As he himself admits, "I have a very grim perspective. I do feel that it's a grim, painful, nightmarish meaningless existence, and the only way to be happy is if you tell yourself some lies. One must have some delusions to live" ("Cannes 2010: Woody Allen on Death -- 'I'm Strongly Against It'"). What Midnight in Paris is for him (and us), therefore, is a kind of distraction from the reality that at some point the final credits will roll.
Malick's Tree of Life, then, is a kind of answer to Allen's melancholy. It is, of course, a religious answer told through an impressionistic and indirect medium. Nonetheless, unlike Allen, Malick is willing to embrace the spiritual side of man and explore its meanings and possibilities. For Malick, life is a spiritual journey that can lead one either upwards to the good or downwards to the bad. Allen's film may also seem like such -- but the scope is not as great and the reach is not as magnificent. Allen's film comes up short of the cinematic gold if only because Allen himself has no use for the incorruptible crown. Malick, on the other hand, obviously does -- and it shows in every shot of Tree of Life -- the very title of which evokes St. Augustine's City of God: "The tree of life is the holy of holies, Christ," (546) and "On that day their nature was indeed changed for the worse and vitiated, and by their most just separation from the tree of life they were made subject to the necessity of bodily death" (The City of God against the Pagans 571), and "Man was furnished with food against hunger, with drink against thirst, and with the tree of life against the ravages of old age" (683).
Allen's Midnight in Paris begins and ends with the same lazy musical score, which perfectly fits the idle, lingering, longing, discontent contentment of the Parisian atmosphere: Sidney Bechet's "Sit u vois ma mere" echoes itself over and over again as one shot of Paris follows the next, revealing the hordes of tourists who come (as though lured by Bechet's enchanting horns) to Paris to find that which has eluded them in their every day life. That sequence is followed by the opening monologue of Pender, which reveals him as the hero who is determined to find that something no matter what.
The Tree of Life, on the other hand opens with Tavener's "Funeral Canticle" -- establishing the theme of Malick's film straight off -- it is a film about life, which is to say that it is a film about death, and the "Funeral Canticle" is our introduction to Malick's world, which will attempt to explore the relationship between the finite and infinite, the mortal and the immortal, "the way of nature and the way of grace." The "Funeral Canticle" is a haunting score that takes the audience through the lesson that the mother has for us -- the wisdom, in a sense, of the ancients: the choice that one must make between selfishness and selflessness, pride and humility, willfulness and acceptance: the mother prays that she may be able to accept the things that God sends her -- and immediately Malick throws the death of her son in her face. The opening moments of Tree of Life are some of the most painful moments in film history -- and Tavener's "Funeral Canticle" is part of the reason; the other part is Jessica Chastain's portrayal of Mrs. O'Brien's suffering at the information gathered from a telegram that her son is dead. The film's narrative (which appears to be non-existent) has already begun: life is a testing ground of the ideals we propound and attempt to maintain.
And yet Malick intends to evoke even more than that: his sequence in which the universe is shown to come into existence is accompanied by Polish contemporary composer Zbigniew Preisner's "Lacrimosa," taken from his Requiem for a Friend ("Zbigniew Preisner"). Again the theme of death accompanies the creation of the universe, just as it accompanied the beginning of the film, suggesting that life, from the very beginning should have death before its eyes -- in the same way some of the hermetic saints kept skulls with them in their cells. The "Lacrimosa" is a kind of pleading on the behalf of the angels for the souls of earth. Or it may simply be viewed as a part of a thematic montage -- a mere musical accompaniment. Nonetheless, it is a score that evokes a powerful sensation in the viewer -- one of mystical grandeur.
The musical score of Midnight in Paris on the other hand reveals the extent to which the film wishes to explore the bigger questions: Allen's film is content to settle with Bechet, with Josephine Baker, with Cole Porter and Enoch Light and the Light Brigade. Allen's film is, after all, a much lighter affair: it is one in which his Pender struggles against the superficialities of his own day and age to find that the age for which he has such nostalgia was just as superficial in its own way. There is no proper resolution for Pender -- only a kind of fulfillment that comes through the unlikely chance meeting of a kindred soul. Where they go from there is not part of the theme of the film: Allen has evoked an old world and is content to let his characters dream on.
Malick, however, wants to take us beyond our day-to-day dreams toward some sort of transcendent truth. Malick, in fact, attempts to identify the malaise at the heart of such characters as are seen in Midnight in Paris: Malick gives it an orthodox reading: sin is the problem -- the frustrating stumbling block in the way of our "reaching out and touching the glory" (Malick, The Thin Red Line).
The glory for Malick is the peace that comes through absolution: absolution in The Tree of Life is through the Tree of Life -- the divine entity whose sacrifice is the example for the submission of Malick's O'Briens to the will of Providence. Deviation from that will results in sin and suffering: acceptance of that will keeps one united to the spiritual wholeness that unites all of the cosmos. What the characters in The Tree of Life experience is the separation from that unity -- and what they desire is their reunion. That reunion, Malick suggests, comes only through the intercession of the "Agnus Dei" (the lamb of God -- qui tollis peccata mundi -- who takes away the sins of the world), which is amplified in the final moments of the film, when all the characters seemingly reunite on the shores of Dante's Purgatorio -- all that is missing is Cato. Nonetheless, Berlioz plays over the scene as Mrs. O'Brien becomes a kind of image of the Virgin Mary, uplifted by angelic creatures, or acting as a kind of mediatrix of all graces as she walks through eternity dispensing grace from her fingertips: meanwhile, the sins of her family are washed away through their penitential submission to the higher will of Providence. Sean Penn is seen stepping through a wooden door frame as though he were entering into some new kind of spiritual life. The film's final moments are very impressionistic and highly interpretive, but the imagery is consistent with old world allegory and representative of the spiritual life that Malick attempts to show is the ultimate reality. More than Allen's Pender's nostalgia, it may be viewed as the fulfillment that Pender is truly looking for -- but which Pender, ultimately, cannot find because Allen himself has not found it. That which comforts Malick holds no comfort for Allen.
Allen is able to employ some lovely imagery of Paris. But some of the best moments come when Pender steps back into time and we are given a glimpse of Paris in the early 20th century. We see Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso's portrait of her hanging above her throne -- a marvelous touch of staging. Gertrude Stein herself was a conundrum of sorts -- a critic of Picasso's harsh portraits of women, the portrait he paints of her is flattering and somewhat majestic. Paul Johnson's depiction of Picasso is somewhat analogous to a description of Allen himself: Johnson says of Picasso: he "was perhaps the most restless, experimental, and productive artist who ever lived. But everything had to be done at top speed. He was incapable of lavishing care, time, or sustained effort on a work of art" (250). At the point in his career in the film, Picasso could represent Stein quite well. The style is neither abstract nor entirely avant-garde: it is reflective, slightly off-kilter, but encompassing of the subject and her character. It is also indicative of the kind of film Allen is making -- one…