t know what to say when confronted with Resnais or Marker movies, keep throwing out “poetic narration”.

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Rest of the movie is conventional by comparison with the intro and with 90% of “Last Year at Marienbad”, but then “Marienbad” came afterwards and I’ve watched it a bunch of times, so I would have to say that.

IMDB plot: “While shooting an international movie about peace in Hiroshima, a married French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) has a torrid one night stand with a married Japanese architect (Eiji Okada). They feel a deep passion for each other and she discloses her first love in times of war in the French town of Nevers to him. He falls in love with her and asks her to stay with him in Hiroshima.”

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The film is such a dream that when I finish watching it I seem to wake up and forget most of the details. This is the second time I’ve seen it and it never quite sticks. Ahh, dvd commentary will help.

Writer Marguerite Duras is a novelist whose book is sitting on my bedside waiting for me to read (update: oooh, it was good). Lead actor Okada was in Naruse’s “Mother”, “Rififi In Tokyo”, “X From Outer Space” and “Lady Snowblood”. He played the lead in “Woman in the Dunes”, the main character’s boss in “The Face of Another” and the man in white in “Stairway to the Distant Past” (released the same year Okada died). Riva (still alive) was in “Kapo” the same year, then starred in “I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse” and played Binoche’s mother (?) in “Blue”. Shot by super master Sacha Vierny (“Marienbad”, “Muriel”, Bunuel, Ruiz, Greenaway) and Michio Takahashi (“Gamera vs. Barugon”). Editor Henri Colpi won the palme d’or at cannes two years later (tying with Viridiana) with his directorial debut.

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Below is from the commentary track.

The intro reminds of Pompeii and “evokes the very beginnings of life”.

On the woman’s visit to Hiroshima’s hospitals and landmarks: “it will never be more than a theme-park experience”

Scenes from “Children of Hiroshima” are used precisely for their lack of authenticity, and the images remind of Nazi death camps.

Resnais was commissioned to make a film about the atomic bomb with Marker scripting, but it fell through, leading instead to this film.

Resnais and Varda both love cats (surely not as much as Marker does!)

Duras “would become the high priestess of French literature in the 1960’s and 70’s”

Despite not writing his own screenplays, “Resnais can fairly be described as an auteur because a majority of his feature films and many of his shorts deal with the nature of memory and its relationship to the present. Memories have a vivid present-tense quality in Resnais’s cinema and in Marienbad… they are almost indistinguishable from current incidents.”

Hey wow, he mentions “The Koumiko Mystery”.

The star of “Children of Paradise” had a similar thing happen – an affair with a german officer, then publically shamed with hair cut off after the war.

Resnais is an expert on comic books.

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